Easing Off the Gas

The Do the Math blog series has built the case that physical growth cannot continue indefinitely; that fossil fuel availability will commence a decline this century—starting with petroleum; that alternative energy schemes constitute imperfect substitutes for fossil fuels; and has concluded that a very smart strategy for us to adopt is to slow down while we sort out the biggest transition humans have ever faced. The idea is to relieve pressure on the system, avoid the Energy Trap, and give ourselves the best possible chance for a successful transformation to a stable future. Since building this case, I have described substantial adaptations in our home energy use, but have not yet addressed the one that bears most directly on the immediate problem: transportation and liquid fuels. Let’s take a look at what can be done here.

What are Our Goals?

Yearly production of conventional liquid fuels may decline at rates of 2–5% once the decline starts. Artificial (geopolitical) factors may steepen the decline. But even at a modest 3% per year decline, we will be down to half the annually available fuel in a two-decade timeframe. Substantial energy transitions of the past have taken much longer to accomplish, so dreams of shiny replacements—like a fleet of electric vehicles for everyone—need to be tempered with some sense of historically demonstrated reality. Indeed, Chevrolet has scaled back their production of the Volt due to flagging demand. Is it because oil prices are low? Are gasoline prices too low to send the right signal? No! Oil prices have hovered at or above $100/bbl for over a year now. Gasoline prices are in the red. And Chevy ramps down production of arguably the most impressive plug-in hybrid vehicle on the market.

Chevy Volt

I understand this from a personal perspective. Our car is starting to groan with problems, costing $500 every six months or so to keep it running smoothly. I started entertaining the thought of moving on. Given my trepidation over oil stability, my love of efficiency, my personal experience building a solar PV/battery system, and my enjoyment of smart technology, I was attracted to an inherently efficient electric car that I could charge independently from my very own power station. Yet the occasional longer trip is well provisioned by an on-board gasoline engine. So plug-in hybrids seem like the right solution for me. I don’t want to get stranded with a dead battery in an electric-only car, which I perceive to be only a matter of time given the unpredictability of life: things come up. Few plug-ins are available, and the purist in me wants a car that can be 100% electric except for long trips. The Volt brilliantly matches my parameters. Then there’s the price. Realistically, I’d be looking at $40–$45k. Sure, there is a $7k government tax break (some fraction of which I might qualify to receive). Still, I can sustain the maintenance costs of our current car for some time and still be ahead financially. Also, the embodied energy of a new purchase erects another barrier.

The point is, I backed away from my drooling attraction to the Volt because I judged it to be an extravagant expenditure. Even my most clever arguments could not rationalize it. And even though I cringe to think of myself this way, objectively speaking my wife and I are in the upper quintile (20%) of household income in the U.S. That makes me upper class. Blech. I’ve never tried caviar, but doubt I would like it—and I don’t drink, so champagne is lost on me. I’ll sooner take a bean-rice-cheese burrito than a fancy dinner. But there we have it: I’m in the upper class. And even I shied away from the expense of a very attractive plug-in hybrid car. So I am not too surprised to hear that Chevrolet is ramping down its production. Yet I’m disappointed all the same. My take-away is that transition to a different transportation fleet is easier dreamed than done. It’s expensive. Economic difficulties imposed by high fuel costs result in recessionary pressures, leaving even fewer in a position to afford an extravagance like a shiny electric/hybrid car.

Again, I come to the conclusion that one thing we can do—totally under our own control—is to reduce our demand of liquid fuels faster than the naturally-imposed decline rate. And again, I look for factor-of-two level solutions, rather than piddly few-percent window-dressing. Let’s kick this problem in the teeth!

Comparing Scales

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2001, 107 million households drove 191 million vehicles an average of 12,000 miles each (19,400 km), consuming a household average of 1057 gallons (an even 4,000 liters) per year.

By comparison, my household has two cars: a sedan getting something like 30 MPG (7.8 ℓ/100-km), and a pick-up truck at about 20 MPG (11.8 ℓ/100-km). Wait a minute! This Do the Math guy talks up energy efficiency, but drives a pick-up truck with terrible gas mileage? The nerve!

Call it my Southern heritage: I’ve always driven a truck (has room for my telescope, for one thing). But to assuage my guilt, I have been tempted to make a bumper sticker that says: this truck uses less gas than the average Prius. “By what technology?” people might ask. “A flux-capacitor, perhaps?” No, it’s very simple. It mostly sits parked. I ride the bus to work, and choose the car for around-town trips that do not require the attributes of a truck. We filled the tank a few weeks ago (in March) for the first time since November. In the three consecutive calendar years from 2008–2010, we filled the tank eight times (124 gal; 469 ℓ) while driving 2300 mi (3700 km). That’s fewer than three tanks per year! Then we took it to Seattle with lots of stuff—and cats—for a three-month stay. Now it’s back to mostly sitting—when not being used by me or friends to haul stuff around.

For the car, we average 285 gallons per year (covering the span 2008.0–2012.3). My wife’s Pasadena-based job allows her to work at home, and very rarely travel to see her employers. Since 2008, we have put 1193 gallons into the car and 490 gallons into the truck, averaging 400 gallons per year: 38% of the national household average. This includes round trips from San Diego to Boston in the car, and to Seattle for the truck. If we remove these atypical jaunts (but keep the travel during our stay in these places), we’re down to 30% as much gasoline as the average American household. Even so, since each gallon of gasoline contains 36.6 kWh of energy, our gas habit for personal vehicles consumes 32 kWh/day, which far exceeds our natural gas consumption of 5 kWh/day and our utility electricity usage of 2 kWh/day (requiring about 6 kWh/day of thermal generation at the power plant). The numbers will be far more gasoline-lopsided for daily car-commuters who otherwise trim energy use at home.

The lesson is that reducing one’s use of gasoline is not only addressing the immediate threat of liquid fuels shortage, but it also tends to be one of the more significant sectors of household energy use, and is therefore ripe for reduction.

Obviously a couple in San Diego can get by with less gasoline usage than suburban or rural families can. And a New York City household can do just fine with no car at all. But even among our cohort in San Diego, our driving habits/dependencies require substantially less gasoline than standard practices. And this is the comfort zone for me: a factor of two reduction provides enough breathing room for me to feel that widespread uptake at this level can deliver the game-changer we need to evade the chaos and pain that a supply shortfall will bring. Coupled with an aggressive strategy to build a truly energy-resilient future, such voluntary reduction may be just the ticket for us.


Okay, let’s say you buy into the notion that we should personally strive to reduce fuel consumption by something approaching a factor of two. But you sense that it’s easier said than done. True.  If it were easy, you would have been there already. After all, paying high prices at the pump is not something you do for fun. Here are some suggestions that we try to implement, and that may work for others as well.

Consolidate Errands: Adopt the mindset that it is highly undesirable to make a trip from home for a single purpose. If you just need milk, either do without until another excursion presents itself, or look ahead to future needs that you can also satisfy on the same trip, avoiding a separate trip later. If your excursion occupancy average (number of stops per outing) goes from 1.5 to 3, then you may have achieved a factor of two in fuel savings for errands. Naturally, most people already practice such efficiencies when possible. The difference can be in how disciplined you are about denying yourself “wasteful” trips. Sometimes I hop on the bike if I forgot the butter like an idiot, and can’t justify another gas outing (but want that butter!).

Public Transportation: I never considered the bus to be an “acceptable” form of transportation until I lived in Seattle for three years and found that the bus service was actually quite good and convenient. I carried this attitude with me to San Diego, and moved into a house near a bus route to UCSD. The bus is my mobile office free of interruption, and I value that time each day. Many Do the Math words are generated on the bus, in fact. On my last trip to my hometown of Chattanooga, I rode the bus for the first time ever. I found it to be a tremendously convenient way to get downtown to meet a friend one day and my sister the next, without worrying about parking, etc. It felt like I had made a pioneering discovery—even though the bus has always been right there in plain sight. Buses work, and the service gets even better the greater the ridership.

Carpool: Another unoriginal suggestion, in plain sight. Even finding one person to share a ride immediately provides that magic factor of two savings. Coordination can be a slight inconvenience. But the benefit may far outweigh the cost. This is another place where an attitude shift can make all the difference. If you begin to view single-occupancy as an unacceptable standard practice, the burden of arranging shared rides may seem worthwhile. Social media is making it far easier to find and arrange rides. I wonder how many Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square used the same social media that was so instrumental in organizing the protest to also arrange shared rides to Cairo or to the Square.

Full-Cost Accounting

It’s easy enough to say “hop on a bus and avoid putting gas in your tank.” But gas has to go in the bus’ tank. And each rider needs to claim a share of that expenditure. I don’t buy the argument that “the airplane is going there anyway, so the fuel is spent whether or not I occupy a seat.” This kind of marginal thinking is correct to a point, but also tends to be a barrier to change. It also kills democracy: “the candidate will be elected whether I vote or not, since the polling margin is 10 points in her favor.” Gee. If everyone came to that same conclusion, democracy would self-destruct. Passenger airplanes don’t travel between cities if no one is (or too few are) signed up to ride. Demand creates the service. It’s a cop-out to think that your choices carry no consequences. Remember that you are one of an aggregate, and aggregate demand creates massive impact.

In the case of my own bus commute, how much do I really save? Well, all of the buses serving my route are powered by natural gas. The voluminous storage tanks are a more natural fit for large vehicles than for passenger cars, so this is a nice way to reduce dependency on liquid fuels. I am getting (practically) infinite miles per liquid-fuel gallon on my daily commute!  A minority of buses in San Diego’s fleet are the diesel versions are the New Flyer D40LF model, getting something like 3.2 miles per gallon. Statistics provided by San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit Services (MTS) indicate an actual performance of 2.8 in-service miles provided per gallon of diesel purchased for all MTS operations. We’ll say 3.0 MPG to make the math simpler. The bus seats about 40, and for much of my route during commuting hours, the bus has passengers standing in the aisles. At 40 people, an individual passenger is in effect getting about 120 MPG (2.0 ℓ/100-km). But the bus is not always full, and for the route to exist, it must also provide service at non-peak times of day, and on weekends. According to MTS statistics, the route I utilize achieves an average occupancy of 11, so that the net passenger fuel economy would be about 30 MPG if my bus used diesel rather than natural gas. This is better than if I drove my truck (or the average American vehicle, sad to say), but it’s not astoundingly good.

Looking at the whole MTS fleet for fiscal-year 2011, 179 million passenger-miles were provided (3.7 miles is typical passenger ride length), and in doing so MTS purchased 7.3 million Therms of natural gas energy, 823,234 gallons of diesel, and 377,890 gallons of gasoline. It takes 1.25 Therms for a gasoline-gallon-equivalent, so 83% of the transportation energy came from natural gas. In terms of liquid fuels use, the fleet achieved 150 passenger-miles per gallon of liquid fuel, meaning each passenger can claim a 150 MPG performance for his/her share of the service. If the fleet ran entirely on liquid fuels, it would get 25 MPG per passenger. Still better than the U.S. fleet average personal car, but not by a large margin. Performance is no doubt better in less sprawling locations and in places where ridership is higher.

Of course, bus service passenger-miles per gallon is a complex subject with many logistical complications. One could achieve higher occupancy by flooding the route with buses during peak hours, running many fewer at other times. While this would be a fuel-efficient strategy, the capital cost (and embodied energy) of a standing fleet may make this impractical in other ways. Even so, packing the buses at peak times yields a fairly significant overall reduction of liquid fuel use. Even better if the buses use alternative fuels, as MTS does. The problem is further complicated by the fact that bus service is also a social service for people who can’t drive. Supporting off-peak ridership is a form of community service, even if less efficient than at peak times. Perhaps I should leave this topic for now and devote a future post to public transportation.

Other Avenues

There are other ways to reduce your share of liquid fuel consumption in society. Agriculture is a heavily fossil-fuel subsidized activity, for instance. Dietary changes can cut the associated fossil fuel use by at least a factor of two—another topic that deserves its own post. Discretionary travel by air can often be cut by a factor of two or more. Even travel for work can often be reduced once personal reduction becomes a priority. I have turned down a number of invitations to speak at conferences far away (especially overseas), partly on this basis. One might also consider solar-charged golf carts for local mobility; moving to a walkable community; more bicycling; rickshaws; whatever. There are options.

But be inventive. It is far less effective for me to provide a list of possible changes than it is for you to look at your situation and identify places where you could make a big difference.

Note: Thanks to Jim Byrne and Devin Braun at MTS for their crunchable statistics.

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136 thoughts on “Easing Off the Gas

  1. is it just me or does 12,000 miles consuming of 1057 gallons sound off? ie 1200/1057~11.5, i mean not only is 12k a bit high but who gets 11.5 mpg. I dont know of a single person driving a car that gets under 15 mpg. This leads me to think that this statistic has to include 18-wheelers which get terrible gas mileage. Is there any way to break the gas used by 18-wheelers off from the rest of the data to see what would happen if we changed the method of shipping, ie all electric.

    • Reread that section more carefully; it’s 12k miles per car but 1057 gallons per household. Households have more than one car on average.

    • I think Tom may have a typo/mis calc. Looking at the EIA link I see 21k miles per household and 1053 gallons per household. Still a disappointing 20 MPG for the US fleet.

      Nice blog as always. I still feel like moving quickly to price oil with the real long term economic cost would be best for us — make gas $20 / gallon and then the bus seems a lot better for that milk run all of a sudden. Also if we coudl move our fleet average to 40 MPG we would get one factor of two. Past that — very hard.

      I am reading J. Diamond’s collapse and I cant help but share this quote, it is eternally relevant it seems to me.

      “(The Norse) society’s structure created a conflict between the short-term interests if those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole.” Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005

      • Diamond’s stories about Greenland and Easter Island are disputed, mind you.

    • The numbers I used were: 107 million households drove 191 million vehicles an average of 12,000 miles. That’s an average of 1.79 cars per household, each driving 12,000 miles, for a total of 21,000 miles per household. Sorry if the wording was confusing.

      • Do these numbers include the implicit commercial fuel usage for households? For example, everything for sale in a suburban shopping mall was delivered there by truck; the plumber drives to the suburban house to make repairs, and drives to a wholesaler or warehouse somewhere to fetch the new toilet. Deliveries of everything from mail to furniture. Or is commercial use insignificant compared to residential consumption?

        • Well, 107 million households using 1057 gallons apiece amounts to 107.0*1057/365.0/42 = 7.4 million barrels per day of gasoline, compared to our national appetite of 20 million barrels per day. Now only 75% goes into making gasoline and diesel, so the residential piece accounts for about half the ground transportation fuel.

  2. Bike? Very efficient for shorter trips where your engine can’t warm up.

    For two car households, one electric car makes sense. Your trucks screws up the math because clearly not good for road trips. Maybe you need an electric truck!

    It is very easy to shave miles out. But in terms of price signals, even in the UK, with gas in the $10 a gallon range, people with cars drive 10K miles a year.

    • You may be interested to know that when comparing several countries, I found no correlation between the cost of gas and the amount that people ride bikes. For most people, driving is the least bad option in both the UK and USA. As a result, there is little enthusiasm about alternatives.

      However, there is a correlation between how well funded cycling infrastructure is and how much people ride bikes.

      The conclusion is obvious: if you want to attract people away from cars, make alternatives pleasant, efficient and safe.

      BTW, you say “obviously a couple in San Diego can get by with less gasoline usage than suburban or rural families can.” However, how did the consumption of couples in San Diego compare with that of rural families, say, 150 years ago ? That’s a short time in human history. It’s easy to fall into a trap of seeing the world as it is now as being representative of the world as it must be. However, these things have changed markedly within just a few generations, and they’ll likely have to change again.

      • Thanks for that cycle path link. Never realized how much easier it would be to “want to” use the bike using such bike paths.
        My neck of the woods has a such a path but unfortunately, it is located far from stores.

      • “there is a correlation between how well funded cycling infrastructure is and how much people ride bikes.”

        Yes, but I don’t think you can assume causation as you appear to do. A population which rides bikes will increase the political demand for cycling infrastructure. And either or both can be correlated with other factors such as urban density.

  3. For your eventual public transit post, may I request that you consider trollybusses? They’re too often overlooked, but used to be quite common.

  4. Similar boat, but we bike to work, and a good chunk of our car (28mpg highway station wagon), and small pickup truck(!) mileage is to our small organic farm. We live in town and maintain the farm out in the country. I’ll consider the Volt when I can buy one 5 years old – we won’t consider buying a new motor vehicle – someone else gets to pay for the ‘shiny new’ depreciation.

    But in our case, the truck is even more interesting. It’s a 5-speed manual, but it only has the first four speeds. A previous owner killed 5th gear somehow. And I *have* a replacement transmission. It’s just not worth it in fuel savings to put it in. We use the truck so little that at current gas prices, it would take around 8 years to pay for the transmission swap out of fuel savings. The truck is already 16 years old.

    The problem with the Volt is that a lot of the people temperamentally most likely to buy one are already driving so little now that it’s not a good deal. Alternately, the Volt makes sense at *much* higher gas prices. Gas is too cheap in the US for a Volt to make sense at the moment. They should be selling them in Europe.

    Final note; if you want a *real* challenge, try doing the farming with less fossil fuel.

  5. I had this dilemma when I changed my car some 4 years ago. I was driving a very fuel inefficient 10 year old Vauxhall Omega (A UK General Motors mid sized saloon). This returned me some 25 miles to a UK gallon (around 20 miles to a US gallon). It was old and tired, and more importantly needed some substantial repair work, so I went out for a new car. Now for a variety of reasons ended up with a BMW 5 series (just because I always wanted one!). This is a diesel powered vehicle (2.0 Litre 4 cylinder), with better performance than the GM Omega, and an average of twice the fuel consumption (almost 50 (computer says 49.8) miles to the UK gallon (around 40 MPG). So that is my 2 times improvement, but then I opted to work from home, reducing my mileage from 15,000 miles per annum to under 8,000 per annum. So I have gone from 600 UK gallons (750 US gallons) a year of refined petrol (gasoline) to 160 UK gallons (200 US gallons) a year.
    (And I have a really nice to drive – which given the reduction in my annual Road Fund Licence [if you are American do not ask!], and [surprisingly enough] a reduction in the annual insurance, means that my new (ish) car is costing me far less than my old car – now all I have to do is hope that the German tin lasts as long as the UK/US one!).

  6. You’re consuming about 29 kilowatt hours per day with the car to travel about 38 kilometers per day. If you were using a Nissan Leaf instead, the same distance would cost about 8 kilowatt hours per day (765 kJ/km according to the EPA). That’s better than a 70% energy reduction. Liquid fuels consumption would be more dramatically reduced by commuter vehicles switching motive power from gasoline to electricity and leaving habits intact than by imitating your habits but sticking with gasoline. Drivers would also save money in the long run — though like most technical solutions, it costs up front and pays back over years.

    If your electricity comes from thermal sources at assumed 1/3 efficiency, 8 kilowatt hours electric translates to back to 24 kilowatt hours per day of primary energy use — but still no liquid fuel consumption in most locales. If your utility sources a significant fraction of its energy from non-thermal sources, or you’ve got your own solar PV installed, the primary energy use reduction is more dramatic. Electric vehicles and intermittent renewables are two flavors that taste great together: instead of dispatching supply to match demand you can dispatch vehicle charging demand to match supply.

    On embedded energy: you’re not doing any great favors by dropping a working combustion vehicle for a new electric vehicle. But according to the US DOT, average vehicle lifetime is about 13 years. Everyone will have ample chance to replace an ICE vehicle with electric in the course of natural fleet turnover, at least in the 3% decline scenario.

    On range anxiety: I used to think I would need a plug-in hybrid too. A range of just 75-100 miles was too limiting. But then I looked back over the last 5 years and how many long distance trips I actually took. I only drove more than 70 miles per day 3 or 4 times a year. The 2012 Volt has a MSRP $4795 greater than the 2012 Leaf, plus it’s slightly less efficient in electric mode and still has the maintenance needs of an internal combustion engine. $4795 buys many car rentals and years of AAA membership to deal with planned or unplanned range problems. Finally, if you often need to drive more than 35 miles but less than 70 miles in a day, the Leaf offers substantially better liquid fuel savings; the Volt will burn gasoline in that range.

    • OTOH, how much fuel do you have to save at what price to make up for the higher cost of the electric car?

      Perhaps Tom should show willingness to change by spending more, the way he asks us to live in colder houses in the winter

      • Edmunds.com estimated it would take 7 years for the Leaf to pay for itself over the $9000 cheaper (conventional, gasoline-only) Versa, with $4/gallon gas and 15000 miles driven per year. That price comparison is after applying tax benefits to the Leaf MSRP. If gas drops to $3/gallon it takes 9 years to reach break even, or 5 years at $5/gallon.

        According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average male American driver drives 16,550 miles per year and the average female driver drives 13,476 miles per year.

        Obviously, electrifying a vehicle that isn’t driven much is going to lead to much longer payback times and proportionally lower fuel consumption benefits.

      • In our case:
        Insurance $1k/yr
        Purchase price: $800/yr (bought used)
        Gas $600/yr (we drive around 6,000mi or 10,000km/yr)
        Maint & lic plates: $500/yr est over it’s life
        If one isn’t driving a lot most of the costs are fixed at purchase time – the actual fuel isn’t quite noise in the equation, but it’s small. Double gas prices to to $10/US gal and the fuel component starts to matter; but it’s still small.

        I’d love to see a nice simple electric car with a 3hp engine (turbine ideally, IC is tolerable) to charge a small lead-acid battery. It was kind of done in the book Zero Carbon Car; although I wish that he could have found a 3 to 5 hp generator and would have run the heat from the generator to the cabin as we need heating 5 months of the year.
        By using a generator that runs nearly all of the time, one can effective double the milage, halve the emissions and provide heat for the cabin, and reduce the batteries down to a pair (?) of lead acid ones for 30 second acceleration.

    • I chose a Volt because I drive more than 70 miles every week in the summer – that and the peace of mind. 🙂 You make it sound like the Volt has maintenance equivalent to any other gas powered vehicle – the truth is that I’ve used 6% of the oil life in 7 months of ownership. At that rate, my first oil change will be in 2017. I look at the Volt as an electric without compromise, the lack of electric purity of its powertrain doesn’t bother me – its the perfect solution for right now. Although a Tesla Model S may be in my future…

    • Actually, for 38 km per day, why not ride a bike ? It’s really not a particularly difficult distance to ride each day, especially if you have something a little more aerodynamic than usual. I used this bike for a 60 km round trip commute. It took under an hour in each direction, even on days with snow on the ground, considerable headwinds, or rain. I now work from home, but not because the commute was too much.

  7. Having just watched the movie Gasland, natural gas is not a viable alternative energy source in my opinion.

    • A) Gasland describes shale gas extraction only.

      B) There still exists large reserves of ‘easy’ natural gas.

      C) Natural gas is produced naturally, discovering a viable way to harvest that production would mean that natural gas could be considered sustainable.

      The point isn’t that natural gas is a bad alternative energy source; rather that it is a useful replacement for liquid fuels.

      • More importantly, gas is “here”. Whereas most of the oil is in places where it takes a massive military presence to ensure availability.

        Not that I think gas is much of a solution.

  8. It has long been my position that it is not our relationship with energy that is broken, but our relationship with personal transportation.

    As long as we continue to live with the assumption that transporting ourselves (in groups of 1 or 2 individuals) wrapped in a 2 ton machine to places instead of objectively looking at ways to actively NOT transport ourselves the math will never work.

    Amazon (home delivery of – particularly – small goods) or Safeway home delivery would be an excellent case study for Do The Math. If we invert the transportation model for those things does the math work?

    However, more fundamentally, we need to stop thinking about work as someplace we go and transform it to an activity we do independent of location. While this won’t work for every occupation even a 30 or 40% reduction in commuters, coupled with a 30 to 40% reduction in climate controlled office space, would get us to your preferred factor-of-two solution.

    The reality is we could do that TODAY. The technology is there and all that is missing is the will (both societal and political).

    • It started so good…

      So, you’d have a 6 MPG delivery vehicle come to your house with, ahem, small package?

      Pushing a cart or pulling is still moving it. And guess what it takes?

      Replacing holler with a scream is not what our host is suggesting, but finding ways to occasionally be quiet.

      • qxk:
        “So, you’d have a 6 MPG delivery vehicle come to your house with, ahem, small package?”

        The delivery service could consolidate deliveries and could deliver your groceries at the same time as the groceries of 30 other people in your immediate area.

        If people are only getting “small packages” then a single truck run could conceivably deliver 100+ small packages to a single small area.

        There are computer algorithms which can calculate routes and can “bunch together” deliveries. Those algorithms can find the shortest overall route beforehand to use the least fuel. Such algorithms are already in use by FedEx and by shipping companies. Interestingly, there is no computer algorithm which will provably _always_ pick the _shortest_ possible route (google for “traveling salesman problem”), but current algorithms are very good.

        If gasoline were more expensive, it would even be possible to offer online discounts to customers who are willing to receive their groceries at the same time as other consumers near them. This would become more efficient and convenient as more people used it.

        -Tom S

        • Always interesting to read your comments. Home deliveries aren’t void of benefits, and you described several. But your set of assumptions is at odds with mine. Certainly, in a scenario where an individual household gave up one of its two cars and did majority of the shopping online, along with half of the neighborhood, the savings could be formidable. 

          But I’d anticipate a creature, Jevonus Monsterae rearing its ugly head and wrecking that party. An average person gaining extra leisure time in a day may be tempted… I don’t know, grab the car keys and go to see his friends? There’s much to say, but in the end another energy slave will be born, with all the concomitant economic activity. Not good. 

          Here’s a real story: a guy wanted to save the planet, and cancel his newspaper. He talked his wife into buying an iPad to read the news online. Now, whether the device’s embodied energy will ever offset the newspaper is beside the point – that couple ended up keeping both. Good friends of mine. 

          At the end, we’ll utilize all the newfound savings – even if there are any in case of Amazon et al (I’d debate that). We’ll find a way, it’s innate. 

    • I concur: I still don’t understand why I have to grocery shop. I buy pretty much the same stuff every week, and it would seem to me to be much more efficient if there was a subscription based service where the food was delivered on a weekly basis and charged direct to a credit card. I suspect most errands could be eliminated in a similar fashion.

      • Or, as is the norm in Europe where I’ve been living for the past few years, you have grocery stores within walking distance of a majority of homes, and, horror of horrors, you actually *walk to buy groceries*, like an *animal*. The liquid fuels problem in the US is also a civic planning problem, in that we’ve been building our cities for cars, not people, and that leads to today, where the assumption is that everyone has a car, which means we plan for car-based access, which means less-walkable neighborhoods, which means people need a car, which means we plan for car-based access…

        We can’t square that circle without first attacking the availability of transit, followed by demonstrating the utility of transit, followed by demand for cities where it is possible to get away with not requiring cars as the primary method of transportation.

        Call your legislators, folks 😀

        • It’s not just “call your legislators”. Top-down change will not work. Contact your local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. Offer money or time. Contact your local neighborhood association, show up to meetings, point out how you’d like your neighborhood to be more walkable or bikable. Contact your local businesses, let them know that you’ve walked or biked there, and that they should really work to accommate cyclists/peds. Contact your local business councils, let them know you give money to business that cater to peds or cyclists..

          It doesn’t have to be a concerted effort; when you happen to see a neighborhood meeting, show up and complain about the lack of sidewalks or cul-de-sacs without cut-throughs. Complain about the lack of traffic calming. When you’re at your favorite burrito shop, talk to the owner and suggest they put in a bike rack. Talk about how, for one parking spot, they can fit 8+ bikes; and lots of cities will install bike racks for free! And so on..

          Simply calling your legislator *may* make funds available for liveable streets projects, but that’s only part of the deal. The rest is convincing your neighbors that this sort of change is good, convincing businesses to cater to peds/cyclists, etc. That way, when your city decides to do something “drastic” like a road diet (which, despite the name, actually tends to benefit *all* road users), they’re not flooded by a sea of NIMBY complaints that cause them to think twice the next time they decide to implement something other than simply adding car lanes to a road.

          • Well, yes; “contact your legislators” was a jokingly-shorthand version of “become active in agitating for”. But to address the point: if there isn’t political buy-in on the civic planning level (so, yes, contacting governments, especially at the local level is a necessary step), then the decisions on infrastructure are going to favor the status quo.

  9. I took a job that was about a 10-12 minutes (one-way) commute from my house and was thrilled at the lower fuel costs and the reduced commute time. A year later, the company bought a new building that is 22 miles (one-way) from my house giving me a 35 minute (one-way) commute. There is no bus service so I’m stuck. It’s easy to say that in the future people will just have to drive less, but you can’t always predict where your job will be and it’s hard to just sell your house and uproot your family every time you change jobs. (I’m not a job hopper and have been in my current position for many years but most of us do change jobs from time to time).

    • This brings up the critical point to me. We can reduce voluntary driving like errands and vacations, but daily commutes are hard facts for a lot of families.

      The idea of giving up their good neighbors and nice schools for the kids to get a shorter commute is not acceptable to a lot of people, and I still believe that the daily commute makes up the big majority of transportation fuel usage.

      Anything that can directly target the daily commute to me would have the greatest impact on our fuel usage.

  10. How much of an energy savings would we get using grass-based, animal labor systems of farming, like those used by Joel Salatin? Not a ton of diesel spent that way, and 0 natural gas-based fertilizers used.

    • Traditional farm work animals have a large energy overhead since they have to be fed every day whether they work or not and most of the food they eat goes to maintaining resting metabolism.

  11. My own spreadsheet showing the Volt is cheaper to own than the average new car for the average person: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ageg_Pnricg9dGZTVW9ZTzFNWHJlMmhrNDh2TVZ6cXc#gid=0

    That’s not to say that buying a Volt will “save” you money – no new car will save you money. A $20k car that gets 300 MPG still won’t hold a candle to a $3k Civic, even when gas is $5/gallon. I bought a Volt because I wanted to reduce the amount of money I spend on *gasoline* – and I’ve reduced it by 94% (from a Lexus sedan). Americans are very much focused on upfront costs, this is how people wind up with “free” smart-phones with $90/month contracts.

    • Shhhh. You are not suppose to talk about the telco’s secret. They will find you.

      Tom needs to sell the pickup, buy more panels. Then trade in the other car for a Tesla S with the 85 kW battery! Holler!!

      If you need a pickup, they rent those at Home Depot.

      Long range, get a rental car. If it breaks down on the interstate, you only have to call the rental company and they bring you a new one.

      • While I hope the Telsa S can come out at less than 50,000 I doubt it. I loved the idea of the Tesla Roadster (especially the acceleration) except that it cost $109,000.

        To make matter worse it was based off a Lotus Elise which retailed for ~ 50,000.

        So a 59K jump to go to electric. Even at 10 bucks a gallon that is a whole lot of gas…

    • While I agree the Chevy Volt can make sense for some situations I think you are being a bit biased by comparing the Volt to the avg car price of 30K, while your comparison to the Chevy Cruze is valid since they are based on the same chassis.

      Even with your best case example you are only breaking even with the Cruize at 6 years of 13,500 mile. So a payoff period in miles of: 81,000 miles.

      I also notice you are only claiming to change the oil 5 times over 6 years in the Volt which would be every ~ 14 months. Most traditional oils should be change at least every 6 months even with low miles. Either that or you switch to full synthetic oil which doubles the cost of the oil change at most shops.

      The other issue I have is the worth of the car after 6 years. Most six year old cars with 81,000 miles are going to be perfectly fine. (my own car is 12 years old with 139,000 miles on original engine/transmission). But, I highly doubt a lithium battery pack is going to be in near as good of shape after 6 years. I admit I have little experience with the Lithium pack used in the Volt, but in the tech field I have yet to see a lithium battery hold more than 75% of its original capacity after 3-4 years (my experience while supporting 80 laptops and 25 phones at my job).

      • I traded a Lexus for a Volt, I don’t view the Cruze as competition, sorry. I included it in the spreadsheet to show that the Volt is only marginally more expensive. The Volt has a drivetrain (in EV mode) that is quieter and smoother (no shifting) than a Rolls Royce, what price do you put on that? The Volt has 273 ft-lbs of torque at 0 RPM, does a Cruze?

        Oil: The car is determining oil life for me. I’m burning less than 4 gallons a month right now. Oil doesn’t wear out in an engine that isn’t running. There is no reason at all to believe it needs to be changed more often.

        6 years is average new car ownership, and the Volt battery is warrantied to have 80% capacity after 8 years / 100k miles, so at 6 years the battery is still under warranty. You can buy a brand new battery right now for $2999 from the GM parts catalog, that price is likely to be lower in 8 years. The Volt manages its battery differently than any device you’ve likely encountered. Its never fully charged or fully discharged – you only have access to 10.4 KWh of its 16 KWh potential. They cycle batteries in their test center 24 hours a day, they’re obviously confident it won’t be a problem. Hyundai is now offering lifetime warranties on their hybrid car batteries, they’re confident they’ll last 300k miles. My residual calculation is obviously speculative, but I have no reason to believe that a car which uses little to no gas will have less than average residual value 6 years in the future.

        • I had not realized they had a 8 year/100k warranty on the battery and that the price actually dropped to 3 grand for the battery pack. Can I ask where you got the information that the pack is down to $3k? I know the projections before it released had the pack at $8-9K. And a quick Google search did not turn up an up to date price information.

          If the battery pack is in fact that cheap, I wonder why the car is still relatively expensive. I don’t believe the electric drive-train would be that expensive since it is a series hybrid rather than a parallel hybrid, so I wonder where the extra cost is coming from. Given their low sales, if they could drop the price I think they would.

          When I made my earlier comment I was thinking more in terms of Tesla’s 3 year/ 36k warranty with its nasty replacement cost of 12 grand. So if the warranty and price holds, I yield Sir. 🙂

        • With regen braking in the Volt (or other hybrid) I believe you also owe yourself a savings of one brake job over the six years versus a traditional ICE vehicle, at ~$400/brake job.

          Note the maintenance savings is becomes very significant for the hard driven metro fleet vehicles, and seems to be quietly pushing sales for fleet metro trucks/vans, etc, where long range is never an issue.

  12. One summer, long ago, I was a newly minted engineer and a newly married man. We lived that summer and fall in a cottage by a pretty lake; it was great. I had a 10-mi commute each way. For complex reasons, all our shopping was done on Saturday afternoon or it was not done. And we never ran out of anything.

    With winter coming on, tricky/snowy roads, my wife expecting, we moved into town, where we had two supermarkets, two drugstores & other stores within easy walking distance, and a convenience store down the block. Hardly a day went by without at least one shopping trip.

    It makes one wonder about academic significance; both of us graduated with high-gradepoint honors. But I think we were/are typical. I could explain further, but I have to get to the store for some supper ingredients we forgot.

  13. Tom,

    While I certainly think it’s an excellent idea to look for ways to increase efficiency, and while I’ve already personally done a great deal towards that end…you yourself have made clear that we we simply can’t possibly save ourselves out of this crisis.

    Indeed, our only hope for the future is to spend our way out of it.

    Yes, yes. Growth is unsustainable. But we’re dead if we try to limp along as long as possible on fossil fuels. What we really need is one last growth spurt that gets us past fossil fuels, past the energy trap, and onto a solar-powered plateau that we can enjoy, growth-free, until the Sun burns out in a few billion years.

    It’s also the only plausible exit strategy, too. I think you know full well that you’re kidding yourself by thinking that Americans will ever adopt en masse the types of austerity measures you’ve adopted for yourself short of the sort of deep economic meltdown that we’d be unable to recover from.

    The good news? Solar is an amazingly fantastic financial investment. For most households, it pays the equivalent of 8% – 10% annually — far better than you can get in the market these days, let alone in the bank. Check with your financial advisor about early withdrawl penalties, but pretty much everybody with an IRA or 401(k) should already have raided it to pay for a solar-covered roof.

    (That would be the cue for Libertarians to whine about how we’re somehow stealing from the utilities and the government by making use of rebates and credits, but the fact is that the utilities themselves, thanks to the rate structures, are making huge profits off of their solar customers, and the payoff to society from government subsidies is even more significant fiscally.)

    I don’t know what the incentive scene is like for businesses, but I strongly suspect that the ROI for solar falls easily into the “no-brainer” category for capital investments, probably handily beating out things like new printing presses or forklifts or what-not.

    Yes, eventually the grid will need upgrades to handle this sort of a distributed generation method, and we’ll still need overnight baseload capacity (or batteries) and all the rest. But that’s really no different from business-as-usual for as long as we’ve had a grid, considering that populations are always moving and changing their electricity demands. We already have the business and social infrastructure to handle these changes; it’s a well-solved problem, one that the power companies already deal with every day. That’s their job, and what their shareholders judge them on.

    So, by all means. Drive less, eat locally, do more with less. That’s an excellent financial strategy, too, and it often results in better quality of life.

    But conservation is the icing on the cake.

    The main course, the one that will actually build a healthy and strong public body, is new solar installations.



  14. And to make the math work even better in favor of public transportation, the US need to tax gasoline at the same rate as in most European countries. Once you force people to pay $10 a gallon, you will start to see people move to cities in big numbers. It is already happening in the US amongst the highly educated professionals.

    Many high tech startups are in SF, NYC, Portland, and Seattle for a reason. A young educated workforce live there. They’re not 50 miles out in the suburbs.

    I live in Switzerland and I don’t have a car. Buses and trains work just fine. This lifestyle is only possible with a denser population.

    • TL,

      Re: $10 gas, I seriously doubt you could offer a persuasive argument as to why Americans should vote to increase their gas taxes by $6+ a gallon. Even a $1 increase would be an enormous political challenge. $6 is a fantasy.

      It’s true that the U.S. population is becoming increasingly urbanized (urban vs. rural), but the overwhelmingly dominant form of urbanization is low-density and car-oriented, not high-density and public transit-oriented. Far more Americans are moving to low-density suburbs than high-density cities. New York City, for example, suffered a net loss of over a million domestic migrants between 2000 and 2010. To the extent that American cities are maintaining or growing their populations, it is mainly because of (foreign) immigration, not because people already living in the U.S. are moving into cities from the suburbs. Cities tend to be magnets for immigrants because they have established immigrant communities, lots of low-skill jobs, and more extensive public services.

      As for the tech industry, ground zero is Silicon Valley, a collection of low-density, car-oriented urban areas south of San Francisco. The worksites of the big tech companies — Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. — are sprawling, campus-like office parks surrounded by acres of parking. Downtown office space in expensive cities like SF and New York may work for a small startup with just a few employees, but most large tech companies need to locate where office space is cheaper and more accessible.

      • @Jamestown: The arguments are very persuasive, but if people don’t want to hear them, they don’t want to hear them. The entire automobile transportation complex (roads, parking lots, fuels) has been subsidized for decades, and what most Americans pay to drive is not reflective of actual costs. A few examples:

        1) Lack of a carbon tax. ‘Nuff said.

        2) Not having to pay fair market rates for parking in most localities. Donald Shoup of UCLA is probably the world’s leading expert in this area; here’s a nice summary of his 800 page opus The High Cost of Free Parking.

        3) Road wear can be approximated as the fourth power of vehicle weight divided by the number of axles. Taxes that pay for road wear, however, do not account for this fourth power relationship. Big-rigs, RVs, garbage trucks, etc. are not paying their fair share, even after considering they pay more in gas taxes due to their lower fuel efficiency. This arrangement also amounts to a huge subsidy for the trucking industry. See this blog post for more details.

        4) Lack of congestion pricing in most U.S. cities. Motorists don’t directly pay for using a highway at rush hour, so we end up with wasted gas, wasted time, etc. Economist Thomas Sowell outlines this argument in more detail in Economic Facts and Fallacies.

        My point is that driving is generally too cheap and that the costs are unfairly allocated, not that raising the gasoline tax is necessarily the appropriate remedy.

        • I don’t find any of your “arguments” remotely persuasive.

          1) The words “lack of a carbon tax” is not an argument at all, let alone an argument for a $6 increase in the gas tax.

          2) The value of public parking subsidies isn’t remotely close to a $6 per gallon gas tax. If these subsidies are unjustified (you haven’t offered any argument that they are), the proper way to reduce or eliminate them would be to raise rates for public parking, not to increase the gas tax.

          3) If large and heavy vehicles are not paying taxes and fees commensurate with their road costs, the proper way to address that is to raise their vehicle registration fees, not to raise the gas tax.

          4) Again, the way to price congestion is with a congestion fee, not a gas tax. A gas tax makes no sense as a congestion fee because it applies to all vehicles regardless of how much congestion they cause.

          By the way, public transit is subsidized at a rate of about 70 cents on the dollar. Fares cover only a small fraction of the costs. If you seriously want to apply full market pricing to motorized transportation, bus and train fares will need to triple or quadruple to cover the costs of those services (and increase even more if you want to internalize the costs of negative externalities like carbon emissions). What do you think would happen to the (already tiny) market for public transit if fares were quadrupled?

          • 1) Burning gasoline causes negative externalities aka pollution: local pollution like particulates and ozone and global pollution like CO2. These have real costs in damage to health and the environment and property values. Being able to dump this pollution in the air without charge is a implicit subsidy, the total magnitude of which is unknown. Every time you drive, you’re dumping your waste in your neighbors and the human race for free. (Same is true for using fossil fuel electricity, of course.)

            It’s true that the other points call for other charges,not gas tax — so true that the person you’re replying to said so outright. The broader point is that driving and car-centered culture enjoys many subsidies, including ones not mentioned.

            Public transit subsidies aren’t nearly so simple. For one thing, more ridership would mean more fare revenue, thus more coverage without raising fares. For another, in most of the US public transit is explicitly a social service like welfare, providing options for people who can’t drive; complaining that it doesn’t support itself is like complaining food stamps don’t. And, being meant for poor people, the options provided are crappy. A train system that ran every 10 minutes instead of every 30 would seem to cost 3x as much, but might attract many more riders by virtue of being frequent enough to be useful. (Also, it wouldn’t cost 3x as much, since the rails would be a fixed cost. The more you use the rails, the cheaper per ride they get.)

            Urban trains and trolleybuses are electric, so their power may or may not have any carbon emissions to account for.

          • @Jamestown: You ignored the last sentence of my post. I misinterpreted your original post as implying that Americans would be unwilling to support policies that would make driving more expensive (as a gas tax would do). My overall point is that driving (broadly defined) is too cheap in much of the United States and the costs are not fairly allocated.

            The vehicle registration fee is one way of pricing in road wear, but it is insufficient because it does not take into account three key variables: road design (the fourth power is for highway-grade roads, but I’ve seen studies where wear can go as the fifth or sixth power depending on the roadbed), variable vehicle weight (if you’re hauling loads), and of course total miles driven on each type of road. A registration fee would be easier and simpler than, say, using a GIS, GPS data, and weigh station measurements to assess a per-mile fee for large commercial vehicles, even if the latter is fairer.

            As for a carbon tax: CO2 emissions are an externality that has yet to be meaningfully priced in to driving, flying, etc. Point being, users of fuel sources that emit CO2 should have to pay for it in some fashion, which would make driving ICE vehicles more expensive.

          • Damien RS,

            The claim I was rebutting is that gas taxes should be increased by $6 per gallon (or anything close to that amount). For the reasons I explained, none of the arguments Rich_P offered even come close to justifying such a policy, or any other policy that would increase the cost of driving by an equivalent amount. No serious estimate of the cost of carbon emissions, for example, is more than a small fraction of that amount.

            With respect to public transit, if subsidies are to be eliminated from motorized transportation, then the cost of using transit would increase enormously, far more than the cost of driving. Eliminating just the direct public subsidies to transit would require fares to triple or more. Internalizing the costs of pollution and other externalities would increase fares even more. You suggest that transit ridership could be increased dramatically without any increase in costs, thereby allowing subsidies to be dramatically reduced without cutting services, but you offer no policy proposal for achieving that goal.

            You argue that some subsidies to transit may be justified on social welfare grounds (to improve mobility for the poor, for example). But the same argument would justify some subsidies for cars. Poor people depend on cars far more than they depend on mass transit. And if the goal is to subsidize transportation for the poor, the economically efficient policy would be to provide a means-tested subsidy to poor people directly and let them use it in whatever way works best for their particular situation. Not to subsidize all transit users regardless of income.

          • Rich_P,

            My overall point is that driving (broadly defined) is too cheap in much of the United States and the costs are not fairly allocated.

            If driving is too cheap, then public transit is way, way too cheap. Again, transit is subsidized at a rate of more than 70 cents on the dollar, even before you count the cost of CO2 emissions and other externalities. Driving subsidies are only a small fraction of this amount.

            There is no serious potential to achieve large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions from motorized transportartion during the foreseeable future by substituting public transit for driving. The only realistic way of achieving such reductions is cleaner cars. That’s where our focus should be.

          • Also, traffic accident rate is a lot higher than the transit accident rate, killing 30-40,000 people a year, for a social cost of $200-300 billion a year. Add that to an estimated $300 billion/year subsidy of free marking, and unknown health and pollution costs, and we’re talking a lot of money.

            Also, transit subsidies are (a) small compared to road expenditures and (b) help drivers. At least where a decent fraction of commutes, even 10%, are by transit, those are people who aren’t driving, who are off the road and not competing for parking. If you’re a driver in a remotely congested area you should *want* people taking transit, out of your way.

            Hard to monetize, but driving is also supported by non-inevitable decisions to prioritize driving. Used to be roads were open to all, a mess of pedestrians and horses and carts, then bicycles and streetcars. Then cars came. They could have stayed mixed with everyone else, crawling along at safe speeds; they’d be a lot less attractive then. But instead we decided to clear the roads and let them zoom along.

          • Jamestown: the urban poor depend on transit disproportionately relative to cars. It’s one reason why poor, especially immigrants, end up in cities.

            Climate costs and proper gas tax: I’ve seen estimates from 20 cents to 2 dollars a gallon. These tend to be limited by what they can conservatively monetize; they’re not complete estimates.

            I didn’t “suggest that transit ridership could be increased dramatically without any increase in costs,” I suggested that ridership could be increases disproportionately relative to costs, e.g. spend 3x as much, get 8x as much ridership, maybe. Though one way to costlessly increase ridership would be to remove car subsidies.

            If you remove all subsidies, hard to say what would happen. Third world megacities might provide an example of an outcome to avoid.

            “public transit is subsidized at a rate of about 70 cents on the dollar”

            As an average figure, maybe. It’s far from uniform; in Hong Kong zero-fare transit is profitable via increased in land values, with the transit company owning land near stations.

            “if the goal is to subsidize transportation for the poor, the economically efficient policy would be to provide a means-tested subsidy to poor people directly and let them use it in whatever way works best for their particular situation.”

            If you have blind faith in markets, yes. This doesn’t work if a good solution can’t be incrementally purchased by individuals. A good rail system has a lot going for it, such as maximal space and energy efficiency, but it’s also something you have to socially commit to, not get a bit more of it because of a bit more consumer spending.

            But the same is true of cars; a good road network, with confidence that there’s asphalt connecting everywhere, and parking spaces to put your cars, and lights giving you good speed, and gas stations whereever you need them, that’s a big social commitment too, one which creates an attractive context for cars. If we didn’t have an interstate highway system but had kept the old rail network, if we didn’t have free curbside parking everywhere, if pedestrians had the same rights of road use they did in 1900, then driving wouldn’t be nearly so attractive.

            “There is no serious potential to achieve large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions from motorized transportartion during the foreseeable future by substituting public transit for driving.”

            The technical potential is totally there. Urban rail is like 80x more energy efficient than single-occupancy cars and can readily use carbon-free power. The obstacles are political and economic (sunk cost.)

          • Damien RS

            The cost of automobile accidents is mostly internalized through insurance. Auto insurance is a $200+ billion a year industry. That isn’t an externality. The cost is paid by automobile users (about $1,000 per vehicle per year, on average). All motorized transportation causes pollution. Diesel transit buses and trains emit pollution directly from their engines. Electric rail transit causes pollution by consuming electricity generated by burning coal, oil or gas. Nuclear, hydro and renewables also have environmental costs that are not reflected in their market prices, as well as receiving huge direct subsidies. I don’t know what “free marking” means. And I’m not sure what “health costs” is supposed to refer to, exactly.

            But all these costs are minor in comparison to the elephant in the room that you’re ignoring: the enormous direct public subsidies used to build transit infrastructure, purchase buses and trains, pay drivers and mechanics, purchase fuel, and so on. Those subsidies alone amount to 70 cents on the dollar (which is about 70 cents per passenger-mile). Drivers do not receive any remotely comparable subsidy. There’s simply no way you can plausibly argue that subsidies encourage driving over using public transit.

          • Damien RS,

            Climate costs and proper gas tax: I’ve seen estimates from 20 cents to 2 dollars a gallon.

            A mid-range estimate is about $30 per ton of CO2, which translates to about 30 cents per gallon of gas. That’s far too small have a large impact on demand. Of course, if we’re going to make people pay the costs of their carbon emissions, then bus and train users must also pay their carbon costs (in addition to the 70 cents per mile they currently get in direct subsidies).

            I suggested that ridership could be increases disproportionately relative to costs, e.g. spend 3x as much, get 8x as much ridership, maybe. Though one way to costlessly increase ridership would be to remove car subsidies.

            How exactly do you propose to generate 8x as much ridership from 3x as much spending? The ratio of ridership increase to spending increase is likely to be *less* than one, not more. Transit is generally subject to diminishing returns. As new routes are added or existing routes are extended into less densely-populated areas, demand goes down and the cost per rider goes up. As for subsidies, again, eliminating transportation subsidies would increase the cost of using transit far more than it would increase the cost of using cars. The average bus or train ride for which the rider pays $1-2 costs more like $4-6 to provide. The rest is paid by taxpayers. No remotely comparable subsidy is provided to car users.

          • Damien,

            Where are you getting that “80x more energy efficient” from? According to the DoE’s Transportation Energy Data Book (Table 2.12), rail transit is only about 30% more energy efficient than cars and personal trucks (~2500 Btu per passenger-mile for rail vs. ~3600 for autos).

            But your comparison is irrelevant anyway. Over any reasonably foreseeable timescale (say, the next 50 years) rail transit could not possibly substitute for automobiles for more than a tiny fraction of urban travel. It’s far too expensive. Rail is economically feasible only on a very small number of routes that have very high demand. That’s why the overwhelming majority of transit services are bus routes, not rail. There’s really only one large rail transit system in the U.S. (the New York subway). It carries more passengers than all other rail transit lines combined. And even if large-scale substitution of rail transit for cars were economically feasible, there’s no evidence that it’s politically or socially feasible. The advantages of cars — speed, comfort, convenience, privacy, flexibility, the ability to carry cargo, the ability to travel more easily with others, and so on — are simply too great for transit to compete effectively as general-purpose urban transportation.

    • You don’t need European-level density; I live in Canada and get by just fine by bike, bus and train.
      Most North American cities are dense enough, if you exclude the exurbs, and are willing to put in the effort.

  15. Please remember how we pay for roads in most of the country – gas taxes. Because they are typically assessed per gallon purchased, increased in fuel efficiency or movment to alternative fuels (e.g. electricity) reduce/eliminate revenue. While it is true that a volt/leaf/civic or similar car is not a significant factor in the expected road life (trucks and other heavy vehicles are orders of magnitude more impactful on road life), the money is being used to subsidise the larger vehicles’ impact. This loss will have to be made up somehow unless you assume a reduction in road construction cost or longer service lives for roads. That only happes if 1) we accept greater deterioration in our roads or 2) heavy vehicles get replaced with lighter ones, an expense that is not trivial and will be paid by the end user of whatever product in on the truck. Please don’t think I’m advocating the preservation of the status quo at any cost, just pointing out one more complication that will need to be dealt with.

    Also, for those that advocate the densifying of the population to reduce fuel usage, there are unintended consequences with that. Particularly, the various utility systems are currently designed to serve suburban population densities. If you move everyone into a Manhattan style density then we would need to reconstruct water, sewer and electrical utilites, at no small cost. The much more challenging problem is if half the suburbanites move downtown. Trying to maintain the suburban grids with half the customers is not viable,nor is reconstructing the city center grids for the increased,albiet less than maximum, densities. If cities like New York grow up that way then the infrastructure is built to accomodate the population, but Detroit serves as the poster child of what happens to utilities when suburbia is (almost) vacated.

    None of what I wrote changes the fact that we have an addiction to driving that is not sustainable with our available resources. I am only trying to share what I learned during my first undergraduate degree (biology). After four years of memorizing latin names for all sorts of creatures I realized that the entire program can be summed up into 1) everything is connected to everything else and 2) there is no such thing as a free beer (lunch)

    • US gas taxes also suffer from not having been adjusted for inflations since 1993, so they’re down 1/3 in real terms just from that, never mind rising efficiency. And yeah, there’ve already been articles on this being a problem for the highway fund.

  16. When I lived in San Francisco I used to take the trolley-buses, which are basically electric buses connected to wires overhead. I think that trolley buses should be used more. Those buses don’t use any liquid fuel. Although the electricity in California is largely generated from Natural Gas, the energy comes from power plant turbines which are more than twice as efficient as the motors in diesel buses. Granted, there are modest electrical losses from transmission (5% or so), but you’re still way ahead.

    Trolley buses do not require expensive infrastructure. IIRC the overhead wires cost $3 million per mile, which is not expensive for desnsely-populated areas. Big intersections with traffic lights cost more than $1M.

    I also really like the idea of ultracapacitor buses. These buses have ultracapacitors that can store enough energy to take the bus 5-6 miles. The buses recharge at every bus stop by connecting to an overhead recharger. At each stop, the buses gather enough energy to make it to the next stop. Unlike batteries, ultacapacitors can be recharged very quickly and often, without degradation. Ultracapacitors have far lower energy storage than batteries–only enough energy to take the bus 5-6 miles–but that’s OK if you have to stop at every bus stop anyway and can recharge there.

    Here’s an article on ultracapacitor buses:

    Ultracapacitor buses might allow us to avoid even the fairly modest $3 million/mile which trolley buses impose, and might be cheaper than diesel buses are now for many routes.

    -Tom S

    • I think SF’s buses run on municipal hydropower, but that’s a local quirk. They also have appeal because of the power for going up the steep hills. Not all of SF’s buses are trolleybuses. They are neat, though. No mass spent on fuel tank or batteries, high power motor, really impressive acceleration.

      Ultracap buses sound interesting.

        • Cable cars aren’t trolleybuses. There’s only 2-3 cable car lines, largely for tourists (and costing more than the rest of Muni.)

  17. Perhaps this is for another post, but you ought to look into the math for bicycling and small electric scooters. The various obstacles include weather, topography, distance, and load size, but in practice people who don’t bike tend to overestimate their importance (much as they overlook the bus). You can’t work on a laptop on a bike, but some of us have tried to use a laptop on a bus and discovered how easy it is to get carsick. Given routes that don’t suck, a 10-mile commute is acceptable on a bicycle; that’s not all commutes, but it’s a lot of commutes, and if your commute is shorter than that it will be a long time before you can make that e-car pay for itself. Slower riders or more impatient riders with a 10-mile commute might want to use a scooter instead to get there a little faster.

    Run through a human, a bicycle-sized (and speed) vehicle provides about 600 mpg, subject to the EROEI of the food the human eats (varies from 1:40 for beef protein to 5:1 for solar-cooked oatmeal; more plausibly, 1:4.1 for 1% skim milk to 1.3:1 for potatoes). Humans are only about 25% efficient; an electric scooter or motor-assist fed from solar panels (plausible, given scooter-sized batteries) might get 1800 miles per “gallon” (30-35kWH) (assuming 75% system efficiency). Or you can trade some of that efficiency for speed, to add to your range. This is generally far more efficient than a city bus, and it is all boring technology that is already deployed and available retail.

    This is assuming that you’re talking about “math”, of course, and not the crazy ideas that people have about what is necessary and appropriate for transporting their ever-widening butts from point A to point B.

    • Totally agree.

      The car must be one of the most in-efficient means of transport ever invented; why move > 1000 kG of glass plastic and steel to transport an 80 kG human being – all just in case you want to go to the shops for an extra 10 kG of shopping!!!

      Get rid of that unnecessary 1000 kG, slow down to 30 mph (speed for most average suburban commutes) and watch your efficiency soar. Electric scooters are already on the market that do 30 – 40 miles on a charge, and cost < £1500. If they had reasonable storage area, this would be the ideal solution for most commuters, with the occasional car for long journeys.

  18. What about possibilities for short range wireless power transfer. See this Wikipedia page for a group in Korea that uses inductive coupling to power electric vehicles on the highway http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inductive_charging#section_4. I can imagine charging cables being placed beneath the roadway of major highways to greatly expand the range of electric vehicles, with the battery taking over once you get off the interstate. I read that later versions of the leaf will use this technology to let you charge the car in your garage without a power cable (kind of like an electric toothbrush). I can imagine issues with capital cost and efficiency limiting the technology, but still it seems interesting.

  19. I used to be really gung ho about EV’s but I’ve now come to realize, as Tom points out, that the scale and timing of the transition won’t be nearly enough. But I am still gung ho about them!

    For years I refused to buy an ICE and relied fully on transit and bicycle (not difficult in Vancouver). Finally I got my Leaf and I don’t regret that for a second! Sorry to say it, but getting off the bus every day has improved my life. I do so many different things and my car enables that. Plus I get better fuel economy than the bus. I use about 8 kW-hr a day, and I think there have been about 5 days in the last 4 months when I haven’t driven it. And I have all these ideas for modding it to put extended range trailers on it, etc. It’s a really neat feeling to be able to capture your own energy from the sun and power your own car with it!

    And I don’t feel guilty about the embedded energy in the car. I’m doing it for the future! I am a believer that we need to be using any and all remaining fossil fuels to be rolling out renewable infrastructure for the future, or the results of a societal collapse from not doing so may be worse than the FF extraction itself. It may be too late for that now though, regardless.

    A couple points:
    I think that when Peak Oil is priced into the market, the price of gasoline and cars will shoot up. Therefore, EV’s will hold their value better than ICE’s will. Plus they will last much longer, only needing battery replacement after 10 years.

    Regarding sagging Volt sales, that probably has more to do with the fact that one caught fire two weeks after it was destructively tested. Faux News got ahold of this and blasted the airwaves with anti-Volt propaganda. That has passed and now Volt sales are apparently back up.

    • Sorry to rain on your parade, but if you are ‘doing it for the future’ by buying the Nissan Leaf’, you would be sadly mistaken.

      Yes you’re using less gasoline, but you are using up a lot more rare-earth metals than a personal driving a conventional car.


      The complete environmental destruction happening in China is the direct result of these high tech “green” energy technologies such as wind turbines and electric and hybrid cars.

      If you really want to do something for the future, I suggest that you move to a place where you can get to work, buy food, and enjoy the outdoors by walking or taking public transit.

      Here is are some pictures that ALL of us are partly responsible for. You like your iPhone, and iPads and electric/hybrid cars and wind turbines? It all comes from a place that’s turning into hell on earth:


      Make sure you look at all the pictures. Especially of the children growing up in such a place all because we all want iPhones and highly efficient batteries and wind turbines.

      • Is the environmental and human destruction a necessary consequence of mining rare earth elements, or merely how things currently get done in China? I understand that oil mining is pretty crappy in Nigeria, and coal mining has historically been quite a dangerous and dirty job.

        We do have a secondary problem, which is whether there are enough of the rare earth elements (and enough lithium, and who knows what other materials) to replace fueled automobiles with battery-powered automobiles (and then sell even more of those automobiles to upwardly mobile Indians and Chinese, as well as other countries), without addressing the fundamental waste of carrying 200 lbs of cargo in 2000+ lbs of car.

      • Rare earth metals do not get “used up.” When a car’s useful life is over, all the metals can be recycled. It’s a lot harder to turn tailpipe exhaust back into gasoline.

        Alternatives to fossil fuels have a non-zero environmental impact, but they’re still a lot better than burning oil and gas. Opposing them because they are not actually *perfect* is just supporting dirtier business as usual.

      • “The complete environmental destruction happening in China is the direct result of these high tech “green” energy technologies”

        That’s why I said WE need to be using our remaining fossil fuels. The US has huge coal reserves that it could use to this end and things are done “cleaner” over here, although I’m not in any way arguing that it would be clean to extract and refine all that coal. I’m saying that the alternative, of reverting back to a medieval economy with virtually no vehicular mobility, would be worse, because then society would crumble.

        Once the gross currency imbalance between the US dollar and the rest of the world is corrected then we may get some manufacturing moving back to the US. Actually, Nissan is planning to manufacture US Leafs in Tennessee next year.

        I am as upset about our predicament as anyone is. I see the millions of species of life going extinct and all the people that will be thrown into poverty and war, and it saddens me beyond words. But I have to accept what is going to happen and argue in favour of pursuing the “best of the worst” options going forward.

        “If you really want to do something for the future, I suggest that you move to a place where you can get to work, buy food, and enjoy the outdoors by walking or taking public transit.”

        So that I can leave those fossil fuels for someone else to burn in an ICE? No way, I’m going to use my purchasing power to convert as much of the existing FF’s over to renewable infrastructure as I can, while I can. And BTW, the new EV’s out now like the Leaf don’t use rare earths in the motors because they have AC induction motors. Of course there may be shortages of other metals for the batteries, but wake me up when that becomes restrictive, because I have noticed that the alternative, oil, is running out even faster.

        • Actually I did a bit more searching and the Leaf has an AC synchronous motor which may or may use rare earths (conflicting reports out there). But the Tesla Roadster uses an induction motor which doesn’t use them, so it’s definitely possible to make an efficient motor without rare earths. Interestingly, the Tesla motor is the size of a watermelon, and the car is one of the fastest street legal cars in the world. Shows you what an electric motor can do.

          • Correct, the advantage provided by rare earth based magnets for electric motors is mainly size, i.e. power density, not efficiency.

  20. There are cars which already do 3 L/100Km. See

    This version of the Audi A2 won the “Nordic Eco Run” fuel economy race in 2003, with a consumption of 2.62 L/100 km (107.8 mpg-imp; 89.8 mpg-US).

    What is extremely important is the weight of the car (in the VW/Audi case is roughly 850 Kg) and the drag coefficient (for higher speeds).

    My 1982 BMW 3 series had ~1050 Kg. The current generation has ~1500 Kg. That is a 50% increase. However, the engines got better and the consumption is about the same.

  21. Talking about carpooling: In Germany it it quite common for people to take somebody along for a ride by advertising their trip online.

    A lot of Germans I have met use this system to get somewhere (especially for trips between the big cities).

  22. Most of the upcoming decline in liquid energy use may in the event be involuntary. See http://www.oftwominds.com/blogfeb12/energy-consumption-dropping02-12.html . So might be the case for other energy use.

    One would hope that if a majority of the population is cut off from earning a living that the “haves” would be decent enough to send them food and medicine via optimized delivery systems.

    Cain asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    Do you know the answer?

  23. I am fascinated by the “I drive more than 20 miles per day once a year, therefore I cannot use a pure electric car” argument. I accept the ‘convenience’ argument. Electric cars are devoted to weight reduction for efficiency; then dragging around the weight of a gas motor all year for the occasional over-range trip seems bizarre.

    The obvious solution is a rental car; the next option would be a generator trailer from, say, Uhaul. I’m curious what the minimum generator capacity would be for an average highway trip; and can these electric cars drive while ‘plugged in’?

    I have a bicycle pusher trailer, most days I leave behind the 25 kg motor & ride a ‘pure bike’ When I go to the market I take the trailer to carry 50 kg of watermelons etc. It seems like an optimal solution.


    • The extra weight has very little to do with efficiency, its not a dominant factor – you can read more about it in the 100 MPG Car post on this site. Tossing out the 450 lbs would probably have a 5% impact on the electric driving efficiency – which is already completely dependent on driving style and HVAC use. Sometimes I get 46 miles on a charge (warm day, no HVAC use), and sometimes I get 25 miles on a charge (cold day, lots of heater use).

      The nice thing about the Volt is that I can have an EV car almost all the time (86% so far), and yet I don’t have to change *anything* about my lifestyle. Using a rental car sounds good, but thinking you can always predict when you’ll need one is optimistic.

      • I’m not sure how you got that conclusion from the 100mpg post.

        presumably the electric range is most used for city driving: commuting, shopping etc with frequent stopping and acceleration and low top speed, where energy consumption is completely dominated by weight instead of air resistance. Since the electric drive train is almost equally efficient at all speeds, reducing vehicle weigth by 20% means an almost equal reduction in consumption.

        Likewise your point that range is heavily influenced by driving style and HVAC use only demonstrates that those use a lot of energy and make no statement whatsoever about the influence of vehicle weight. If anything they do the opposite: If there was less weight to heat and accelerate, driving style and heating should have a smaller influence.

        If you are commuting by highway then you are right of course.

        • “presumably the electric range is most used for city driving”

          Why presume that? The Volt is capable of 100 MPH under electric power alone. 65% of my driving is at 60 MPH, the rest is 35-45 MPH on side roads. The Volt isn’t marketed as, nor was it designed to be, a “city car” alone.

          The engine/exhaust/gas tank probably weigh around 450 lbs. The Volt curb weight is about 3900, let’s call it 4075 with a driver. So you could drop 11% of the weight, not 20%. Of course you’d be left with an electric only car with a range of 25-45 miles depending on if you used the heater or not, which of course is an unusable vehicle for just about anyone. More than likely you’d need to double the size of the battery – adding 435 lbs back to the car, and you’d still have a limited range of 50-90 miles.

          The HVAC requirements would be *exactly* the same – my car isn’t heating / cooling the engine block, exhaust system and gas tank! HVAC energy use is dependent on the volume of air inside the cabin and the temperature difference that needs to be created. Neither of which have anything to do with weight.

          • “””More than likely you’d need to double the size of the battery – adding 435 lbs back to the car, and you’d still have a limited range of 50-90 miles.”””

            Much less battery mass would be required. As you know most of the Volt’s battery is unused during a cycle (~40 mi) to boost cycle life. A longer range battery (i.e Leaf 75-100 miles) necessarily experiences fewer cycles, and so is designed to use most all of the battery capacity. Thus the Leaf’s battery _pack_ mass is 660 lbs*, not 900 lbs. This is a trade off made in Volt’s design.

            *Note the 25 kWh @ 140 Wh/kg in the Leaf’s battery requires 377 lbs, so there’s much more than electro-chemical battery in what is commonly referred to as the Leaf’s battery *pack*. Same for the Volt.

  24. Tom,

    I too am of the mind that my 1974 Ford F100 that gets 12mpg is one of the best fuel efficiency investment I’ve made. It’s used perhaps 15 days a year. Many people here in N Texas buy a truck because they “need” a truck (and agreed, sometimes they do need a truck), but then use it primarily as a daily commuter. The most efficient vehicle for the job is also usually the right vehicle for the job. Granted, owning multiple vehicles is not an option for some people, but it is for many.

    And a compliment to your readers. I don’t know how heavily you moderate, but your comments section is the most civil and intelligent I’ve ever encountered. Well done Tom and readers.

  25. If the fleet ran entirely on liquid fuels, it would get 25 MPG per passenger. Still better than the U.S. fleet average personal car, but not by a large margin.

    I don’t agree. I think that 25MPG per passenger is far better than the U.S. fleet average car, if we assume that those cars run combined city/highway.

    We must compare MPG in the same conditions. Those bus 25MPG per passenger should be compared to city MPG on personal cars. Your pick-up truck will get less than 30 MPG in the city.

    But in fact, it’s quite complicated to predict overall system efficiency when shifting ways of transportation. Another choice would be to move house near work or, vice-versa, trying to find a job near home. Yes, yet a harder choice.

  26. The problem I have with Gas to Electric comparisons is NOT amortizing the cost of replacing the batteries when depleted. Sure the cost of electricity is very low compared to fossil fuels (right now), but it is ridiculous to compare an engine (ICE) that has a 300,000 to 1,000,000 mile life expectancy to batteries that have 1/10 the energy density, and a comparable life expectancy. These factors don’t appear to be considered in this post, or the earlier MPG for electric cars. If the electric utilities are forced to upgrade the grid to accommodate an upsurge in EV’s, someone is going to pay for that, eventually. Charging an EV on a daily basis is going to put most users into upper tiers of electric rates. Another factor that seems to get left out of the comparison calcs.

    I could argue the flipside by building a nuclear car. (Or fords semi-attempt at the nucleon in 1958) A 20 year fuel supply would make it lowest GPM of any fuel tech…. But at what expense…


    • There are no issues with charging electric cars, its a canard. Utility companies are worried about peak load, not base load. And since EV’s are generally charged overnight at home, they don’t really put an excessive load on the grid during peak daytime hours. What evidence do I have? My power company is giving a discounted rate to charge overnight. That’s right, I pay *half* the normal rate to charge my Volt overnight. While charging, my car is pulling half the power of an electric clothes dryer. Last time I checked, no one was claiming clothes dryers were wreaking havoc on the grid. Not to mention the fact that I reduced my monthly usage by 400-500 KWh by being more efficient, and the Volt is averaging about 300 KWh, so my usage is actually *lower* now than it was before the Volt.

      The Volt battery is warrantied to have 80% capacity after 8 years/100k miles. So you’re talking about ~32 miles per charge, which is still more than the average person drives in a day. Want a new battery? They’re $2999 in the parts catalog right now, no doubt they’ll be cheaper in the future.

  27. It would seem to me that bus service would benefit from the kind of software San Francisco uses, that makes bus arrival time predictable enough in advance to make infreququent midday service still practical for people to use. I remember waiting on Market Street and just before the bus arrived what seemed like a “flash mob” appeared – people whose use of the program allowed them to be just in time, rather than have to wait in the wind and rain (or snow).

    • Yeah, Boston has that too, and it does make taking a single bus more attractive, if your schedule allows the slack. You can stay at home or in the restaurant or office until the bus approaches.

      But if you have to transfer to get someplace, then knowing how long you have to wait for the second bus isn’t going to make the wait any better. Maybe you can go do something, but you still have a trip where a car will look a lot better.

      I haven’t read transit planning books, but as a user I’d say you want headways of no more than 10 minutes, and a grid (not hub and spoke) coverage, to be a system that could compete with cars. And, per ‘subsidies’, a lot of individual routes on that might look subsidized, with not many riders. But you need that full access coverage to make the whole more useful and attractive, for any modality. You rarely see people going “no one drives from X to Y, let’s abandon the grid there and make them drive through downtown”.

  28. The bicycle has very large potential. Let’s assume that 90% of people between 8 and 65 can drive a bike without risk for their health. Half of all transport by car is less than five kilometers* – a within all povs (I should hope) reasonable distance. Maybe some car transports have heavy transports (a few grocery bags don’t count) and there’s bad weather a few days of the year, yet there’s no doubt that a large part of all car transports could be replaced by bike. A large part of rural travels are also shorter than 5 km.

    *I’m using Swedish numbers here, but Sweden is a low-density country after all.

  29. BTW, I would be interested in seeing a Do The Math post on the energy and resource cost of replacing the current motorcar fleet with cars driven by alternative fuels. I’ve read a few numbers from various life-cycle assessments which vary a lot, but a reasonable number seems to be that ~20% of the energy consumption in a car’s lifetime happen before the ignition key is turned and after it’s sent to be scrapped. My gut feeling tells me just building all the cars can be a very though proposition.

  30. Related note – EPA’s 2017-2025 Light-duty Greenhouse Gas rule is close to going into effect. http://www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/documents/420f11038.pdf

    The important part? By 2025, the new car/truck fleet will have to meet an average mpg of 54.5. Expect combined city/highway fuel economy for various vehicles:
    compact (like Honda Fit) – 61
    small SUV (Ford Escape) – 48
    full-size pickup (Silverado) – 33

    Emissions reductions (almost synonymous with efficiency increases) needed to achieve those levels for pickups are 3.5% improvement per year from 2017-2021, and 5% improvement per year from 2022-2025.

    Good thing those Volt batteries are getting cheaper!

    • That 54.5 number is bit deceiving, its a completely different test, it works out to about 40 MPG on a window sticker.

  31. Does inequality reduce the overall consumption footprint? If upper class (except for 1%) or middle class – or the masses – cannot afford transportation, do the private jets of The Few make up for the forced pedestrian existence of The Many?

    This is the domestic national product version of global inequality – if everybody in India and China would want to live the “non-negotiable” American Way, we’d have a more equal but drastically more unsustainable civilization. Inequality will certainly be the consequence of resource shortage, but do we see equality as a potential cause of resource shortage? We certainly seem to argue that way when stating the US cannot cut back, but has to remain exceptional among developed nations.

    • >Does inequality reduce the overall consumption footprint?

      Certainly seems like it when one looks at the world’s societies, I would say! Well, it’s not necessarily the inequality itself but the median incomes that tend to be lower in countries that are less equal economically (do correct me if I’m wrong). And raising a country’s median income seems to be associated to some extent with lessening its inequality, I think.

      >do we see equality as a potential cause of resource shortage?

      I’m not sure who “we” is, exactly, but I think that the pursuit of equality can certainly cause increased strain on natural resources. But I think that it should vary a lot depending on methods.

  32. “…the upper quintile (20%) of household income in the U.S … makes me upper class. Blech.”

    I think you are taking far too much of the duty of “noblesse oblige” upon yourself. The upper income quintile barely qualifies you for upper middle class in modern America. Political power follows the distribution of *assets*, not income anyway. To be upper class in America involves something nearer the top 0.5% in the *wealth* distribution.

    I say this because you are actually working deliberately and consciously towards a solution to an urgent global problem. It’s really sad to think that the people who *really* hold power — the ones blocking carbon taxes or increased mileage standards, etc. etc.through big money lobbying and public propaganda — are blithely ignoring their responsibility as the rulers of our profoundly unequal society, while a conscientious professor is doing so much.

    “Blech” is right, but it doesn’t apply to you.

  33. What about electric motorcycles? They seem to be the ideal single occupant commuter vehicle in terms of existing infrastructure and cost. Their lower mass and air resistance means more miles per kWh than an electric car, yet they’re still a fraction of the cost being smaller vehicles. Lower capacity batteries means higher C charge rates can be achieved before hitting the cap of existing 120V/20A circuits.

    • OTOH overall motorcycles are rather dangerous compared to everything else. How much of that is due to high-risk driving in motorcycle culture, and interaction between ‘cycles and cars, I don’t know. But you’ve got the speed of a car and the vulnerability of a bicycle. But yeah, on just energy efficiency (and taking less parking space) they’d look pretty good while still being fast.

      Scooters and electric-assist bicycles look good too, probably better, but slower. Actually that’s an interesting point: how much could we slow down consumption by literally slowing down, lowering speed limits everywhere? 25 mph highways, 10 mph city roads? Existing car engines might not perform efficiently at low speeds, I dunno, but ideally you’d be using less, and having safer roads too. Of course, would take longer to get everywhere by car.

      • Existing engines will perform fine at low speeds. Existing cars, not without major modification.
        It’s not the engines, but the gearing. ICEs have a peak-efficiency RPM, which is far too high to apply to wheels directly. Your transmission and rear end define what this RPM translates into in terms of real-world speed.

        • I am probably in the bottom quintile so am somewhat “forced” to own just one vehicle, a big old ford F350 truck. When I slow down, I save (just a little) gas expended for air friction but by not having to stop at the red light. I mean, I’m so slow, the light WILL be green by the time I get there. Sometimes though, others will race ahead just to claim the title of “Oh crap, I have to stop already (and make me… and those behind me… stop too).
          Usually, though, this works to save “everything” for me (as I strive to continue on with my painting business) because less stop and go means obvious efficiency on all levels.

      • “Vulnerability of bicycles” is only true if you take a narrow view of “safety”. It’s incredibly unsafe to be physically inactive, so much so that bicycle commuters have a mortality rate 28% lower than non-bicycle commuters (Danish study, http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/160/11/1621 ).

        Speed (or lack of it) has a lot to do with crash safety. Car crashes become much more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists as car speed increases from 20 to 30 mph. However, it’s not clear that objective safety is what people are after, since people already make choices that increase their risk of death far more than the incremental risk of choosing a motorcycle over an automobile. People may be misinformed, but they like to be misinformed (because after all, was your reaction on reading the study cited above “I guess I’d better ride a bike” or “there must be something wrong with that study”?)

        In addition, if you’re aiming to really improve efficiency, it’s not enough to just drive slowly; you’ve got to shrink the vehicle, or stuff a lot of people into it to amortize those costs. Something the size and weight of a car will inevitably have non-trivial rolling and wind resistance.

  34. “Where are you getting that “80x more energy efficient” from? According to the DoE’s Transportation Energy Data Book (Table 2.12), rail transit is only about 30% more energy efficient than cars and personal trucks (~2500 Btu per passenger-mile for rail vs. ~3600 for autos). ”

    Car (1) vs. electric train (full). An extreme case, admittedly. But even Car (1) to Underground System is 80 to 15, 5x more efficient. I can’t explain the discrepancy[1]. I note that the late table on freight does match MacKay’s numbers of freight train being 10x more efficient than trucks.

    [1] Though 25 passengers seems low for a railcar, which gets back to a crappy system having low utilization and thus crappy performance.

    • Oh, an obvious reason for the discrepancy would be different usages in different countries. The chapter text shows he’s talking about British numbers, though there’s a side table with Japan. Japan Car 68 kWh/passenger-mile, bus 19, rail 6. London buses were 32, Croydon tram was 9.

      There’s a lot of vicious or virtuous circles here. US transit sucks because no one uses it and no one uses it because it sucks. Tokyo transit is awesome because everyone uses it and everyone uses it because it’s awesome. US car networks are good because we’re mostly built around everyone taking a car, like it or not.

    • Damien,

      You have misread your chart. The urban rail transit modes are “underground system” (usually called “subway” in the U.S.) and “tram” (usually called “light rail” in the U.S.) not “electric rail,” which is long-distance rail. And the reported figure for “underground system” includes only a single subway system (the London Underground). It’s not an average for subways in general, so it’s not meaningful for a modal comparison. And even if you hadn’t misread your source, your comparison would still be meaningless anyway. You can’t argue for rail transit over cars on the basis of a comparison between a fully-loaded train and a single-occupant car. It’s apples to oranges. You have to compare the average energy efficiency for each mode. As I showed you, the DoE reports that urban rail transit is only about 30% more energy efficient than automobiles. Transit buses are *less* energy efficient than automobiles.

      But even if urban rail transit were much more energy efficient than autos, it still wouldn’t be remotely feasible to shift more than a tiny fraction of urban travel from autos to rail, for the reasons I explained in my previous comment. Urban rail transit (especially subways) is so expensive that it’s only economically feasible on a very small set of routes that have very high demand. Again, there is no potential to achieve meaningful reductions in carbon emissions by substituting urban rail transit for driving within the foreseeable future (or probably ever). It’s a fantasy.

  35. “The cost of automobile accidents is mostly internalized through insurance.”

    Okay, seems a fair point.

    Free marking was free parking, duh.

    “All motorized transportation causes pollution.” But not all emit the same pollution. Transit is more energy efficient, so emits less pollution period. Electric transit doesn’t emit pollution in the city, so you don’t have urban ozone and particulates. It might emit CO2 elsewhere — or it might not, and your attempt to set up an equivalency with nuclear (which does have to account for all its waste) or hydro (problems, yes, but comparable to global warming?) is a bit desperate. Health costs refers to the problems created by local ozone and particulates — rather large, I believe.

    Oh, oil gets another subsidy: limited liability for spills. BP isn’t paying anywhere near the environmental costs caused by the Deepwater spill.

    “the enormous direct public subsidies used to build transit infrastructure”. ‘Enormous’, right. Do the Math: what are the actual amounts spent on transit vs. spent on roads? I think you’ll find they’re not enormous at all. And I already told you that 70 cents on the dollar isn’t the silver bullet you think it is; it’s an average number contingent on crappy US systems.

  36. “How exactly do you propose to generate 8x as much ridership from 3x as much spending? The ratio of ridership increase to spending increase is likely to be *less* than one, not more. Transit is generally subject to diminishing returns.”

    And roads aren’t? But we have so many more of them.

    Transit is non-linear. Say buses run every 70 minutes, 24/7, on a grid. No one takes them except old and poor people and some students, people with no choice, because this is bad service. Say you then run buses every 35 minutes. You’ll double your costs, but may not double rides, and probably won’t increase the number of individuals taking your bus; it’s still bad, and only people with no choice will take it.

    But say you run buses every 3 minutes. That increases your costs 10x. But it also creates a system where people may *choose* to forego having a car, because now service is good, and even transfers can be made readily. One gets convenience without the cost of a car or dealing with parking. So there may be a phrase transition, where spending more money doesn’t improve ridership much, and then suddenly it increases ridership a whole lot, because the system has become competitive.

    And if that’s true than your solution of just giving poor people money to spend won’t work, because you can’t incrementally build up such a system.

    Of course, standard buses are intrinsically slower than cars, due to being in traffic. Light rail, metro, or BRT can give you things that are faster than driving, as well as cheaper. Train has higher capital costs, but lower operating costs and more capacity — and, even more so than buses, can’t be done well incrementally. But then, the road network isn’t done incrementally either! Cars only work well because of a massive public commitment to making them work well, which you seem to take for granted like a fish in water.

    “The average bus or train ride for which the rider pays $1-2 costs more like $4-6 to provide. The rest is paid by taxpayers. ”

    That alleged 4-6 includes the capital costs of the transit system, which are typically divided among a small number of riders. Increase the ridership and the ‘cost’ goes down. And yes, the taxpayers pay for some of that, just as they pay for roads and traffic lights and more.

    The cost of an urban road isn’t just the cost of laying down asphalt; there’s the cost of all that land dedicated to use by cars. Where land is valuable, that’s probably a bigger subsidy than the pavement.

    • This back and forth (between Damien and Jamestown) is starting to hurt my neck, so I’m going to put it to sleep: thanks to both for valuable points & discussion.

  37. I remember stories from a few years ago about biodiesel conversion kit, are they still around and economical?

    • AFAIK there’s no such thing. Biodiesel burns about the same as regular diesel but is more agressive on gaskets and such. Either your manufacturer says that the car’s fuel system can handle biodiesel or it can’t, replacing all the gaskets isn’t economical or practical.

      There are conversion kits for using straight vegetable oil in a diesel engine, mainly introducing a second tank and preheating, but that only works with old engines which are not direct injection, and your fuel pump must be able to deal with the higher viscosity.

  38. An interesting alternative: WOOD GAS for transportation.

    While I don’t expect to see its wide spread usage for personal transportation, its good to know, that there will be low tech, immediately available backup solutions for the most important transportation needs, if gas dries up.

    • [edited]

      We haven’t nearly enough forest left to even consider a fraction of the population indulging such a hare-brained scheme.

      Every doomer out there installing woodstoves instead of insulating is in for the same rude surprise, if things go to pot.

  39. I kinda like the idea of “just slowing down” to save 5% or so right off the bat. By the time I get to the red light, much of the time, it is already green. However, a bunch of people sometimes race to stop in front of me… also making others, enjoying the efficiency benefits of evading stop and go (behind me) to also have to brake. On multiple lanes, this collective schizophrenia can also lead to accidents (thus urging me to conform and speed up)!
    Just for this reason alone, we need a dire change in transportation options. If the “solutions” are convenient and quick, conservative actions may actually become the norm (instead of avoided by the “anti greenie” masses).

    In the mountains, we have squirrels that transverse the power lines, well, actually the cable lines (them critters have very good balance)… Which gave me a thought.
    Build pole supported cable that supports many pod like vehicles. Eventually, they could be controlled by app (as in “take me there” along with options to talk, text, etc), assuming continued advances in computer integration, but that is, in my mind, too risky (visualized as a “total crash course”). but I searched and sure enough, this system is called personal rapid transit and even PRT for short.
    However, the “hardware” for such a system could be used to drastically improve efficiency over traditional modes by offering fixed routes every 5 minutes or so spanning complete multi block level grids based upon a multitude of simple straight routes. It seems that a fixed route failsafe would be much easier to implement than a full on app supported PRT. In this way, people might think, “screw traffic, I’ll just hop on the grid”.
    I justify efficiency gains upon far lighter parts and electric propulsion.
    Of, course, there would be challenges, like getting the pods from ground level to the cable lines (or getting the people to line level in an even more lightweight “batteryless” pod).
    But the greatest challenge is actually implementing such a system, or better, against the whims of traditional business and social constraints.

    • I imagine very small batteries being used for the limited vertical ascents (preferably, LiFePO4 or even just supercapacitors for safety and longevity reasons). Perhaps an incorporated pedal power assist, to get around further on the ground just like an electric bicycle?

      • Whenever I see one of these proposals, the question that comes to mind is “why not a bicycle?” (or a bicycle-sized electric scooter?) Why would I want personal rapid transit, running on some fixed routes, available sometime in the future (and requiring some interesting construction expense), when I could ride a bicycle today, on existing infrastructure, when I want, and where I want? Does a bus ever crack 1000pmpg (what an electric scooter can manage)? I know the busses around here aren’t that much faster than bicycles (never mind scooters), and some are slower, and few travel point-to-point; there’s always at least one walk and one wait involved.

        One obvious answer is that (in the US at least) the bicycle is not very popular; however, this says a lot more about safety myths, density myths, cheap gasoline, and a weird fixation on a one-size-fits-all solution (“I need a big truck in Metro Boston because Montana’s not very dense”). They work in dense parts of other countries, and a good chunk of the US population lives in dense areas (*). As an engineering solution bicycle and light scooters kick ass; they’re efficient, compact, cheap, frugal with resources (smaller batteries and motors) and resilient — infrastructure is nice, but not necessary (I hop two curbs and ride up an unpaved slope on my way to work). When they break, repairs are easier than car repairs, and you don’t need a tow truck to get a disabled bicycle out of a snow drift, or to get it home if something fails.

        (*) and those that don’t live in dense areas, ought to want the rest of us who do, to conserve fuel so that there will be more/cheaper available for rural use.

        I realize that I run the risk of being “that guy with a bicycle fixation”, but I prefer to view it as a fixation on transit that already exists that is cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient than the proposals for future eco-wonders. If your future stuff can’t beat a bicycle, why bother?

        • Thanks for the plug on cycling. I should have made more of a deal on it in the post. I was a bike commuter for ten years from four different residences, the longest commute being 7 miles, but 2 to 3 miles being more typical. I am a big fan of this mode of transportation.

          I regret that I cannot afford to live close enough to my work in La Jolla, leaving me with a 9 mile commute involving several long hills and very busy/fast roads. At this distance, I would arrive sweaty (I only seem to know one speed: all-out), and don’t have convenient shower facilities in or near my building, and am reluctant to add the overhead given demands on my time.

          Still, I wistfully consider biking again, and am attracted to the electric-assist bike to remove the hill-sweat factor, thus shower need, and also speed up the commute a bit. I would still need to face a few fast/scary roads. I have options with bike lanes. Let’s say that reduces the risk of an accident to 0.05% per commute. I might last a decade before a texting teen drifts over and feels a bump. My wife is more worried about it than I am, and yes, she has a say.

          • For a number of years my family owned and operated an art gallery located immediately NW of the Loop, ten miles from our home in the far North Side. Spring, summer & fall, I commuted by bicycle.

            Obviously, I had to be presentable. And I perspire massively while cycling in even moderately warm weather. BUT I had previously learned that if I bathed before riding, wore freshly laundered Ciclista clothing (preferably dried outdoors), gave myself a pat-down with a damp washcloth in the john for about ten minutes (easy, the gallery was not open to the public yet), and then got dressed in freshly laundered Gallerista clothing, I was more than fresh enough to face the day’s visitors who might hopefully buy art (and fortunately often did). Actually, I was about as fresh as I would be in the afternoon if I had traveled to the gallery in an air conditioned car that morning.

            What made bicycle commuting practical was that I could park my bike in our storage area — what with its incredibly valuable inventory, one can be sure it was secure! In Chicago, bicycle theft is the biggest obstacle to bicycle commuting: odeur de aiselle is not even on the same map.

            Of course, Chicago’s justly famous Lakeshore Bike Path is a wonderful way to get to work. Far better than Lake Shore Drive in a car!

          • The fast/scary roads have got to go, and in some places, they have (others, not). I assume that this gets fixed in the future by some combination of robot-drivers and expensive fuel, and perhaps through driver indoctrination and changes to road design (solved in other parts of the world, hence not unknown tech). Some parts of the country are still pretty terrible for biking; the Boston area (if not Boston itself) is surprisingly not-too-bad.

            We have a friend with electric assist and a big (300′) hill in her commute, and she likes her assist very much. Your other (easy) choice for avoiding sweat is to slack off a little bit, since at decent speeds the cubic-in-speed power of fighting the wind dominates. Or (in my dreams), we could bore tunnels through hills to avoid gratuitous climbs. The underground segments would also be shielded from rain and have moderate temperatures year-round.

            But some problems do remain. Nine miles is marginal-long (my commute is also nine, if I take the short-cut over that same 300′ hill, otherwise it is ten). My blood chemistry suggests that if I could get more exercise, I should, and I wouldn’t even get close to enough if I didn’t bike to work (no time to drive a car AND go to the gym, never mind the lethal boredom of working out indoors). This puts a different spin on it — really, I am just getting my morning or evening exercise, and then I arrive at work or home, instantly. Since I needed the exercise anyway (and I charge the extra food to the exercise that is necessary no matter what), transit for me requires no energy inputs, AND it is infinitely fast (this math starts to go wrong for extremely long commutes).

        • Just thought it would be cool to have an above ground “cableway” to which electric bike like pod vehicles could safely attach to which would reduce tiresome long bike commutes to “relax and view” for just a small fraction of the energy (and money?) required to maintain the existing infrastructure.
          It would prove much safer than having to cross traffic too.
          Eventually, the highways could be maintained for just for hauling purposes.
          This could be an idea that can actually replace the need to drive multi ton projectiles that spew XSCO2 without full on (and scary) app supported PRT.

        • Weather, distance, hills, traffic safety, physical ability, sweatiness, weather.

          Amsterdam is a great bike capital. It’s dense, has built to support bikes, is very flat, and is in a very nice climate. Much of Europe has — or has had until recently — a more bounded temperature range than most of the US; Western Europe after all is on the east side of an ocean, like our own Pacific Coast, and there’s that whole Mediterranean climate zone. Also, Europe is further north than the US; Minneapolis is level with southern France.

          Of course people in tropical countries bicycle a lot too, but they’re too poor to afford otherwise. Energy efficiency is not the be-all and end-all.

          • I’m quite familiar with cycling in warm places (Florida, Houston — racing, time trialing, commuting, a couple of centuries). There are ways to make it work; probably most attractive is to use an electric assist (and let it do most of the work). I’m not a human-power purist; it’s the size and relatively low speed of the vehicle that makes the efficiency, and electric done plausibly well is much more efficient than all but the most obsessively-fed human. Cars fail because they’re just too damn big.

            Number two, is wear less clothing. This is very much a regional/cultural thing; I grew up in Florida when AC was somewhat less common, and it was no big deal for a grown man to show up in various medium-grade establishments with no shirt. There’s less of that now both because of more pervasive AC and massive in-migration from differently-civilized places. Less clothing also facilitates the turn-a-hose-on-your-head method of showering (spring water in Florida is 70F; tap water is that, or warmer); it’s not like you would put on those same sweaty clothes eight hours later unwashed, so you might as well wash them, too (time and motion, more efficient that way).

            Understand, this is very much a matter of overcoming some “I can’t do that, normal people don’t do that” biases that we’ve acquired in the recent few decades. These are NOT engineering problems.

            Number three, is ride slow, and choose strategically shady routes. High gear, slow movement, try to focus on enjoying the breeze. I did commute in Houston during what is now the second-hottest summer on record, and this is what I did, and it worked, though it was not a long commute.

  40. As far as driving more efficiently, I think one of the interesting ideas beginning to emerge is the autonomous vehicle. By taking the human out of the equation, efficient behaviors can be programmed in directly, including some efficiency behaviors that are just too dangerous for a human driver (such as tightly spaced convoys or non-stop intersections). Plus, this change would rely on advances in computing technology which are still a little easier to come by than pushing the barriers of chemistry and physics.

    Of course this still takes more energy than just walking or biking, but it could be useful in some applications.

  41. [emphasis added by moderator]

    There is a lot a driver can do to improve the fuel efficiency of an existing vehicle. I’ve experimented with my car (a 1993 Chevy Sprint), even to the extent of using an external 4 litre fuel tank that can be weighed with a digital scale to determine accurate fuel consumption over short periods (ex 335g of fuel for my 12km commute to work). You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and measuring at each fillup isn’t accurate enough to relate improvements in fuel economy to specific behavioural changes.

    On average I now achieve about 4 L/100 km (60 MPG) in the city peaking at 3.3 L/100km (70 MPG) in mid summer. This from a car with an EPA rating of 43 MPG in the city, with only a few simple modifications (mostly behavioural).

    The greatest improvement by far can be had by simply slowing down. This reduces braking losses, drag losses, and idling losses (less time spent at red lights). People underestimate the effect of speed on fuel economy (I suspect most people don’t even know there is an effect). Fuel economy (ex L/100km) is proportional to force, and there are only two forces on a vehicle (assuming constant speed on level ground): rolling resistance and drag. The force of rolling resistance is independent of speed. The force of drag is proportional to the square of speed. In my Sprint these two forces are equal at about 50km/h. Double the speed to100 km/h and the force of drag increases by a factor of 4. So the total force (drag plus rolling resistance) at 100 km/h is 2.5 times that at 50 km/h. Thus, fuel economy decreases by a factor of 2.5 between 50km/h and 100km/h (for a Chevy Sprint). People should get better mileage in the city than on the freeway. I do. The reason most people don’t is because of braking and idling losses, and operating at the wrong engine RPM and load for optimum effciency.

    It’s a relatively simple matter to calculate expected fuel savings from behavioural changes such as reducing stops, turning an engine off instead of idling at stop lights, reducing electrical loads, etc. As an example, I measured the power draw of my car’s electrical system and found it was equivalent to about 10% of my fuel consumption. So I mounted an “off” switch in series with the field windings of my alternator to disable it. When disabled, I not too surprizingly see about a 10% improvement in fuel economy. I mounted a battery charger in the engine compartment and now I effectively have a plug-in hybrid (10% grid powered).

    Simple alternatives such as that are ripe for Do The Math style analysis.

    • I am very pleased that you made these points. I have stressed measurement several times, but somehow failed to plug it again here. Then again, I have not done such a fantastic experiment as you have in measuring fuel consumption. I have also advocated using fuel or energy per distance, rather than MPG (see electric car post), but failed to do it here again. And I have pointed out the velocity-squared drag in a number of posts, initially in the 100 MPG post. And somehow I missed this opportunity as well.

      Bad blogger.

      Thanks for introducing these key concepts.

      Slowing down is indeed a key energy savings technique fully in our control. There’s a gas pedal. It works for a while, but at some point one runs into the fact that the energy efficiency of the engine is a function of its speed in revolutions per minute. My own measurements (on rental cars equipped with an instant/average MPG calculation on the flat, straight roads south of Alamogordo, NM indicated to me that 45 mph (about 70 km/h) is about the optimum. Also discovered that going full speed with windows open or closed made no measurable difference, to my surprise. Air conditioning, on the other hand, does make a measurable difference.

      • Hi Tom,
        Hypermiling has become a bit of an obsession for me and it’s not too frequently I find myself conversing with people who comprehend the physics behind it, so the pleasure is mine.

        There certainly is an optimum RPM and load for any engine. With a little experimentation you can map engine effciency (useful energy produced per gram of fuel consumed), also known as Brake Specific Fuel Consumption or BSFC, on a plot of torque vs RPM. Or if you are lucky you can find such a map for your engine online. I know the BSFC map well for a 1993 Chevy Sprint with 1.0 litre engine. The peak efficiency is a little over 30% at around 3000 RPM and 70% of peak torque. Torque is difficult to monitor, but intake manifold vacuum is strongly related and easy to monitor. For a stock Sprint (no aerodynamic mods), the steady state speed on level ground that corresponds to optimum engine efficiency is about 120 km/h. At all steady speeds below that the engine is less efficient but fuel economy is improved due to lower drag. So the optimum speed for best fuel economy is a compromise between engine efficiency and drag. Key point: at the optimum speed for best fuel economy, the engine is NOT operating at it’s peak efficiency (ie there is still room for improvement without defying any laws of thermodynamics).

        You can achieve higher engine efficiencies at low speeds utilizing pulse and glide (P&G) and engine-off coasting (EOC) techniques, effectively keeping the engine at optimum efficiency whenever it’s running and coasting with the engine off periodically to avoid accelerating beyond your desired speed. Hybrid vehicles take advantage of this phenomenon, operating the engine at peak efficiency and storing energy in a battery, but it can be done on any vehicle with no need of extra batteries or electric motors, storing the energy in the form of vehicle inertia instead. Needless to say there are some safety concerns (especially for vehicles with power steering and power brakes) but they can be lessened with appropriate applications of technology and experience.

        Potential gains are immense… and it’s fun (even more fun than monitoring real time house energy consumption). I will never forget my first 1000km tank, or my first 1100 km tank, or my first 1200 km tank. Currently shooting for 1300…

  42. One other issue on efficiency is the age of your vehicle. I have a 1947 International Harvester pickup that I use for work, going to the dump and picking up material at lumberyards. I drive it between 1,000-2,000 miles a year (I store it during the Vermont winters). Amazingly, with its original engine (rebuilt seven years ago) I get a solid twenty miles per gallon (empty or loaded!). One factor in considering the efficiency of my vehicle would have to be age, and how this truck has served its three owners for over sixty years. In a similar period of time how many average pickups would have been built, used and discarded, all at an energy cost? I think the Center For Automotive Research concluded that one should actually keep their car a surprisingly long amount of time, basically driving until it drops, rather than trading in for new technologies. Its an interesting element to the whole energy picture.

  43. Electric cars only have a near-term future as urban vehicles. I drive about 35-40k miles a year in flyover country. I want an 80+ mpg at 84 mph all wheel drive that won’t kill or maim me in a crash. It’s easily within present technology (look at Formula One-light weight, safe, trade off speed for the pokey 80+mph, etc.) but it’s not judged commercially viable.
    In the interim I’d settle for 50+mpg version. But there are none as companies waste energy on drivel like the Volt and 6-cd changers.

    • I would prefer to have an electric because they consume far less energy per equal amount of work done. I also prefer advanced nuclear over coal for the source because it does not spew XSCO2 and is load leveling and is far less dangerous (to say the least) than the nuclear we already rely upon now.
      Liquid fuels will become costly due to less EROEI in the extraction and refinery process of the lower quality hydrocarbon stores still available and thus, our kids will be wishing electric cars (or other convenient electric options) were the mainstream.
      If the majority of the light duty fleet were converted over (to whatever is the best) electrical mobile infrastructure, liquid fuels would remain inexpensive enough to keep the big rigs a’roll’n for decades… longer. Also, a certain percentage of our hydrocarbon store needs to be allocated for roads and tires. The future of electric transport does not need to be completely bound to these often overlooked restraints either.
      The tech is already here, just not the will.

  44. Autonomous Vehicles could help enormously with conservation. They can drive was much greater economy than human drivers, and very small, utilitarian autonomous vehicles (think robot scooter or toy helicopter) could perform “errand-running” tasks without transporting heavy, fragile humans. Me and a 2,500 vehicle going to the store to get 10 lbs. of milk and bread is very inefficient.

    -Karl Kelman

  45. I live in Beijing which, despite terrible air quality, is a great place to walk. We walk to buy groceries, go to restaurants, movies – pretty much everything. Taxis are plentiful, as are buses and subway stations. At least in our part of the city it’s a non-car owner’s dream.

    Where can you do this in the US? We used to have a similar lifestyle in Manhattan, but that’s priced out for most people. Cambridge, Mass? Parts of San Francisco? We’ve lived in all these places but none of them come close to Beijing (or Shanghai, GZ, HK). Part of it is sheer population density, part central planning, but it’s also cultural – there are hundreds of people walking on a given street in these cities at any hour of the day.

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