Gas Guzzlers: Beltway Boogeyman?

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The instant I saw this Detroit Free Press story I smelled a rat: "While pickup trucks account for just 20 percent of U.S. vehicle sales, six of the 10 biggest gas guzzlers at the pump are pickups,” says a report Thursday from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As it stands, that sentence makes no sense. If pickups accounted for 99 percent of sales, that fact still would have no relation to the claim that six of the biggest guzzlers are pickups.

And, duhh, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to sort through EPA fuel economy ratings. But the important thing is that truck buyers don't give a hoot. As amply demonstrated by sales trends over the last decade and a half, they want more truck, not less. Fuel economy is irrelevant. But if they want it, they can buy a four-cylinder version rather than a six or an eight and give up hauling, towing capacity and easy hill climbing.

The Free Press story - and a like one in TCC's daily for August 30 - went on to say the so-called study showed truck fuel economy could be improved 30 percent with current technology.

Propaganda mills

My immediate reaction was, just which technology are they talking about and, if true, what possible reason would a truckmaker have for holding it back? We all know vehicle sales in this country are VERY competitive, and you'd think any marketer would KILL to have such an advantage over others.

Getting to the bottom of this mystery turned out to be difficult, which may explain why most reporters simply reprint the claims from such propaganda mills without trying to verify them.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) turns out to be a Nader-linked Washington advocacy organization with a largely environmental agenda. They oppose cars, trucks, SUVs, diesel engines, global warming, nuclear power plants, genetic treatment of food, lumbering, Star Wars and - judging from titles of news releases on their Web site - practically anything the Republicans advocate. They seem to favor "renewable" energy sources, disarmament and anything the Democratic far-left embraces.

Not all of this is bad, to be sure. Personally, for example, I feel the same way about SUVs as I do about smoking -- they're fads, and only idiots partake. It's HOW the UCS advocates which I question. Based on their naïve or half-truth treatment of automotive issues, in which I have some knowledge, I'm skeptical of their position papers on other subjects.

Influence pandering

As subsequent events revealed, the UCS "report" and its news release were really directed at influencing ongoing Congressional deliberations, but the release didn't bother to mention it. The House and Senate conference committee on fuel economy regulations was trying to work out a compromise between opposing schools.

The good news is, these environmental activists didn't get their way. According to news reports last week, Congress decided to approach truck fuel economy one step at a time, rather than with draconian "feel-good" rules like those California legislators favor.

Judging from their credentials, UCS staffers and consultants are idealistic, highly educated elitists who know what is best for you and me. With regard to automotive subjects, if they have any real-world experience designing and developing cars or trucks, it is not apparent. Rather they are policy wonks who specialize in statistical analyses and "cherry-picking" disparate ideas for "paper cars" which they then promote as examples of What Detroit Can't (or Won't) Do.

As I recall, this ploy is known among college debaters as the Straw Man tactic. You set up a false image and then either validate it or destroy it. Easy work, and convincing to the unsophisticated and unknowledgeable.

The current truck attack is a perfect example. And, by the way, pardon me if I'm leery of the timing of this UCS release. It coincides with promotion of a New York Times reporter's book castigating SUVs as well as Garry Trudeau satirizing SUV owners in his Doonesbury strip. All in the past couple of weeks. Me paranoid? No way.

Moreover, the Inside-The-Beltway types have portrayed the fuel economy issue as if it depended on individual vehicle fuel economy. It doesn't. The issue is what the public buys. The public chooses to buy gas-guzzling SUVs in place of more efficient station wagons that were forced from the market as a perhaps unintended consequence of federal fuel regulations. These regs compel American automakers to meet FLEET-AVERAGE fuel economy, which has nothing to do with the fuel economy of vehicles and everything to do with the mix the public buys. So you comply by "forcing the mix." There are plenty of fuel-sippers out there, but hardly anyone buys them. For example, so far this year the public has bought 11.7 million cars and light trucks, including only 21,500 Toyota Echos and 13,200 Prius hybrids.

Study politics

For support of its arguments, the UCS leans on "studies" or tech papers, which to a large extent - too large an extent actually - are repetitious and prepared by their own staffers or consultants. Those papers in turn depend upon papers by mostly the same authors. So they create self-fulfilling prophecies. In scholarly circles, it's not kosher to rely on your previous reports to give credence to your new arguments.

In any event, the "available technologies" upon which these studies depend for their optimistic portrayals of fuel economy include: variable valve timing, variable displacement engines, continuously variable transmissions, streamlining, vehicle weight decreases, low-rolling resistance tires, on-off automatic starting and 42-volt electrical systems with integral starter-generators.

Of these, none has been widely applied in production vehicles with the exception of variable valve timing (VVT) in all Honda engines and some Toyota car engines. Honda doesn't offer a load-carrying pickup truck, and Toyota doesn't offer variable valves in its Tundra pickup. Toyota says it was first with VVT in a '96 Lexus but considers it an emission-control rather than fuel-economy technology. Because these designs add an additional camshaft, they are neither cheap nor simple. To the extent they have been introduced into any kind of mass production, it has been either with an all-new engine or at the completion of the tooling cycle for an older design.

Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) are another hoped-for technology that has not quite bloomed. Both Honda and Toyota use it in their tiny gas-electric hybrids but in nothing that requires much torque, which is the Achilles Heel of CVTs.

In addition, Audi 4 has just started offering a CVT with both the 1.8-liter four and 3.0-liter V-6, but its EPA fuel economy numbers are mixed - better in some applications and worse in others than conventional transmissions. And GM's relatively new Saturn VUE mid-size SUV also offers a CVT with a 2.2-liter four, providing lower fuel economy than the manual trans and puny trailer towing capacity.

Toyota says it does not use a CVT in its subcompact Echo, about the same size as its hybrid Prius, because "the Prius has characteristics that uniquely lend themselves to a CVT." For all its highfalutin’ technology, the Prius also costs twice as much and delivers as little as only 10 percent better fuel economy than the Echo, according to EPA data.

A Toyota spokesman told me "some people don't like the lack of shift points" with a CVT. A fellow member of the Automotive Press Association also told me the Prius shudders under certain conditions. I wouldn't know - because when I requested a test-drive last year, Toyota didn't respond. A Honda spokesman reported there are durability concerns associated with using CVTs in other than the tiny hybrid vehicles.

So these are a long way from proven, up-scalable technology. You can't just drop a Honda Civic hybrid engine/transmission into a Ford F-Series and expect it to haul a horse trailer and load of feed.

General Motors broke its pick on variable displacement engines 20-some years ago and, although they are now supposed to work with electronics, vehicle manufacturers are likely to remain skittish.

Promises, promises

As to some of the other so-called promising technologies alleged to be readily available, I doubt that many claimed benefits will prove out in the "real world." This judgement isn't based just on the healthy skepticism any journalist ought to have on such claims. Rather it comes from many years covering automotive technology as both insider and observer.

It is unlikely, for example, that 10-percent-per-year, year-over-year improvement in fuel economy from better aerodynamics can prove out. For one thing, styling is what sells, not fuel economy numbers, especially where trucks and SUVs are concerned. The environmental purists may wish it was otherwise, but that's the real world.

The Union of the Concerned also cooked up a flawed survey of 600 light truck buyers. This produced the desired predictable results with false-premised questions: when told that truck fuel economy could be improved hugely at a price of only $500 more, 76 percent of those responding said they thought that was desirable. What the hell, when you're paying $25,000 up for a truck, $500 disappears like a wisp of smoke. What's amazing is the number of people who did NOT favor it!

Note: vehicle cost/price estimates by these idealistic paper-car builders are naïve in the extreme. Cost must include fixed as well as variable expenses, but the marketplace sets vehicle prices.

These kinds of loaded-question-to-get-predictable-result surveys have been very popular during election campaigns in recent years. Since the Union of Concerned Scientists turns out to be Washington insiders, its use of such a survey is not surprising.

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