How Can We Detox Our Cars From Their Oil Addiction? (Part 1)

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From Here to There
The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was only the latest in a long list of reasons why we should transition away from oil as rapidly as we can. It's a monumental task, but we should not be intimidated, for all the longest journeys began with a single step... So what is that step and how can we get our cars off oil? Many people's reflex would be to say "Just stop driving!", but I think things are a bit more complex than that. Under most realistic scenarios, there will still be hundreds of millions of cars around for the foreseeable future. Something needs to be done. What will this transition away from oil look like? Read on to find out.

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Why Even Improve the Car?
Why is it important? Because whatever you and I do, say, or write right now, there are still millions of people who will buy cars and drive them around for many years to come. Purists can scream until they are blue in the face about how all cars are evil and how the Prius is just as bad as all the others, but we still have to work with the starting point of reality as it is now, not as we wished it was. And in that reality, if the 1.8 million people who bought a Prius were going to buy a car anyway, it might as well have been one that gets around 50 MPG and has an AT-PZEV emission rating. And in that reality, even if we start investing in alternatives to cars right now, it's still going to take years if not decades for all those projects to be completed and for our society to be reshaped in a less car-centric way. We have to do something in the meantime.

So in parallel to all the other changes that are needed to make our society greener (such as making cities more walkable, more bikable, using New Urbanism principles for development, greatly improving public transportation so we can catch up to Hong Kong, etc), we also need to improve the car. Despite all of its flaws, it's still a great tool in many situations (sometimes a bike or bus won't work), and while the world is urbanizing quickly, people in rural areas will always be left with fewer transportation options. So let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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Start by Squeezing More Out of Every Drop

The first part of this transition away from oil is taking place right now; it's the low-hanging fruit called efficiency. It isn't enough on its own, but it is the logical first step in a series of technological changes that should bring us to cars powered by energy that doesn't come from oil (ideally, 100% from clean sources).So how can we make cars more efficient? There are many ways. Some of them only produce small improvements, but when combined with lots of others, they can make a pretty big difference.

Improvements That Apply to All Types of Cars
First, there are the improvements that can apply to all cars, from regular gas-powered to high-tech electric cars. Things like low-rolling resistance tires, weight reduction (either done by reducing the size of the vehicle or using advanced materials), better aerodynamics, better transmissions (like CVTs, dual-clutch, and using more gears and taller ratios), better software (modern cars are computers on wheels; a lot can be controlled by software to make them more fuel efficient), more feedback to 'train' the driver (real-time and historical fuel economy data on a screen), etc.


Improvements to Internal Combustion Engines
Then there are improvements that can be made directly to the internal combustion engine (ICE). Things like combining downsizing with turbocharging and/or supercharging, direct injection, using the Atkinson combustion cycle, advanced types of variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation, Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI), diesel (if the emission control is good enough), and flex fuel sensors that allow the use of high ratio blends of biofuels (only good if you have a truly green supply of biofuels, though, so that depends on the country and on progress in that industry).

Going Further by Adding Batteries and Electric Motors
Then once the ICE itself has been made as efficient as possible, you can further improve overall fuel economy by coupling it with hybrid technology, from the mildest form that only provides anti-idling, to almost-fully-electric plug-in hybrids that have a battery big enough to allow driving in fully electric mode for a while (but there's still a gas engine to serve as backup). A side benefit of this is that many technologies developed for hybrids will be useful in fully electric cars.


As batteries and power electronics get better and cheaper, the number of hybrids on the road should go up significantly. This will be especially true if oil prices keeps going up, if governments keep tightening fuel economy standards, and if a price is put on carbon emissions (all of these things are likely). This will not be without downsides, but the benefits are bigger. Most life-cycle analysis studies show that a significant majority of a vehicle's environmental impact comes from the fuel it burns (on the order of 80%+), with the rest for manufacturing and disposal. So while making hybrids means making extra batteries, if these batteries can make a vehicle use half or a quarter of the fuel it would normally use, it's worth it. And at the end of the life of a vehicle, the batteries can usually still hold about 80% of their charge, so they can be used for other things (like storing wind or solar power), and after that, they can be recycled. It's a better deal than burning non-renewable fossil fuels and sending pollutants in the atmosphere where they can stay for many years.

And let's not underestimate the rate of progress. Even batteries might someday disappear in favor of carbon hyper-capacitors that can be charged and discharged an unlimited number of times. This would further reduce the footprint of making hybrids and electric vehicles.

Jevons Paradox
One thing that must be noted about making things more efficient is that it doesn't always work as we expected it to because of the Jevons paradox: "the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource." There are many different ways to counter that effect, but this article is getting long, so the details are best left to another post.

To Be Continued...
In part 2 we'll look at the next step in the transition away from oil, electric vehicles. We'll talk about the reasons why they are not simply quantitatively different from cars with an internal combustion engine, but qualitatively different in their impact. Stay tuned.

This post is part of the Minus Oil series.