Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A pretty good sign that Ford might not be around in 2030

I saw this story this morning about Ford Motor Company's newest VP for sustainability and environment. While the fate is unclear for what James Kunstler calls the "Happy Motoring Utopia", there's no doubt that more people are realizing that we can't pave or drive our way out of congestion.

A few things that are likely true:

    • We have a limited amount of resources with which to fuel the cars. Exactly how much, who knows. (until we build Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future II)

    • Cars emit massive amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is the likely cause for global warming, y'know, IF it's happening and all.

    • Increases in fuel economy, efficiency, or emissions, have not, and will not be able to keep up with yearly increases in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), due to continued growth of creating solely auto-dependent places.

    • Demand is growing for places where people can live in closer proximity to school, work, shopping, church, and other daily needs.

    • Gas is not going to get cheaper. Ever.

    • Our overall fleet fuel economy has not improved since the late 80's overall, due largely to the massive numbers of gas-guzzlers produced by companies like Ford, that have offset increases in efficiency by many foreign cars.
Anyway, I especially liked this quote:
"A lot of work can be done in terms of just lightweight materials to then make the engines more efficient, downsizing the engines," she said. "It's always hard to predict invention in terms of battery technology, but we're seeing some very promising things out there." The same array of vehicles will exist in 2030, she predicted, but hydrogen fuel cells will play a role.

I'd have to say this doesn't bode well for Ford, who will likely squander this great market opportunity to create more fuel-efficient cars and capitalize on massive demand that is currently going unmet by nearly all of the American companies.

To put it in perspective, due to the expanding nature of our cities and suburbs, each car is having to log more and more miles. (drivers as well, of course). In 1990, the average car traveled 11,107 miles a year. In 2005, that number was up to 12,084. That's a 9 percent increase in 15 years. If you extrapolate that number out to 2043, when we will have 100 million more Americans — and millions of their cars on the road — each car will be traveling more than 14,000 miles a year.

So if gasoline costs twice as much, or efficiency doesn't MASSIVELY increase to even attempt to keep up with the predicted increase in driving each year, driving will become so costly that it will become ridiculously expensive.

No advances in technology are going to come fast enough to keep up with this seismic shift in energy prices and increases in driving that our landscape dictates.

The real solution isn't in clawing at solutions for simply greater efficiency, because it's clear they can't keep up with the increases in miles traveled each year. The auto industry should be working towards efficiency, but a focus on keeping the cars running at all costs will distract us from the real challenge of a fundamental shift in how we plan our growth.

If we can reduce by half how far someone has to drive for their daily needs, or cut in half the average daily number of car trips (currently between 11 and 15), you've just had the same effect as increasing a car's gas mileage from 15 mpg to 30 mpg.

In the end, these sorts of solutions will have a greater impact on energy consumption and emissions than Ford's half-assed attempts to change a culture that has pervaded their company for 50 years.