Sunday, July 31, 2011

Three Sides to Every Story

On Friday, President Obama announced new fuel economy standards that will be worked towards over the next 15 years.

Shortly thereafter, the obviously politically neutral folks at posted about how these new fuel economy standards will result in death. Simply put, cars must be lighter in order to attain higher fuel economy, but people in light cars are more likely to die when they collide with heavy vehicles.

Just two days earlier, the even more politically neutral folks at posted a similar story, but unless they had some White House connections (which is possible) was unprovoked by Obama's announcement of higher standards. Their line is that heavier cars cause more deaths.

What's interesting is that the two stories are saying both the same thing yet opposite things at the same time. One claims that lighter cars result in more deaths, while the other claims that heavier cars result in more deaths. The difference is in which car they're talking about. If car A is heavier and collides with car B, car B's occupants are more likely to die. If car B is lighter and collides with car A, car B's occupants are more likely to die. What I take from this is that it's the difference between the two that counts. The relatively lighter car will always fare worse.

So if over the next couple decades, most cars get smaller, there would not likely be a large increase in deaths, because everything would get smaller at about the same rate. Some of the behemoths currently on the road will still be out there, true, but you're not going to last long driving a 20 year old SUV pulling in 12 mpg when everyone else is getting 50+ mpg.

So there's two sides to the same statistical story, but what's the third side? My side is the third side. I question whether we'll even be thinking in mpg in 15-20 years. Between CNG, electricity, Mr Fusion, methane, solar, hydrogen, etc. there are so many alternative energy sources poised to take the place of the archaic gasoline that you'd have to hope something else will have matured enough by then to take its place. At the very least, we'll see more hybrid or bi-fuel vehicles that either automatically or manually switch between gasoline and the alternative power source.

Then what if there's an alternative power source that is so cheap and powerful it allows for heavy vehicles? Add to that computers and sensors that detect imminent crashes and stop you before they happen, and it won't matter the size of your vehicle, since we won't crash into each other anyway. Perhaps cars will be driven by Google so we can just rest in our sleep pods while Google optimizes our travel for us.

Maybe 2025 is too soon to expect an accident-free, emissions-free future. After all, I'm pretty sure Back to the Future's vision of hovercars and home energy reactors won't be reality by 2015 even though they've had 30 years to work on them. But we can dream. Maybe we'll see Obama channel JFK's speech from almost 50 years ago about going to the moon and rally the country around a monumental transportation goal, ironically just after he dismantles NASA.

We'll see where the big dreams take us, but with all the fantastic possibilities my mind can dream up, 50 mpg doesn't seem like that big of a deal, even if it requires a little extra technology to keep us from crashing into each other so much.

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