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Why do I think a 7 gallon wastepaper basket is a pretty neat thing?

I like my little Mazda3. It’s “zippy” and pretty comfortable to drive for a compact car. And it cost us somewhere in the range of $16,500 for the car (we actually lease it). And while it is nowhere near the best in its class for fuel-economy, it still is a very fuel efficient car as far as my standards are concerned. I’ve been averaging around 29-30 mpg for our everyday driving, but when we are on the highway and I don’t need to run the AC and can travel at a constant speed, I have been able to get well beyond the sticker mileage – my last trip got up near 40. The reason I like my waste paper basket is that filling it up with fuel is sufficient to take me and our two children from here to their grandparents’ house 255 miles away.

Think about that. It took the three of us 6.8 gallons of gas to make that recent trip. This represents a mileage of roughly 37.5 miles per gallon. But there were three of us in that car. So our mileage was not 37.5 but more like 112.5 person miles per gallon. With that kind of mileage, it would take very expensive gas and a much more expensive car in order for it to make economic or environmental sense to get into something like, say, a Chevy Volt. For example, the cheapest new Prius I was able to find when shopping was nearly 50% more expensive than the Mazda I ended up getting (about $24,000).

There are no particular lessons here and I am not here to provide you with a calculator for how to make car shopping comparisons. But I would like to point out that there is still a good deal of room for standard internal combustion engines to become more efficient, so it’s not at all entirely clear to me that we are going to see a highway full of hybrids and electrics anytime soon. There are other reasons why we won’t see that, for example, just do a back of the envelope calculation of what kind of battery capacity and materials we are going to need to replace, say, 50% of the automobile fleet with electric cars. And while the ability of “green” car producers to scale up and recognize scale economies surely will improve (and we’ve seen this with the Prius) the economics of building an ICE car are going to remain very favorable for a long time — especially if some developing countries are able to design, produce and sell cars in the future.

Oh, in other automobile related news, a student shared this storywith me from last week. Funny, I just saw this commercial.

3 Responses to “What I Think About When I Look at the Wastepaper Basket in My Office”

  1. RIT_Rich says:

    While it is true that there is still room for improvement in internal combustion engines, that doesn’t mean that the rate of improvement along that variable is going to be as fast as the rate of improvement for hybrids (which are also internal combustion engines). The new Prius C for example only costs about $3,000 more than the Mazda 3 and gets 25% better gas mileage.

    Now, even at that price the added efficiency of the Prius C is not economical (it would still take about 10 years to recover the extra 3k for the average driver) , but I’d bet only 3-4 years from now, the Prius will be the same price as a regular car. From an engineering perspective, there is no argument that the hybrid is a much more promising design.

    Unfortunately, simply because the government decided to get on the bandwagon of providing incentives for them, or the politics of the companies seeking corporate welfare, or the fact that a Prius is marketed towards a certain type of person, doesn’t mean that the technology itself should be criticized. It’s done pretty well in the market.

    • Pat says:

      Do not forget the “life cycle” costs of those batteries, which have a rather short life span compared to the rest of the vehicle. (Don’t forget the costs associated with deconstruction of the batteries, and recovery of the elements).

  2. wintercow20 says:

    RIT_Rich is indeed right, but when I say ICE’s can become much more efficient I should have been clearer — they can be produced (even with the same engineering specs) far more cheaply than they are right now. Imagine a world of free trade with India producing low-cost ICE cars.

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