August 14, 2008
How I Will Miss the Stick Shift: Reflections on the Reinvention of the US Automobile Industry
By Robert Margolis
In 2006 this writer most likely purchased the last stick shift automobile he would own. It took weeks to find a new car that was equipped with what appears to be a fading technology. Although I enjoy the greater feeling of control provided by a manual transmission, it is most likely when I purchase a replacement vehicle, it will probably not only have a different transmission, but it will also contain many other technological differences reflecting a reinvented US automobile industry This essay will discuss both the fading technologies and the up and coming technologies (e.g., exit the stick shift and enter the continuously variable transmission) that will transform the US automobile industry.
Before discussing any specific technologies that will change the US automobile industry, the first consideration is whether it will be needed at all. Many individuals and groups (such as here and here) have claimed that the automobile should be entirely replaced with public transportation as buses and trains. Some have even claimed that special devices akin to travel pods (i.e., Personal Rapid Transit) moving on high rise rails over our cities will be the future of transportation in the US and much of the developed world. Such claims are based on concerns over remaining petroleum supplies, climate change, and the large populations requiring efficient and effective transportation. They see the automobile as an extravagance from a soon to be bygone age.
However, many nations, the US in particular, do not have the population densities to support advanced public transportation schemes. It is still relatively economic to lay down roads and build bridges. In addition, despite traffic congestion in some of the larger US cities, it is still quicker to move from place to place with an automobile than public transportation. Finally, to completely abandon the automobile would involve a huge resource shift and transformation that would likely consume as many (if not more) resources as the automobile industry does now (i.e., trains, buses, and travel pods all need steel, energy, and skilled craft labor just like cars do).
So if the automobile is likely to remain the primary means of ground transportation in the US, what does the US automobile industry require to not only survive the next few decades, but thrive in an age where concerns over peak oil and climate change become dominant paradigms in moral imagination of the US public? The strongest path forward for the US automobile industry is to provide vehicles the public wants that also are easier on the environment and oil supply.
This does not mean that the US should try to out-Civic Honda. Rather, the US industry can use lighter weight materials and higher efficiency power trains to continue to provide medium sized and relatively high powered vehicles that are preferred by the US public during times of cheap gasoline. The public will likely still want larger and higher power vehicles such as minivans and trucks for family transportation and business applications (and maybe hybrid Mustangs and Corvettes will remain as well). Improvements in hybrid technology and advanced transmission devices will extend gasoline mileage and reduce vehicle carbon footprints while meeting the needs and wants of US consumers. The US automobile industry may be smaller than it is presently today and more focused in certain market segments, but it will be a more stable and vibrant industry in such a future.
This returns the discussion back to the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Such devices allow the vehicle to continuously move through the equivalent of an infinite range of gears (stick shifts are typically five gears and automatics are usually four gears) while maintaining the optimum engine speed. Ford, BMW, Nissan, and Audi are among the automakers that already use the CVT in many of their models. A car with a CVT is about 30% more efficient than one with a stick shift or automatic transmission. A CVT combined with lighter materials and higher efficiency hybrid engines would likely allow US automobiles to maintain much of their power and size while minimizing (though not eliminating) their environmental impact.
Such technologies could serve as a bridge while the hybrid is evolved by industry into a full plug-in electric vehicle. Currently, gasoline has a much higher energy density than any battery technology or alternate chemical fuel (no the Ford Nucleon is NOT coming back). Such a high energy density continues to provide gasoline a place as the preferred fuel for automobiles. However, superconductor-based storage (assuming higher temperature devices can be perfected) or advanced lithium batteries may become both sufficiently powerful and economic such that the automobile would no longer need fuel. Then such future vehicles would be charged from a grid that would likely have transformed into one more compatible with a post-carbon world.
Currently there is a debate over whether or not the US Government should fund this transformation. While some kind of subsidy is probably needed to facilitate these transitions, the oversight of such subsidies should be on end results rather than specific technologies. We have seen with the recent debacle over corn-based ethanol that government does not do well in choosing specific technologies, but has a good record on establishing an environment where industry can exploit new technologies to achieve overall efficiency and economic objectives. The following policies would assist in the transition:
- A subsidy of $25 billion would be authorized and appropriated to assist the US automobile industry in transitioning to more efficient vehicles that are also marketable. While specific technologies should not be ruled in or out, general objectives (e.g., fleet average increased to 50 MPG, etc.) need to be established upfront to ensure that the subsidy does not continue indefinitely.
- The subsidy for the US automobile industry should have oversight from an independent panel of experts to prevent undue interference from Congress. Such experts should run the gamut of several disciplines (i.e., not just automotive experts) to ensure appropriate expertise is brought to bear for oversight. Congressional oversight should consist of ensuring overall project goals are being met and funds are spent properly.
- The automotive companies receiving the subsidy shall have a project plan that, while not overly specifying a particular technology to employ, shall have performance goals (e.g., minivans will have a mileage of 40 MPG in the next five years), development schedules for the particular options, and "off-ramp" criteria to ensure technologies that are not working are abandoned prior to excessive spending. The automotive companies would regularly report to the oversight panel on the project plan in public meetings. If discussions of commercially sensitive material are required, they may be held closed door, but general schedule and financial information (i.e., how much of the subsidy is being spent) shall be public information.
The US automobile industry will be one that is more specialized and with higher technology than today, but with policies such as those above, the transformation will provide vehicles that can take the driving public both to their destinations as well as to a better environmental and economic future. A transformed US automobile industry would remain a foundation for higher wage careers for our future generations. I will miss the stick shift, but I would trade it gladly for a cleaner and more efficient automobile industry that will provide transportation for the decades ahead.
Robert Margolis has
worked in the utility and energy industry for 22 years. His areas of expertise
include reactor engineering, safety analysis, startup test engineering, and
project management. Mr. Margolis has worked for a variety of companies both in
the US and internationally (South Korea and Sweden). He also served on the
Professional Engineering Examination Committee of the American Nuclear Society
from 1996 to 2008.Mr. Margolis holds a BS in nuclear engineering from UC Santa
Barbara and is a Registered Professional Engineer in the state of California.