Waiting for a miracle

Michael Lewyn's picture

I was reading Wendell Cox's recent attack on the Center for Neighborhood Technology's affordability calculations, and was struck by one thing he wrote:"transportation costs will be reduced in the future by the far more fuel efficient vehicles being required by Washington."* 

In other words, don't worry about Americans being impoverished by the cost of a car for every man, woman, and 16-year old in the House: the technological miracle of fuel efficiency will save us. 

Now, this argument has a grain of truth: new EPA regulations will require the average vehicle to get 35 miles per gallon by 2016**, so cars will become somewhat more fuel efficient if next year's Republican Congress or the federal courts don't get in the way.  But even so, the benefits of fuel efficiency may be canceled out by gasoline price rises - and even if they don't, gasoline costs comprise only about 30 percent of vehicle-related expenses. In 2007 the average household spent $2384 on gasoline and motor oil, $3244 on car purchases, and $2592 on other vehicle-related expenses.***

I have seen the same argument raised to deflate concerns about automobile-related air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions: even if pollution is a problem today, tomorrow's Wonder Cars of the Future will drive the problem away.  For example, one blog writes: "The widespread availability of electric cars will make one argument made by transit proponents harder to advance: that riding trains and buses is better for the environment."*****

But it is not just the defenders of the sprawl status quo who rely on hoped-for technological change to support their views.

Critics of sprawl often argue that sprawl is doomed because of Peak Oil.  According to this argument, supplies of oil will become unreliable, and the Peak Oil Fairy will slay the dragons of unsustainable development. One recently published book summarizes the theory: "Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller."

To be fair, one or both of these arguments could be true.  It is possible that 100 mile-per-gallon cars will revolutionize American transportion.  It is also possible that scarce or expensive gasoline could revolutionize American transportation. 

But maybe not -and it seems to me that a technological change that hasn't happened yet isn't a particularly strong argument for any public policy. 



*http://www.newgeography.com/content/001526-the-muddled-cnt-housing-and-t... .


*** http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0668.pdf 


Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Your best argument is:

that the fixed costs of cars is just too high and probably will be even more in the future for most people. The changes the anti sprawl folks want might happen more out of financial necessity than preference or environmental reasons. The new normal - the declining purchasing power of the consumer probably means people will be able to buy and own less stuff - cars, houses, etc. and smaller, cheaper stuff. The technology argument you present (by refuting critics) is not compelling to me. One thing has always been constant - technology and innovation create new things and new ways of doing things. I wouldn't bet against that. I would bet against the average American having enough money to afford these things. Public policymakers ought to be more concerned more about how to create conditions necessary for wealth creation at all income levels as opposed to trying to manage growth.

Michael Lewyn's picture

more evidence of the futility of relying on fuel efficiency


From the Washington Post article:

In one sense, automakers have been improving fuel efficiency for years, selling cars with ever-more-efficient engines. In fact, a car purchased today is able to extract nearly twice as much power from a gallon of gas as its counterpart did 25 years ago.

But those gains in efficiency have been used to build bigger cars with more power, not save gas. The average mileage of the cars and light trucks on the road has barely budged since 1985.
Brendan Bell, vehicles lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that ... forthcoming changes in federal fuel economy standards will force cars in all classes to be more efficient.

In other words:

There have not been strong federal fuel economy standards since 1985, so increases in efficiency went to building bigger cars and did not improve the average fuel economy of the fleet as a whole.

There are strong federal fuel economy standards coming up, which will require automakers to improve the average fuel economy of the fleet as a whole.

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