Hold Your Horsepower
by Gregg Easterbrook
Only at TNR Online | Post date 01.17.05
The cheerleaders, I mean automotive press, have departed, and over the weekend the annual North American International Automotive Show was opened to the public. You can gawk here at the flashy cars on display; detailed reporting on the event can be found here at The Detroit News auto show site. The theme of this year's cars was more: more power, more gizmos, more weight, more cost, even more safety features. But at this point what we need from cars is less.
Much of the buzz at the car show was about frills, of course. Heated steering wheels and air-conditioned seats, for example. What's an air-conditioned seat? Cooling ducts run through the seat, keeping your posterior chilled in summertime. Some new Lincoln models have dual-position air-conditioned seats, with settings for cool and cold. Video screens for the backseats are coming into vogue. (Cell phones will soon be able to receive television and movies; we will exist in dread of lunatics who flip open their cell phones, position them on the dashboard and watch television while driving.) On the safety side, computer-controlled stability systems, now installed on some luxury cars, may represent the next big advance, making rollovers and spinouts less likely. These systems are expensive, so it's unclear if government will mandate them. Washington still has not mandated that cars have heated side mirrors, a safety feature whose cost is minimal.
Lots of cars at the auto show were described in press reports as "futuristic," though none to my eye looked as visually revolutionary as Raymond Loewy's Studebaker Avanti, which hit the streets in 1963, nor as fresh conceptually as the BMW 2002 sedan, which arrived in the United States in 1971, nor as original in utilitarian terms as the first minivan, the Dodge Caravan of 1984. Several hydrogen-powered prototype cars were on display, but bear in mind that Detroit is talking hydrogen to divert attention from the fact that it is doing nothing about regular MPG. If hydrogen is to be used by vehicles on a large scale, the element will need to be manufactured using substantial amounts of electricity generated by nuclear power. A recent issue of the technical journal Nature estimated that replacing current U.S. automobile petroleum with hydrogen would require construction of 200 new Three Mile Island-scale nuclear power plants to generate the electricity that makes the hydrogen. Whenever you hear an automaker or our president or the governor of California rhapsodize about hydrogen, bear in mind that this is strictly to divert attention from inaction on raising fuel economy using existing technology.
The big "more" of the auto show is more horsepower. Eighteen models on display at the show boasted 500 horsepower or more. And these aren't race cars, but rather models intended for the street. Five-hundred horsepower is not only obscene but antisocial: Such power is useful only for drag-racing, cutting off other drivers, and speeds well beyond 100 miles per hour. The other day I was motoring down the wonderfully named Democracy Boulevard in Montgomery County, Maryland, doing 50 miles per hour in a 35 zone. A middle-aged woman yakking on her cell phone blew past me at perhaps 75 miles per hour in a shiny new BMW 545i, which has 330 horsepower. Driving 75 miles per hour on a suburban street with pedestrian crosswalks and bus stops is socially irresponsible. But in a high-horsepower car, all you need to do is tap the throttle pedal for an instant and you're at 75. The more horsepower, the easier it is to drive like a maniac.
And more horsepower is everywhere. This chart shows that in 1975, when the fuel crunch hit, new cars in the United States averaged 136 horsepower. The average declined to a low of 99 horsepower in 1982, as manufacturers scurried to raise fuel economy. (Higher horsepower means more gasoline burned.) Really, 99 horsepower isn't enough for anything larger than a minicar; you need enough horses to be able to accelerate, especially at freeway merge lanes. But in the last two decades, average horsepower has been climbing steadily. In 2004, the typical new car had 184 horsepower, and the typical new SUV or pickup truck used as a car--SUVs and pickups used as cars now account for about half of new vehicle sales--had 235 horsepower. That rolls together for an average of about 210 horsepower in new passenger vehicles sold in the United States. In other words 2004 cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks offer more than 50 percent better horsepower than passenger vehicles in 1975. (At that time there were no SUVs, and using a pickup truck as a car, rather than for commercial work, was rare.)
Ever-higher horsepower is the reason the overall fuel economy of new U.S. vehicles is now at its lowest since 1988. Engineers have steadily made automotive power trains more efficient--but nearly all the efficiency has gone into power, not MPG. Other things being equal, a one-third reduction in the horsepower of new vehicles would lead to roughly a one-third increase in their miles-per-gallon numbers. And a one-third increase in the MPG of new cars and SUVs is all that is required to eliminate petroleum imports from Persian Gulf states! The calculations are here.
Cutting average horsepower by one-third would still leave the typical new vehicle sold in the United States with more horsepower than the typical new vehicle of 1975. Yet Congress and two consecutive two-term presidents have taken no meaningful action to raise fuel economy of vehicles, and horsepower isn't even being discussed as a problem. Do you think there's a "right" to horsepower? Puh-leeze. Perhaps you've got a right to horsepower for vehicles used exclusively on private property. Cars and SUVs are driven on public roads, and courts have consistently held that government can regulate vehicles for public safety and for public-interest issues such as pollution reduction and petroleum savings. You don't have any "right" to test a rocket engine in the street or drive a bulldozer on the highway, because such things imperil public safety. High horsepower, which imperils public safety, needs to be regulated.
But suppose you don't care about petroleum imports, greenhouse gases (which are proportional to fuel burned), or the fact that aggressive, overpowered cars and SUVs are a root cause of road rage, which makes driving unpleasant for everyone. Wouldn't you still care that more horsepower means more people dead--especially, more young people dead? How fast was the BMW 2002, the first really cool car that many Baby Boomers lusted after? The 1971 BMW 2002 did zero-to-sixty in 11.3 seconds. Today the average new car or SUV does zero-to-sixty in 9.9 seconds--the average new vehicle is now faster than the BMW 2002. Many cars are much faster, and not just sports cars. The new Honda Accord V6, a family sedan, does zero-to-sixty in 6.7 seconds. The Mazda Protégé, an affordable small car, does zero-to-sixty in 6.9 seconds. The new Ford Mustang GT does zero-to-sixty in 5.6 seconds, which used to be a Ferrari time, and costs only about $25,000, placing it within the reach of most Americans. Volvo now builds a model that does zero-to-sixty in 5.4 seconds.
All this power makes it increasingly easy for drivers, especially young drivers, to get in trouble. A Ford LTD of the 1960s, the sort of land yacht so many Boomers learned to drive on, did zero-to-sixty in 13 or 14 seconds--you had to work really hard to spin it out. A car that does zero-to-sixty in just a few seconds, on the other hand, is distressingly easy to lose control of. High-horsepower cars that gain lots of speed with just a touch of the throttle are practically a death sentence for teens or careless drivers. Horsepower, surely, is the reason road fatality numbers aren't dropping much, despite the spread of air bags, antilock brakes, and other safety improvements.
The other day I was dropping two of my kids off at high school, and noticed a girl in the seniors' parking lot stepping out of a shiny Acura TL with paper tags, indicating it was brand new. The Acura TL has a 270-horsepower engine and does zero-to-sixty in 6.0 seconds. Basically, it's a machine designed to kill that girl. There are lots of such machines, designed to kill customers, on display at the auto show. What did the press reports talk about? Styling.