Gas Is Getting Expensive, And We're Not Helping

By Blake Z. Rong | February 13, 2012
Anybody who has touched a wrench knows that if you can't get a bolt off, you force it off with an even bigger wrench. Americans want more fuel-efficient cars—at least, that's what the ads tell us we want, and that's what our parents and neighbors believe. Yet, we stubbornly won't stop buying fuel-swilling, horsepower-loaded, lifestyle-enabling machines: we don't want fuel-efficient cars, even though we're told that we do, or that we should. Could a gas tax be the bigger wrench we need to finally break our gasoline habit? That's what one MIT professor proposes, after studying the rise of gas mileage and the explosion (in comparison) of horsepower and weight figures. The idea of a gas tax is nothing new, and it gets trotted out every few years when pump prices go up and scared consumers find shelter in Toyota Prius waiting lists. But according to MIT professor and economist Christopher Knittel, it's absolutely vital: our choice in larger and more powerful cars has hindered innovations in fuel economy, and a gas tax is the only way to reign in our spending habits. “Most of that technological progress has gone into [compensating for] weight and horsepower,” said Knittel. “When it comes to climate change, leaving the market alone isn’t going to lead to the efficient outcome. The right starting point is a gas tax.”
Why now? Well, Knittel has some startling numbers. If we as a country hadn't been so keen on cluttering our freeways with Ford Explorers, we could have hit 73 miles per gallon instead of our current national average of 27—but only if our cars had stayed the same size since 1980. After all, people haven't evolved any taller, even if our waistlines have expanded dramatically since then. Since that year our cars have gained weight at the rate of 26 percent, while their horsepower rose 107 percent. Fuel economy may have risen by 60 percent since then, but Knittel figures it could be even higher than that. This comes at around the same time that John Hofmeister, former CEO for Shell Oil, has a dire prediction for mankind: We better get used to the notion of $5 for a gallon gas. Hofmeister is a man who, for once, wants to be wrong. But it's not looking likely that he is—with developing countries clamoring for the same amount of gasoline that goes around the entire world, we're not producing enough for ourselves, and it's only a matter of time. “This insatiable need for more oil...has not been taken into account when we think of public policy in this country," said Hofmeister. "So while we may be producing a bit more oil in this country, and while demand is down a bit, on a global basis I’m afraid we face a continuing onslaught of prices creeping ever higher.” “I hope I’m wrong on this. I'd love to be wrong on this.” Hofmeister and Knittel may not be trumpeting anything new under the sun. But the blame has always laid with us, and our perceived needs. We want a larger car, we want more power to haul our Costco swag, and the manufacturers build to suit. Does a Toyota Camry really need 276 horsepower? Does a BMW 3-Series really need to be 4 inches longer? It's a nice, tidy little Catch-22: Are manufacturers not building fuel-efficient cars because they think we don't buy them, or are we not buying fuel-efficient cars because there simply aren't that many being built? And will we ever going to get used to paying a Lincoln for a gallon of gas? Source: CNBC, NY Daily News