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Flashbacks: "Power Without Plunder" (June 1, 2001)
A collection of recent Atlantic articles on energy technologies that make environmental—and economic—sense.

Engines of Efficiency

July 18, 2001
his week a federal panel of auto- and oil-industry engineers and consultants recommended that the government require the auto industry to increase fuel-economy standards—and President Bush has indicated he may heed the panel's advice. Environmentalists had been concerned that the commission would too heavily favor the auto industry, but their report in fact criticized the industry for circumventing current fuel-efficiency standards, and contended that vehicles with poor gas mileage are major contributors to global warming and America's dependence on Mideast oil. New engine technologies, they emphasized, should make it possible to improve fuel efficiency without compromising safety or raising costs.

In recent years two Atlantic articles have addressed the quest to build cars that are dramatically more fuel efficient. In "Reinventing the Wheels" (January 1995), Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins described new developments in this area, and suggested incentives for encouraging Americans to switch to more-efficient automobile technologies.
Customers should be encouraged to overcome their well-known lack of interest in buying fuel-thrifty cars in a nation that insists on gasoline cheaper than bottled water.... Happily, at least one market-oriented alternative is available: the "feebate." Under the feebate system, when you buy a new car, you pay a fee or get a rebate. Which and how big depends on how efficient your new car is. Year by year the fees pay for the rebates.... Better still, the rebate for an efficient new car could be based on how much more efficient it is than an old car that's scrapped (not traded in).... That would rapidly get efficient, clean cars on the road and inefficient, dirty cars off the road (a fifth of the car fleet produces perhaps three fifths of its air pollution).
In "Hybrid Vigor" (November 2000), Gregg Easterbrook described what may turn out to be the next wave in cars. The environmentally friendly electric car, hailed in the mid-nineties as the solution to the fuel-efficiency issue, didn't quite pan out, he explained, because it proved to be slow and required frequent recharging. But in the course of researching the electric car, engineers hit upon a different concept—the "hybrid" car that effectively combines battery and electric power. Though Easterbrook conceded that the tiny Honda Insight, the first hybrid car to hit the market, seems unlikely to prove widely appealing, he pointed out that larger, more comfortable vehicles are now in development and may well prove to be big sellers.
The world will not beat a path to a teeny two-seat hybrid. But a full-size car that gets 40 miles per gallon? A minivan or an SUV that gets 30 miles per gallon? These could be huge hits in the marketplace, reversing the trends in petroleum consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. In the end hybrid power may prove a better idea than the electric car, because it will appeal to everyone.
—Sage Stossel

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Sage Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.