Have you ever wondered why new cars don’t seem very new anymore? Each new model year brings a new gadget – an app, a larger touchscreen, more colors for the LED mood lighting, another “advanced driver assistance” system – but nothing much about the car, itself (which is probably a crossover) seems to change much.
There’s a why for that.
It’s because there’s not much left to do. Or rather, there’s very little left that they – the engineers and designers – can do. Legally. The “car” – its basic layout, including its mechanicals and shape – is largely foreordained by regulatory fiat, which must be complied with. The need to comply is why – to cite one specific – there is very little variety in engine type regardless of make or model, where once-upon-a-time there was great variety.
GM’s Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac and Saturn divisions used to have their own engines, all different – which made the cars they were installed in different and thus desirable, for different reasons. The regulatory regime made it progressively more difficult – more expensive – to refine and redesign all those engines, separately, to achieve compliance with the regulations. Eventually, it got too expensive and GM stopped making all those engines – and not long after, many of those brands, which became the same – and so why continue to make them?
Almost all of the engines used in new cars irrespective of make or model are inline fours and probably two thirds of these are 2.0 liter fours. This is not coincidental. It is because that layout – and that size – is optimal for achieving compliance with regulatory fiat pertaining to gas mileage and the “emission” of gasses that aren’t pollutants.
It is also why there aren’t any air-cooled engines on the market (except in power equipment and that probably not for much longer, either). Porsche was the last to offer an air-cooled engine, which was formerly a defining uniqueness of its sports cars. But even Porsche – with all the engineering resources at its disposal – was unable to achieve compliance and so went over to water-cooling, just like everyone else.
It was not because Porsche wanted to be like everyone else.
Engines are just one example. Transmissions are another. Almost all of them are automatics. Why? It is not because people don’t want manuals. It is because it is harder to comply with the regulatory requirements with them, as they cannot be programmed to function just so, so as to pass the various government-required tests that determine regulatory compliance.
There is very little real variety anymore in terms of shape, too. And the why for that is because every shape must also comply with the regs in order to be legal for sale. Car styling is practically defined before the fact by a kind of template, similar to the ones stock car race cars must fit within – which is why all stock cars look almost identical, irrespective of one being a “Chevy” and another a “Ford.”
There’s only so much they – the designers and engineers – can do, within the constraints established by the regulatory template. And so, they focus on designing and engineering bigger touchscreens and new “driver assistance” technologies, ever-more-“advanced.”
But what might they be able to design and engineer, if they were allowed to?
How about – as a for-instance – a diesel-electric hybrid that could travel 80 miles or more on a single gallon of fuel? Diesel engines are already more fuel-efficient than gas-burning engines because they make greater use of the energy in the fuel. They are typically 20-30 percent more fuel-efficient than an otherwise similar gas-burning engine. Use one of these engines as a generator, to maintain the charge of an electric battery that – in turn – powers an electric motor and you’d have a hybrid that would make a 50 MPG gas-electric hybrid seem like a gas pig in comparison.
VW was on the verge of offering exactly such a car. But that was before it fell afoul of the regulatory regime. It is also why you cannot find diesel engines anymore, either – except as options in a handful of trucks (and that probably not for long).
The fact is, you wouldn’t need a diesel – or a hybrid – to be able to travel 50 miles (or more) on a gallon of gas. If it were possible to build a new car that didn’t weigh very much. If people were free to choose to buy a car that might not protect them as well in the event of a crash – if they ever crashed – that was extremely fuel efficient every time they drove it.
But the regulatory regime has taken that choice away from them. Everyone must “choose” a car that is massively overweight by historic (pre-regulatory) standards and so not fuel-efficient for that reason. This includes even “economy” cars, which use more gas than the economy cars of the pre-regulatory regime for exactly that reason – notwithstanding the new “economy” cars have the compensatory advantage of numerous “fuel-saving” technologies, such as direct-injection of fuel, cylinder deactivation and transmissions with more overdrive gears than transmissions used to have gears, in pr-regime days.
We might also have electric cars that cost less than engined-cars. There is no technical reason why not. Electric cars are fundamentally simpler cars. The fundamentals being a battery that powers a motor. Big (and so, heavy) ones wouldn’t be needed to propel a very small, very light electric car. It might not go very fast – or very far – but it would go far enough and fast enough to be serviceable as a car, for people who don’t need to go very far and don’t care about going very fast – but do care about not spending very much.
They have such cars in places like China.
Ask your representative why we don’t get to have such cars here.
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