Let's take a quick look at what government and the auto industry are doing to reduce this nation's egregious fuel consumption, and how you can help.
Government: The administration's proposal to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) to 39 m.p.g. for cars and 30 for trucks is certainly going to help. According to the administration, this approximate 10 m.p.g. bump in the combined car/truck average of 25.1 will save an estimated 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program, and result in a pollution reduction equal to taking 177 million cars off the road.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House and Senate are working on "cash for clunkers" bills. This legislation, which could become law this summer, probably should be called "cash for gas hogs." The idea is to have government use tax dollars to subsidize the cost of a new car. The older and thirstier your trade-in is, and the more fuel-efficient your new car is, the more you will get.
Both measures would help, particularly the CAFE increase. Certainly, it will send the automakers scurrying to add more hybrids, plug-in electrics, and diesels to their portfolios to improve the average mileage of their overall product line.
But the proposed regulations, like the current CAFE, won't stop them from building gas guzzlers. As long as it's profitable, they'll provide the slurpers some people want, and pay the fines. That's the problem with the CAFE: It doesn't regulate demand.
While these government efforts are certainly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, they ultimately qualify as less than a sea change in our fuel malaise. The obvious way to encourage heavy-duty fuel conservation is to tax it heavily as the Western Europeans do. They found that when you charge people $6 a gallon or more for gasoline, they start driving smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. They also found that when you ease that tax a bit on diesel fuel, you encourage people to buy into the more fuel-efficient diesel vehicle. That's why more than 50 percent of European passenger-car sales are for diesels.
But a big tax on fuel isn't going to happen in this country. Too much of our socioeconomic fabric is based on relatively cheap gasoline, and raising its cost substantially is seen as political suicide.
Ultimately, I suspect, the marketplace will render government's conservation efforts moot. With the shrinking of the dollar and the world's petroleum reserves, it's hard not to see $4 gasoline on the horizon. That will revive the interest in gasoline misers, an interest that stagnated as soon as gasoline got cheap again.
The automakers: Besides fielding more hybrids and diesels, the carmakers are busy developing electric plug-ins. The most visible is the Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors plans to start selling next year. The 125 m.p.h. Volt will go about 40 miles on its battery, which is enough for many commutes and shopping trips. If you go farther, the battery is automatically recharged by a generator driven by a gasoline engine.
When fully discharged, the Volt takes three hours to recharge when plugged into a 220-volt outlet, and eight when a conventional 110-volt outlet is employed.
Several other automakers are working on plug-ins with technology very much like the Volt's.
Chrysler has several extended-range concept cars, and is planning to build a Lotus-based electric sports car next year. Mercedes is showing an electric vehicle called the BlueZERO, which it plans to offer in 2010 as both a pure electric and an extended-range electric like the Volt.
Ford plans to bring a small electric van to this market next year, followed by a small sedan. Toyota says it will have a four-seat electric minicar for the U.S. market in 2012.
What you can do to help save gas: Buying a more economical car is the obvious way. The most fuel-efficient are hybrids. The new 2010 Toyota Prius has a combined gas mileage of 50, and the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid checks in at 42. Larger, midsize family hybrid sedans are not far behind. The new 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid gets 37, and the current Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids are at 34.
Diesels are another miserly way to go. The Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel boasts 34 m.p.g.
Another fuel saver, which goes on sale this summer, is the Ford Transit Connect.
The Transit Connect is a small commercial van Ford has been selling in Europe for years. Ford says it thinks its size and thirst will make it appealing to small businesses, particularly those in cities. It gets a lot better mileage than conventional vans (EPAs of 22 city and 25 highway) and is a lot more maneuverable. And, small as it is, it affords 135 cubic feet of cargo space and a 1,600-pound payload.
This, by the way, is the vehicle Ford will offer as an electric next year.