The Highway Trust Fund depends on federal fuel taxes for its finances. And those taxes have remained stuck for two decades at 18.4 and 24.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and diesel, respectively. State taxes tack on another 31.1 cents per gallon on average.
Keep this fact in mind: There were about 260 million Americans in 1993 when the tax was last raised. Today there are over 315 million. And we travel more miles than we did two decades ago. That means the transportation infrastructure has to do more with less per-mile spending, adjusted for inflation. That’s why we see crumbling bridges on the news, outdated traffic-light patterns and clogged roads.
And, as we move into cities and use mass transit we will drive less. As cars become more fuel efficient they require less gasoline. At the same time, alternatively fueled cars such as electric vehicles don’t pay gasoline taxes at all, and others, such as natural gas vehicles, pay a lower rate on average, so the current system subsidizes their use. That means our gasoline purchases — and our gas taxes — are declining, putting a strain on our trust fund.
When Hilde Charlotte Blomberg reached the University of Oslo last Friday, the first thing she did was to send a mass email to the Department of Informatics:
I arrived at work now and all the spaces for electric cars are taken. If you think your car is charged, I would appreciate if you could park somewhere else. I won’t get home if I can’t charge my car. I am standing downstairs and waiting and hoping that someone will come
Gone are the days when you would drive a sports car through Central Park to get attention. Dan Neil takes a break from fast cars to test out the all-electric, all-recyclable BMW i3, which is meant for city traffic and is quite a head-turner.
WITH A SNOW STORM ON MY TAIL, I finally found my way to the all-new, all-electric BMW i3 last week in Manhattan, where holiday gridlock was in full swing. I located the Start button on the compound-switch nacelle behind the steering wheel (this is a car so different we are going to have to create new vernacular). The display graphics lit up. Twenty-one miles of range. Merry Christmas.
OK, electric car. You are making me look bad. As an advocate of EVs I know that these machines are the future of urban personal transportation. But you do occasionally have to plug them in. Also, it was bitter cold, which wasn’t helping the car’s 22 kwh lithium-ion battery pack, recently exercised from speeding the 2,700-pound car in from New Jersey.
The Internet of Cars could be coming sooner than you think.
In August 2012, the University of Michigan launched a massive project to get 3,000 cars in Ann Arbor, Mich., to speak to one another via Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). That project was partly designed to inform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration whether or not it will mandate the use of DSRC modules as a critical safety device in all future vehicles on U.S. roads.
The clock is ticking on the mandate decision, which is expected by the end of 2013. The decision is potentially the biggest development for auto safety since the seat belt, and the biggest thing ever for the Internet of Cars.
Americans tend to pay their car loans before their mortgages or credit cards each month, says Steve Chaouki, group vice president in credit bureau TransUnion’s financial services business unit. Consider: Among consumers with auto loans, mortgages and credit cards, the 30-day delinquency rate for auto loans was just 0.88% last year, while the rate for credit cards was 1.82% and the rate for mortgages was 1.91%. While overall, those rates have improved since 2009, when the 30-day delinquency rate for auto loans was 1.34%, credit cards 2.82% and mortgages 3.83% — the priorities are still clear: cars, then credit cards, then mortgages. And, says, Chaouki, autos are likely to again lead the pack for 2013.
So what’s behind the priority we give to our rides? “Some of this is about freedom,” says Kimberly Foss, the founder and president of Roseville, Calif.-based financial planning firm Empyrion Wealth Management. “They feel stuck if they don’t have a car, so they pay it first.” Joel Ohman, a certified financial planner and founder of CarInsuranceComparison.com, says that this may also have to do with media headlines. “People hear about others who have been late on their mortgage and still kept the house, so they think they can do it too.”
A new study from U.S. PIRG gives us perhaps the most detailed yet look at the “peak car” phenomenon whereby America’s passenger-miles driven keeps falling. As Ashley Halsey writes, perhaps the most important contention of the report is “data that show the cities with the biggest drop in driving suffered no greater unemployment peaks than those cities where driving declined the least.”
Specifically, the second- and third-largest declines in car commuting were seen in the Washington, DC and Austin, TX metropolitan areas which had two of the most robust job markets during the recession.
PIRG’s takeaway is that it’s time to stop lavishly funding new highway construction and instead focus money on a mix of maintaining existing infrastructure and improving mass transit services. I agree with that, but the budget allocations are in some ways the smallest pieces of the puzzle. The real gains are to be made in rolling back the implicit subsidies to parking and barriers to multi-family apartments, leveling the regulatory playing field between private cars and private transit, and looking at operational issues that prevent cost-effective transit operations in the United States. All of which is to say that while money is nice, what’s really needed is a much broader change of mind that doesn’t regard all alternatives to living in a detached single-family house with one car per adult as deviant behavior that needs to be regulated into a special box.
42% of U.S. households meet the basic requirements for using a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). PHEVs, like the Chevy Volt, run on both gasoline and electricity.
25% of U.S. households meet the basic requirements for using a batteryelectric vehicle (BEV). BEVs, like the Nissan LEAF, run entirely on electricity, with no tailpipe emissions.
69% of U.S. households have weekday driving habits within the range of nearly all BEVs on the market today.
65% of Americans think electric vehicles are an “essential part of our nation’s transportation future for reducing oil use and global warming pollution.”
Americans’ transportation habits have changed. The average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today than when per-capita driving peaked in 2004.
A review of data from the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Census Bureau for America’s 100 most populous urbanized areas – which are home to over half of the nation’s population – shows that the decline in per-capita driving has taken place in a wide variety of regions. From 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest urbanized areas for which up-to-date and accurate data are available. Most urbanized areas have also seen increases in public transit use and bicycle commuting and decreases in the share of households owning a car. (See Figure ES-1.)
Figure ES-1: Driving Is Declining and Non-Driving Transportation Is Increasing in Urbanized Areas
The first five data bars (“Increase in the proportion of workers working at home” to “Increase in the percent of car-less households”) measure the 100 most populous urbanized areas from 2000 to 2010. The “Decrease in vehicle-miles traveled per capita” measures the 74 (out of the 100) most populous urbanized areas for which comparable data exist from 2006 to 2011. The “Increase in transit passenger-miles traveled per capita” measures the 98 (out of 100) most populous urbanized areas for which comparable data exist from 2005 to 2010.
Regional, state and federal officials need to account for changing trends in driving as they consider how to adapt their transportation policies and infrastructure plans to a new future of slower growth in vehicle travel.
Cars do not belong in cities. A standard American sedan can comfortably hold 4+ adults w/ luggage, can travel in excess of 100 miles per hour, and can travel 300+ miles at a time without stopping to refuel. These are all great things if you are traveling long distances between cities. If you are going by yourself to pickup your dry cleaning, then cars are insanely over-engineered for the task. It’s like hammering in a nail with a diesel-powered pile driver. To achieve all these feats (high capacity, high speed, and long range driving), cars must be large and powered by fossil fuels. So when you get a few hundred (or thousand) cars squeezed onto narrow city streets, you are left with snarled traffic and stifling smog.
Even if you ignore the pollution, cars simply take up too much space. Next time you are stuck in traffic behind what seems like a million cars, try to imagine if all those cars where replaced by pedestrians or bike riders. Suddenly, the congestion is gone.
Why do major leaps forward come so rarely in the auto industry? There are of course the usual suspects: crash test standards, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requirements, European pedestrian safety protections; entrenched capital investment in infrastructure and manufacturing methods; long vehicle development cycles — the whole legacy kaboodle of a mature and highly regulated industry. But I spent four years researching, interviewing, and writing about inventors who aren’t limited to thinking like the auto companies, and who made cars that are drastic departures from the ones we’re driving now. They did this as part of a grand-challenges approach to innovation — a $10 million X Prize that pushed inventors to build the super-efficient car of the future.
Auto companies like to sneer at legitimately futuristic cars, calling them “science projects” and saying consumers will never buy them. I believe this is a mistake. Because ultimately, they don’t really know. They’ve never tried to make and sell cars like the ones that ended up excelling in the X Prize contest. And they’re awfully good at blaming consumer timidity for their own engineering fears and failures.
Announced in 2007 and staged in 2010, the Progressive Insurance Auto X Prize attracted diverse interest — not from big automakers but from lone inventors, garage hackers, students, entrepreneurs, and startup companies all over the world, all with different ideas about how to shape the future of the automobile. To win a piece of the $10 million prize pot, teams had to build a safe, practical car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas (MPGe) and emit 200 grams per mile or less of CO2 (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming).
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on Tuesday reintroduced legislation that would require the government to study the most practical ways of taxing drivers based on how far they drive, in order to help fund federal highway programs.
Blumenauer’s bill, H.R. 3638, would set up a Road Usage Fee Pilot Program, which he said would study mileage-based fee systems. He cast his bill as a long-term solution for funding highway programs, and proposed it along with a shorter-term plan to nearly double the gas tax, from 18.4 cents to 33.4 cents per gallon.
“As we extend the gas tax, we must also think about how to replace it with something more sustainable,” Blumenauer said Tuesday. “The best candidate would be the vehicle mile traveled fee being explored by pilot projects in Oregon and implemented there on a voluntary basis next year.”
He said the bill would help answer questions about “how best to implement a vehicle miles traveled [VMT] system,” and said it “looks to the future and helps provide a more stable funding base for the next one hundred years.”
A text of Blumenauer’s new bill was not available as of Wednesday morning. But the concept is similar to an idea he proposed in a bill last year, which called on the Treasury Department to study the viability of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.
Average loans for new cars jumped by $756 to $26,719 in the third quarter from a year ago, the highest increase in five years, according to Experian Automotive, which collects registration data from motor vehicle departments and financing data from lenders – an essential cog in the perfect surveillance society. Despite the jump in loan balances, the average monthly payment rose only 1.3% to $458, due to two factors:
Magically lower interest rates. Though interest rates elsewhere in the economy rocketed higher in Q3, auto lenders just ignored them, and average rates actually dropped to 4.27% from 4.53% a year earlier.
Dizzyingly long terms. The average term grew by one month to 65 months. A stunning 19% of all new-car loans were stretched to over 72 months, up from 16% last year.
Used vehicles saw similar dynamics. The average amount financed rose 1.8% to $17,900, but the average monthly payment remained flat at $350, thanks lower interest rates and longer terms.
Leasing – a fancy word for “long-term renting,” something dealers, lenders, and automakers love because they get to extract more money out of you, and you don’t even know it because the monthly payments are deceptively low – made up 27.2% of all new financing in Q3, up from 24.4% a year ago, up from 14.2% in 2009, and up from the mid-single digits back when I was still in the business (and we loved, loved, loved leases!).
WHEREVER automotive engineers gather, some wag will sooner or later announce that hydrogen is the fuel of the future—and always will be. The hydrogen-powered car has been just around the corner for decades. However, judging from announcements by Honda, Hyundai and Toyota at last week’s motor shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo, hydrogen cars will be hitting the showrooms from spring 2014 onwards. It seems the future is about to arrive.
Hydrogen’s attraction as a transport fuel is that, unlike petrol, diesel, kerosene, natural gas and every other hydrocarbon fuel, it contains, well, no carbon. Burning it therefore creates no carbon-based greenhouse gases—at least, not in the engine. However, if air is used as the oxidiser instead of pure oxygen, burning hydrogen produces all the noxious oxides of nitrogen that fossil fuels generate. These are an even bigger curse than carbon dioxide as far as damaging greenhouse gases are concerned.
That is why work on using hydrogen as a fuel for a modified internal-combustion engine has been more or less abandoned, even though getting such a power unit into production was considered cheaper than any of the clean alternatives. BMW built a couple of hydrogen-powered supercars, only to find them no cleaner than clunkers from the days before catalytic converters.
THE TOKYO MOTOR Show (through Dec. 1) unfailingly offers the most outlandish concept cars on the auto-show calendar, whimsical mobile-bots that would never in a million years be built. The i-Road isn’t one of them.
Toyota 7203.TO -0.16% is producing the first of hundreds of these all-electric tandem-seat three wheelers and will be setting them loose, for example, in the streets of Grenoble, France, next year as part of an urban car-sharing experiment called Ha:Mo (that is short for Harmonious Mobility).
The Toyota i-Road is one of several highly evolved, micro-commuter EV prototypes that Japanese auto makers featured at the Tokyo show this year, and it is a fair example of their anxieties. If current trends hold, the megacities of Asia and South America will be asked to absorb tens of millions more cars and trucks in the next decade. Various species of smaller-than cars, in two-, three- and four-wheeled morphologies, will have to evolve to fit where the conventional automobile won’t.
The three-wheeled i-Road is narrow and tall. Toyota notes it is only as wide as a large motorcycle, and four can fit in the parking space required for a Camry. The driver seating is monoposto, like a single-seat race car or an enclosed scooter. A passenger seat has been wedged behind the driver, but it is best thought of as a parcel shelf.