The Future's Gas-Sipping Cars

When we were kids, the renowned futurist George Jetson taught us that we'd all be driving flying cars someday. But it turns out, nearly 50 years on, that our motoring habits have more in common with Fred Flintstone--we're still driving around in cars powered by the fossilized dinosaurs. So much for progress. Now, though, through the benevolence of our federal lawmakers, it appears that George's utopian driving dream may finally be within our grasp.

On Wednesday, President Bush signed into law a new energy bill that will boost the average mileage of cars to 35mpg, a 40 percent increase from today's 25mpg average and the first time Congress has ordered new fuel-economy rules since the oil embargos of the 1970s. This aggressive new mileage standard--hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "groundbreaking"--goes into effect in 2020. (Progress takes time, especially in Detroit.) By then, you might expect that we'd all be riding around in those Jetsonian future-mobiles, powered by air or atomic fusion, or at least by electricity. And you would be dead wrong.

"If a Martian looked down on the fleet of vehicles on the road in 2020, he won't see much difference," says environmental activist Dan Becker, the former director of global-warming initiatives at the Sierra Club, who, nonetheless, considers this a landmark change. But wait a minute. What gives here? How come we can't finally get our cars of tomorrow thanks to today's legislation? The answer is part bureaucratic and part technical: the way Washington computes fuel economy is Byzantine and backward, and the biggest technological changes will be under the skin.

"Cars won't look dramatically different," says Becker, "but they will be significantly different."

Back in the 1980s, consumers began complaining that those mileage window stickers on new cars didn't match the reality of the road: drivers never got the miles per gallon promised by the EPA. So the bureaucrats in charge of the window stickers lowered the city mileage estimate by 10 percent and the highway estimate by 22 percent to bring them more in line with the real world. But the bureaucrats in charge of computing the automakers' average mileage on their new cars didn't make a similar adjustment, leaving their estimates higher than drivers' actual experience. A car that regulators figure gets 27.5mpg today, for instance, will carry a window sticker showing it gets only around 21mpg, according to automotive technical expert Dan Edmunds of the car-research Web site. Because of the discrepancy, Edmunds figures that to achieve the new 35mpg mandate, cars only need to get about 26.5mpg in real-world driving. That's still a significant, 24 percent increase, but it's no 40 percent jump, which would require a completely new model for making cars. "There is a big disconnect between the number politicians talk about," says Edmunds, "and what's on the window sticker."

Already in today's showrooms, there are 38 models that would technically meet the new mandate because they get more than 27mpg in combined city and highway driving, according to their window stickers, says Edmunds. But if you were to try to find a car now that actually gets 35mpg in real-world driving, you would only have nine models to choose from.

The new regulations still mean that hundreds of cars on the market today would be illegal in 2020. So cars will have to change to achieve a one-quarter boost in fuel economy. Hybrids, which now make up a little more than 2 percent of the new car market, will become much more mainstream--the Prius already ranks among the top 10 vehicles sold in America. Electric cars also will get new life. Already the race is on among major automakers to develop a lithium-ion battery, like those found in laptops, that can power a car for up to 100 miles on a single charge and then juice up again in as little as an hour. General Motors has the Chevy Volt plug-in electric, which has a small motor to recharge the battery after 40 miles, coming in 2010. Toyota will be showing off a plug-in Prius prototype at the Detroit Auto Show next month. And Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn promises to have a small electric city car on the road by 2011. "I'm convinced that for urban driving, the answer will be the electric vehicle," Ghosn recently told me. "With oil at $100 a barrel, there's a lot of interest in a zero-emission electric car."

Cars will also get smaller. Not clown-car small, and probably not even sleek European small--just trimmer and much lighter, thanks to more use of aluminum and lightweight composite materials that save on gas but cost a lot of dough. Good old internal-combustion engines will also get smaller and a lot more efficient in how they burn gas. (Yes, we'll still be guzzling gas in 2020, just less of it.) To cover the cost of going the extra mile, sticker prices will go up, by a few hundred dollars if you believe the environmentalists and by thousands if you believe the automakers. The reality will be somewhere in between.

But fear not, you will still be able to get big rigs in 2020. In some cases, those models will not be as big as they once were and won't have four-wheel drive, but this legislation will not be the death of the SUV. Old-school SUVs built on pickup truck frames might become endangered, but the new lighter crossover utility vehicles, like the Honda Pilot, are probably here to stay. And we wouldn't have it any other way. Consider this: even with gas stubbornly above $3 a gallon this year, sales of large and luxury SUVs are up 5.6 percent.

"I don't think Americans have yet been weaned off the 'bigger is better' way of thinking," says Edmunds. "We're a country of wide open spaces and a sense of scale appeals to us. Besides, people feel safer in bigger vehicles. And safety outweighs fuel economy for many people."

So what's the biggest difference we'll notice on the roads in 2020? Cars will look much sleeker. The cheapest way for automakers to jack up mileage is to design highly aerodynamic cars that slip through the wind. That means lower hoods, smoother shapes and maybe even covered wheels. But they still won't fly. Sorry, George.

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