People put automakers into two camps for fuel efficiency: one saint, Toyota, for its Prius hybrid, and many sinners (including all three Detroit companies). Most of the car companies are sitting on their hands, the complaint goes, crying when anyone asks them to get more mileage out of cars.
Not true. The car companies are beginning to make fuel-saving technology a standard feature. They are also pushing more-radical projects that could change our world. But even if those radical dreams fail, we're going to see serious improvements in fuel economy soon.
It takes time, years, to get production up on new transmissions and engine modifications for millions of cars. They start on a few models and spread. That's the way the auto industry works.
There are efforts to give gasoline engines diesel-like fuel economy (25% to 30% better). Ford says it will have such an engine, with two turbochargers, on a new Lincoln at the end of this year.
The more far-off dreams include efforts to build a plug-in hybrid, which could let you do your commuting and shopping without consuming any gas while still having the gasoline engine for long trips. With one of these you could drive 100 miles for every gallon of gas you buy. Hydrogen fuel cell cars might be practical in a few decades. If the hydrogen came from a nuclear plant or windmill, it would spare the atmosphere.
What about putting today's cars on the South Beach diet, lightening them by hundreds of pounds and going to smaller engines? That would work, for sure, but no one goes that way, not in Detroit, Wolfsburg or Toyota City. Buyers won't accept a smaller version of the car they have. If a car is going to be smaller, it must be something new. Thus Honda brings in a small model called the Fit instead of making its Civic smaller. GM seems happy getting its smallest cars from Korea, and Chrysler talks about building one in China. Ford seems to want to build one in its Brazilian plants.
Detroit needs to do a better job of trumpeting its environmental successes. Does anyone remember the Mobil Economy Run? It was a race, sponsored by the old oil company, in which the winner was the vehicle that got the most miles per gallon. It was last seen in 1967. Maybe it's time to start it up again.