Are we there yet?

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An interesting discussion emerged recently after Ryan Avent argued that regulatory hurdles are preventing any innovation in the automobile sector.  Since carmakers face strict safety requirements, among many other constraints, they are effectively pigeonholed into creating cars of a certain size and weight.  Avent proposed creating the space for innovation by making separate lanes free from traditional car traffic, thus freeing carmakers of some of the traditional regulatory constraints and opening the door to genuine innovation, such as smaller, lighter single-passenger vehicles.

James Joyner was quick to dismantle Avent’s imaginary cars on practical grounds.  Megan McArdle reaffirmed that safety concerns necessitate bigger, stronger and thus heavier cars and also reminded us that most Americans need storage space for groceries and such.  One of her readers pointed to the Smart Car as experimental evidence of these arguments.

Most of Avent’s critics made valid points, but I believe his ideas were mostly appropriate for urban users that have become adept at dealing with space constraints, and it rings true to me that creating the space is a crucial element.  In the same way that bike lanes bring more bikers out on the road, a safer space could bring all kinds of interesting transport devices out in the open.  Readers following the discussion at The Daily Dish pointed to the Myers Motors NmG and to Segway’s P.U.M.A as examples of what we can expect to see.

Notwithstanding all the holes and hypotheticals, it actually seems to me that the industry is taking significant steps in the right direction on fuel-efficiency.  Consider some recent news.

First came the enormously symbolic death of the Hummer, after its proposed sale to a Chinese car company fell through.  Then, Porsche unveiled its 918 Spyder Hybrid, capable of 198 mph top speeds while getting an impressive 78 miles per gallon.  Mercedez Benz officially entered the luxury hybrid market.  And Volkswagen announced it wants to be the market leader in electric vehicle sales.

In his final post on automobiles, Avent imagined the day when small innovative vehicles might retail at around $2,000-$3,000.   India’s Tata Motors, which rocked the auto-world in 2006 with its $2,000 Nano, may have brought that day closer with the release of an electric version, and is meanwhile planning on entering the U.S. market.

Abandoning wasteful excess.  Hybrid high-powered sports and luxury vehicles.  Making it affordable.  I don’t know, I may be optimistic, but it feels like we are reaching a critical point on the road to mass adoption of energy efficient vehicles.

For more, check out GOOD’s 15 most energy efficient vehicles of 2010

Posted on March 10th 2010 in news

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