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Fuel Economy?

Recently, I was filling up my Beetle and the guy at the next pump commented that I must get great gas mileage. "It gets high 20s on the highway if I'm lucky." I said, rather unenthused.


But he was impressed. "A whole lot better than this thing." he said motioning to his mid-sized SUV.

Lately, car commercials have highlighted their gas mileage estimates with elaborate graphics, but the numbers they brag about are, for the most part, not new and improved.

Back in the early ‘90s I attended a car company-recruiting event on campus at MIT. I asked one of the recruiters why his company hadn’t developed vehicles with better fuel economy, after all, fuel economy was pretty much unchanged since the oil crisis of the 70’s. He gave me the company line about how difficult a problem it was. I knew this was bunk. The MIT solar car team had recently driven a car built by students with little money in a pretty bare shop across Australia.

I remember hearing that zero emissions vehicles would be mandated in several states in the early ‘90s. Then those mandates went away. If you haven’t seen it you should check out "Who killed the electric car?" (

Here we are in the midst of another "oil crisis" almost 20 years later. Gas mileage is about the same with a few exceptions. The Toyota Prius has become part of a puzzling political narrative that associates them with "liberal elitists."

That said, I visited the Whitney Museum this past week and was confronted with another indictment of the auto industry and its foot dragging with respect to fuel efficiency.

The Buckminster Fuller exhibit includes the last remaining Dymaxion vehicle prototype. Back in 1933, this three-wheeled, auto got 30 mpg, had a top speed of 120 mph and was about as easy to park as a Smart car. They say it carried 11 passengers (but from the looks of the pictures they must have been abiding by 1930’s safety standards).

Seventy-five years later, you can get a GMC Yukon XL that seats 9 people and get 14 mpg city/ 20 mpg highway. Chevy boasts that they "offer more models than anyone with an EPA EST 30 mpg hwy or better." It seems the bar hasn't moved much.


For a little more context, a group of high school students set a new fuel economy record of 2,843.4 miles per gallon (over 81 times the 2020 CAFE standard).


You'd think the car companies could do a little better.

David Oliver | Cusp |