I used to call my old car the “Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” after the horse-drawn buggy in the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in which the shay “ran a hundred years to a day, and then, of a sudden, it
– ah, but stay! I’ll tell you the story without delay!”
When I came back to the USA to take care of my Mom, I told her she could afford a new car instead of the 1987 Toyota Camry hatchback she had. She replied serenely, “This one will last me out.”
It sure did last, and by the time I inherited it, I’d discovered that it got about 40 mpg on the freeway. At that point I decided to test something I’d read, which was that the best way to get your money’s worth out of a car was to get an old clunker and drive it into the ground. It was good advice. With routine maintenance, “The Shay” hardly ever gave me any trouble, and it still gets around 40 mpg. The only thing that couldn’t be fixed was the rust eating up the undercarriage. Each time I hopefully asked someone about it, they’d tell me something extremely witty like, “Easy! Move to Florida, get a car that’s never been in Michigan, and stay off salted roads!”
My British friends asked me, how did it pass its MOT tests? Well, if the USA had them, it would have been off the road years ago. The MOT (Ministry of Transport) tests are a yearly vehicle test which basically covers everything that can impinge on a car’s safety
– including, of course, body integrity. Cars that don’t pass have a short time to get fixed. No fix, no road license, no more car.
In the poem, the Shay is built in such a logical way that each part is as strong as the rest of it, so it can’t break down. However, when it finally wears out, it goes to pieces “all at once and nothing first
– just as bubbles do when they burst.” And the driver finds himself “sitting upon a rock, at half-past nine by the meet’n'-house clock.” Before I found myself sitting on the freeway, I went looking for another car with goodish mpg.
Though “The Shay” couldn’t have got past the MOT, I could have found one with good mpg a heck of a lot more easily in England. The average gas consumption for the UK is already 39 mpg* in the “extra-urban” category, which includes both freeways and winding country roads. More efficient models are already tootling around their tight little island at up to 60+ mpg. True, they do have smaller cars, partly because their picturesque old towns have lots of smaller streets. However, the Brits have a way of snickering at how us Yanks are wedded to our gas guzzlers, and I admit I have to laugh too, whenever US auto-makers scream and whine about coming up to a standard of 54.5 mpg in 2025.
It’s not that better car technology doesn’t exist, even without going to extremes. I’m sure there are other examples, but the one I found first was this: there’s a Nissan crossover SUV in the UK, called the Qashqai (named for a nomadic tribe, if you’re wondering), which gets 67.35 extra-urban mpg. It is a standard car, not a hybrid. In 2007, some Nissan Engineers tested one by driving it from one end of the UK to the other — 867 miles — which it did on ONE tankful of gas (it had some left over when they arrived)!
You can’t get a Qashqai in the USA. The Nissan Rogue is almost exactly the same – same size, same features, same everything (except that the driver’s wheel is on the other side) – but the Rogue only gets between 23 and 28 mpg, about a third as efficient. So why don’t US manufacturers give us the better engine?
Who profits from less-efficient models? Obviously, the oil companies – you know, the ones who are in such dire straits with their $80-billion profits that they honestly (?) need $2.8-billion tax breaks which the Republicans refuse to cut?
I have no idea how, or even if, they persuade the car manufacturers to short-change the US public by making us buy less efficient cars. There are a number of conspiracy theories out there, though they seem short on actual facts and long on circumstantial evidence. However, as Thoreau, (a contemporary of Holmes) said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
If anybody knows for sure, I’d be glad to read about it. Do the oil companies invest in auto companies so they can squelch more efficient models? Or are the Koch Bros. pulling strings behind the scenes? Who knows?
In the meantime, we’re effectively forced to help the oil companies make their $80-billion-a-year profit, a lot like the slaves whose labor paid for their masters’ lap-of-luxury plantations, not to mention the whips, the overseers and the trusty bloodhounds. And we’re still left with the question: if US car makers CAN make more efficient cars, and DON’T, why? Or rather, WHY?!?!?!?
I did look into getting a Prius or another hybrid, but I didn’t know of anywhere in Grayling to service it. In the end I looked on Craig’s list and lucked out – found a used Chevvy Prizm with only 65,000 miles on the clock. It gets 30+ mpg – went around Detroit and then 200 miles up to Grayling, on just over a half tank of gas. Not as good as a Qashqai – but hey, we’ll never have that until we develop the moxie to really hold the auto-makers’ feet to the fire. I just don’t see why we have to wait until 2025. Do you? Or, in the last line of Holmes’s poem, “Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”
* The UK gallon is larger than the US gallon. I’ve used the conversion table at the bottom of the page on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_economy_in_automobiles