The Truth About Fuel, Part One: Objects in the Mirror

Eric Stepans
by Eric Stepans
the truth about fuel part one objects in the mirror

America is addicted to oil. I’m sure this revelation ranks with “Chrysler’s in a spot of bother” on the scale of surprises. Everyone from the Sierra Club to President George W. Bush has lectured the country about its dependence on oil in general and foreign oil in particular. Pistonhead, blame thyself! Transportation fuels make up between 25 and 30 percent of total US energy demand. Needless to say, nearly all of that fraction is petroleum. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot and the Stanley twins may have powered their jalopies on steam (even then, the Stanley Steamer was kerosene-fired), but modern vehicles are all about the distillates, baby.

A number of highly profitable oil companies provide America its 20M barrels per day (bpd) “fix” of refinery products. We mainline about nine million bpd of gasoline and shoot up another four million bpd of diesel fuel. We chase that with a 150K bpd shot of lubricants, and our cars snort along lines of oil-derived asphalt to the tune of another 500K bpd.

The “high” from all this hydrocarbon huffing: the world’s most mobile society. Americans can go just about anywhere we want anytime we please, bus schedules be damned. And we do. We pack like lemmings into our combined 250 million shiny metal boxes and rack up three trillion miles per year. That’s over half a light-year.

Yet all is not well. Like any other addict, American society is developing resistance to its petroleum addiction. We’re consuming more and enjoying it less. Using statistics on fuel use, vehicle miles and time spent driving, the math tells us that the average American car travels at five mph and gets 15 mpg in the process. While these averages may be somewhat misleading, there is plenty of research to confirm what we’ve all observed: we’re driving longer, going slower and consuming more fuel in the process.

Furthermore, like any other drug, petroleum has numerous side effects, for both ourselves and our society. From oil spills to asthma, from funding terrorism to expanding our waistlines, from purchased politicians to suburban sprawl, our addiction has downsides both obvious and subtle.

The first step to dealing with any addiction is admitting you have a problem (done!). The next step is figuring out how you got there. With petroleum, cars were clearly the gateway drug to our dependence. While oil had been used on a small scale since Biblical times, it fit the internal combustion engine like cocaine on dopamine receptors.

And the first thing those engines wanted was more petroleum. Oil companies, like other drug dealers, were only too happy to keep supplying their addicts customers with their products, and at enormous profits.

The American automotive/petroleum party lasted nearly six decades, transforming our landscape, culture, and commerce. Only when party-pooper OPEC didn’t bring their stash in the 1970s did Americans realize that the buzz wouldn’t go on forever.

But America’s sobriety was short-lived. We rejected President Carter’s stern temperance lectures and embraced President Reagan’s Morning in America optimism. When downsized cars, fuel economy standards, lower speed limits and other efficiency measures caused oil prices to collapse in 1986, America partied until it was 1999 . . . and a few years beyond that. Even buzz-kill Middle Eastern wars and the events of 9/11 didn’t stop the music.

To the contrary, after substantial fuel economy gains from the 1970s to about 1990, US fuel economy fleet averages have leveled off at about 22 mpg for cars and 17 mpg for trucks/van/SUVs. Even that level-off is a minor miracle given America’s stoner-with-munchies appetite for ever larger, heavier and faster cars.

Compare, for example, a 2009 Honda Accord (4 cylinder) to a 1990 model. The new car has 10 inches, 600 lb, 2 EPA size classes, 70 horsepower, and 2.5 fewer seconds in 0 to 60 mph acceleration over its ancestor but with nearly identical fuel economy.

It wasn’t until oil prices more than tripled between 2003 and 2008 that Americans once again started coming down off of their happy horsepower binge. Hybrids replaced HUMMERs as the cool personal fashion statement, and even the truck-dependent Detroit 2.8 started touting fuel economy again.

Despite this cultural shift and our recent economic woes, America is still a petroleum junkie. Consumption is only slightly off from previous years and US oil imports remain at near-record levels. Economic uncertainty means fewer people buying newer fuel-efficient cars and less capital for developing the next generation of miserly models.

However, we are not necessarily doomed to a massive post-petroleum hangover. Petroleum may be the easiest (and until recently the cheapest) way of fueling America’s automotive habit. But it is not the only way. In our next installment, we’ll look at some 19th-century chemistry that may keep us rolling into an automotive future.

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  • Onewheeldrive Onewheeldrive on Mar 17, 2009
    US fuel economy fleet averages have leveled off at about 22 mpg for cars and 17 mpg for trucks/van/SUVs. Another reason car sales are floundering, IMHO: I'm looking to replace my beloved 2000 323i, which is still pulling strong at 134k miles. I have been flummoxed by the discovery that my old bimmer get better mileage than the 2009 Fusion I-4 with a manual transmission??? Apparently, decade of engineering "progress" has put us further behind.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Mar 20, 2009

    And there are some really old bits of technology that could retasked to serve us in new ways. How about some sort of modern hybrid semi-truck for the interstates? Diesel off the highway, electric on the highway. I'd rather have an electric bus with a pantograph quietly roaming the city vs the smoke belching noisy things that most modern cities have. And that power can come from any sort of generation source - hydro, coal, nukes, wind, solar, etc. How about trolley tracks instead of buses? Much longer lasting. San Fran's trolleys are how old now??? Most buses last how long? Imagine passenger trains with auto-cars taking advantage of tracks in the median of the interstate. Electric even. Express runs from hub cities like Nashville and Atlanta to Florida. You drive 100 miles, climb onto a train WITH your car and ride to Florida where you exit and drive to your final destination - rested, fed, and consuming less energy. Drive on late in the afternoon and arrive in the morning... Imagine small neighborhood schools that served neighborhoods within walking distance without an administration in each building (and thus less costs). Only teachers. Small schools of 100 kids who could bike and walk vs suburban schools where hundreds of kids have to be driven to school or bused - sometimes - one kid per car. What a waste (and we do it too. Getting a neighborhood school next year though). I can imagine neighborhood shops that people could walk to springing up all over if the average person would shop there due to high fuel prices. Little strip malls down the street serving a mile radius of homes. Small markets, a post office to drop off and pickup mail (no mail delivery anymore)... That problem will solve itself when the time comes. I know too many people who would rather drive PAST their neighborhood shopping options now to go to some big box retailer to save a little on the pricetag. Never mind the cost of wear & tear, fuel, time, pollution, and how nice that empty neighborhood shopping center will look when it's vacant and a vandalism target. Another one lost to the big box guys. We're losing a Kmart and a grocery store this week to a Wal-Mart. There is not one single answer. The answer will be a 1000 little "tweaks" (changes) to how America operates. Nothing is going to compete with gas or diesel in the short term cost analysis for a while. However we can place more value on a better quality of life with less pollution, less noise, safer streets, and more variety to how our towns and cities operate. A little constant improvement (baby steps) would go a long, long way over a decade. We can't wait a decade though because China and India are rushing to come into the 21st century and those citizens want the same stuff we want. China is investing in Panama, Africa and across the globe. We've invade Iraq. At what cost? At what cost are the wars compared to their Chinese investments of capital and good will with the people in those African nations? I'll bet the good will lasts decades for the Chinese. I know our Iraq debt will last decades too. I'm for all the wind and solar that we can utilize everywhere it works. Then carry the rest of the load with the traditional sources - nuke, hydro, and coal. Research on ways to generate hydrogen with spare capacity for later consumption at those same power plants -or- pumping water into mountain top lakes with spare capacity so it can allowed to fall back to the lower elevation later and generate power. Lets get moving. We private citizens can make it start without waiting for the gov't or the economy to change. Different choices at the stores, shopping at different stores, different consumption patterns, different goals, different personal transport decisions, plant a garden, etc.

  • Chuck Norton And guys are having wide spread issues with the 10 speed transmission with the HP numbers out of the factory......
  • Zerofoo "Hyundais just got better and better during the 1990s, though, and memories of those shoddy Excels faded."Never. A friend had an early 90s Hyundai Excel as his college beater. One day he decided that the last tank of gas he bought was worth more than the car. He drove it to empty and then he and his fraternity brothers pushed it into the woods and left it there.
  • Kwik_Shift There are no new Renegades for sale within my geographic circle of up to 85 kms. Looks like the artificial shortage game. They bring one in, 10 buyers line up for it, $10,000 over MSRP. Yeah. Like with a lot of new cars.
  • Ribbedroof In Oklahoma, no less!
  • Ribbedroof Have one in the shop for minor front collision repairs right now,I've seen more of these in the comments than in the 30 years I've been in collision repair.