Monday, July 18, 2005

The Electric Horsepower Man

Coming soon to a dragstrip near you:

Mark Buford is happy with the Honda Accord hybrid that he bought six months ago, and he has already driven it 13,000 miles. He was determined to buy a hybrid electric car, he said, and this one is clean, "green" and accelerates faster than the nonhybrid version. He just cannot count on it to save much gasoline.

.... The 2005 Honda Accord hybrid gets about the same miles per gallon as the basic four-cylinder model, according to a review by Consumer Reports, a car-buyer's guide, and it saves only about two miles a gallon compared with the V-6 model on which it is based. Thanks to the hybrid technology, though, it accelerates better.

Hybrid technology, it seems, is being used in much the same way as earlier under-the-hood innovations that increased gasoline efficiency: to satisfy the American appetite for acceleration and bulk.

Despite the use of hybrids to achieve better performance with about the same fuel economy, consumers who buy the cars continue to get a tax credit that the Internal Revenue Service allows under a "clean fuels" program that does not take fuel savings into account.

....Mr. Buford, a telecommunications analyst at Kraft Foods who works in the Chicago area, said he decided on a hybrid because he wanted to "go green," although he added, "I wasn't willing to make any of the trade-offs normally associated with a hybrid." He said he liked the way that the electric motor on his new car kicked in early during acceleration, at a speed range in which the V-6 gasoline engine is relatively weak.

....Mr. Buford said he expected that when he files his taxes next April, the purchase will cut his tax bill by about $600.

....Consumer Reports called the hybrid portion of the Accord a "green turbocharger." The main benefit is in getting from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.9 seconds, compared with 9.0 seconds for the basic four-cylinder model.

....Hybrid technology seems to be heading the way of earlier technologies, which got more work out of a gallon of gasoline, like four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing, that have been used in the end to make cars accelerate faster, rather than to hold them steady in performance and to cut fuel consumption.

Daniel A. Lashof, a car expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "The horsepower wars have really gotten out of control in the last few years."

....Mr. Buford said he got just what he wanted from the Accord, a hybrid with no sacrifices. "I wasn't prepared to give up anything to 'go green' - not performance, amenities, or space," he said.

Which could be called Jevon's Revenge: 1845. An English mathematician, William Stanley Jevons, had just written a book titled The Coal Question. Watt's new engines were eating up English coal. Once it was gone, England was in trouble. And Jevons wrote:

... some day our coal seams [may] be found emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a coal-cellar. Our fires and furnaces ... suddenly extinguished, and cold and darkness ... left to reign over a depopulated country.

The answer seemed to lie in creating more efficient steam engines. Jevons may not have realized that steam engines were already closing in on thermodynamic limits of efficiency. But he did see that increased efficiency wouldn't save us in any case.

Look at the Watt engine, he said. It was invented because the older Newcomen engine was so inefficient. Did Watt cut coal consumption by quadrupling efficiency? Quite the contrary. By making steam power more efficient, he spread the use of steam throughout the land. Coal consumption was skyrocketing.

A few years later, Henry Bessemer invented a new highly energy-efficient scheme for smelting steel. Jevons's argument played out once more. Now that we could have cheap steel, we began making everything from it -- plows, toys, even store fronts. Energy-efficiency had again driven coal consumption upward.

We saw Jevons's script replaying yet again after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Our response was to create more energy-efficient cars. Since then, Americans have increased the number of miles they've driven to 162 percent of what it was.

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