Damn, this traffic jam

Oct. 19, 2000
Several months ago I was on an eight-lane highway with cars packed to the horizons, all going about 5 mph.

Several months ago I was on an eight-lane highway with cars packed to the horizons, all going about 5 mph. The slow pace let me clearly see that only one car in 10 carried multiple passengers. It occurred to me that were I an oil minister in a cartel, the scene would tempt me to shut my oil spigots a bit. The result, of course, would be rising fuel prices.

You might think that would be terrible, but consider the long-term benefits to both parties: The oil still in the ground becomes more valuable and more-costly gasoline encourages production of cars with more-efficient engines. In addition, auto companies will spend even more on research and modeling the mysteries of combustion. This could boost sales of finite-element-analysis software as product developers seek ways to further lighten vehicles. More-efficient engines might mitigate global warming and weird weather could begin to abate.

OK, now back to the real world. If you buy this scenario, you can imagine my joy at the recent spike in gasoline prices here in the Midwest. The cost for a gallon peaked at over $2.00. This is great, I thought. Maybe it will stay there. Finally gas is reaching its real value, actually exceeding the cost of bottled water. We're at the dawn of a new day, one in which engineering research flourishes, more people use public transportation to escape the high cost of getting to work, and we take a collective step to a cooler, cleaner planet.

Then to my dismay, gas prices began slipping back. After only a couple weeks at $2 a gallon, $1.80 a gallon looked like a bargain, $1.50 a gallon was dirt cheap, and all those silly ideas about new research and adjusted values vanished. But maybe not quite.

The brief scare gave a boost to small-car sales. For instance, Ford's Focus, its new small car, is moving briskly. I've also seen an Insight buzzing around. It is Honda's two-seat gas-electric hybrid rated at a remarkable 68 mpg. Certainly it's a step in the right direction of auto evolution, but to my eye it looks so narrow as to be unsafe at highway speeds. Toyota's Prius, a slightly larger gas-electric, may be the better idea.

Ford has taken the wraps off a gas-electric version of the Escape, its new small SUV, for sale as a 2003 Model. Projected fuel efficiency is close to 40 mpg. This announcement is more significant than the previously mentioned cars because a few 70-mpg vehicles hardly matter. Thousands of more-efficient SUVs displacing less-advanced vehicles will have a greater impact on the environment. GM and DaimlerChrysler have also announced hybrid programs.

Another press release crossed my desk announcing the addition of yet another Cray supercomputer to Ford's research department. Such events are stepping stones to fuel-cell vehicles and perhaps the all-electric car. A lot of engineering will go into making these developments a reality, and what's good for engineering is good for the world.

So maybe my traffic-jam dreaming is not wasted. Recent developments and announcements carried to their natural conclusion might let us cut back on imported oil enough to make an oil baron cry, "Are you people crazy? If you don't start using more oil, I might have to get a real job."

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