Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Power Gglut -- A while back, Missed Shift's favorite writer, Gregg Easterbrook, had a good blog entry essentially bemoaning the fact that recent powertrain improvement has been focused on power rather than efficiency and suggesting that power should be regulated in the name of reduced fuel consumption. Easterbrook's headed in the right direction, but nobody's going to limit power. Fortunately, Downshift has a better idea.

First, though, how can Downshift, the site for the automotive enthusiast and dedicated to the pursuit of automotive fun, cotton to the notion that power can ever be a bad thing? Here's why: Cheap power + cheap gas + uncultivated automotive tastes = SUVs and other light trucks purchased for no rational reason. Without cheap power, auto makers couldn't build enormous vehicles that meet some modest minimal performance expectations that the market has (sub-10-second sprint to 60, for instance). And, the market distortions of CAFE -- where the standards for light trucks are significantly less restrictive than those for passenger cars -- means that cheap power has fueled the SUV craze rather than produced cheaper, faster four-door sedans.

Easterbrook wants to regulate power because he wants fuel comsumption to go down and he is sympathetic to the notion that heavier vehicles are safer. If you want fuel economy to go down and weight to stay the same, restricting power is certainly a way to do it. But, it's not going to happen.

First, the obvious. Politically, nobody's going to put a cap on horsepower. We're talking about a defining quality of the American talisman. Second, the less obvious. In trucks, power has a meaningful benefit. Those people who buy trucks for legitimate purposes -- hauling and towing -- can haul and tow more with a single truck if the truck has more power. While you might want to restrict power available to the poseurs who don't haul or tow but want to look like they could, there's no way to do it. If you make a 350 hp Dodge pickup available to your local contractor, the moron up the street who makes a few trips a year to Home Depot is going to be able to buy one, too.

The answer is to go at the problem from another angle altogether: vehicle dynamics. In the name of safety, put governors on vehicles that can't meet certain objective, safety-related standards. If a vehicle cannot stop from 70 mph in under 185 feet and negotiate a standardized slalom course at the same speed as an entry-level Camry, cap its speed at 65 mph. The tests should be cheap and easy to perform. Auto buff books have been measuring such stuff for years.

A car or truck that can't stop or turn with sufficient alacrity ought not be driving at speeds where a lack of agility poses a threat to others.

There's no negative consequence for those who legitimately buy trucks as beasts of burden. If you're hauling and towing, you've got no need to go over 65. Practically speaking, there's no negative consequence for the poseur either. The speed limit is 65, so what need has he of a chariot that goes faster? But, psychologically, the impact will be profound. Lots fewer people will buy trucks and SUVs if those vehicles perform like the limited purpose workhorses that their special CAFE status assumes.

The practical effect should be a seismic shift back towards car buying. Fuel consumption should go down, even if the auto manufacturers continue to focus on power over efficiency, because the average weight of vehicles will go down. Car driving should be safer with fewer SUVs and light trucks on the road, and those on the road should pose less threat. And, ultimately, there will likely be a pronounced improvement in large vehicle braking and handling, which might undo some of the shift to cars, but would still be a good thing from a safety perspective. Of course, the easiest way to improve truck braking and handling would be to pare a few pounds, which would be a good thing from any perspective.