The Right Step For Oil Consumption

Below, Doug posted about Americans’ greater propensity to simply accept that the intrusive state is here to stay, and have actually gotten used to and attached to it. I find that the place I’ve been able to begin to break this mindset is to show the few places where the government and private industry compete on a level playing field. One specific example is competetition between UPS/FedEx and the USPS.

I’ve also long been against government funding of scientific research. When government throws their money behind one potential technology, they are creating an unequal playing field where scientists flock to those technologies to receive research grants, even if those technologies are not as feasible as others. So why not try a different way?

I posted the below at The Unrepentant Individual last year. I think it’s a better way.


Every time I hear someone on the left bemoan gas-guzzling SUV’s, I expect the next words out of their mouth to be “Bush should increase CAFE standards!” This, IMHO, is a defeatist attitude. As Peter in Office Space says,

That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

That’s the attitude of many of our automotive companies. They lobby tooth and nail against the increase of CAFE standards, because they know that it’s going to be a lot of work, hard to do, and cut deep into their profit margins. And when those standards increase, they find the quickest and easiest way to barely meet those standards, to get the regulators off their backs until the next round.

So how about we find a better way? The next thing I might hear from a leftist is “we need to invest in energy technology”. Considering the government’s history of investment in private business, I think that’s a bad idea. But there has been one place that government investment has been incredibly successful: the military. How did it happen? They set a goal, let companies know that if they made the right bid with the right product, they’ll make boatloads of money. And it has led to “smart” bombs, planes that are invisible to our enemy, tanks with reactive armor, GPS technology, the Internet (formerly ARPAnet), etc. Yesterday Eric suggested (with props to Jerry Pournelle) that we follow the example of the Ansari X Prize, and offer prizes for meeting technological goals in the race to colonize space (quoting Pournelle):

“Whereas the Congress has determined that an American owned Lunar Colony is in the national interest, the first American owned company that shall place 31 American on the surface of the Moon and keep them there alive and well for a period of three years and one day shall be paid a prize of $7 billion dollars.”

Give people a goal and a reward, and you’ll see some exciting things.

So why can’t we extend this to automobiles? Here’s an idea:

Goal: Create a vehicle of no less than 3000 lbs curb weight, the engine outputting peak horsepower of no less than 200 bhp and peak torque of no less than 200 ft-lbs, that can complete a predetermined course at over 50 mpg. This engine will need to cost (in mass-production) no more than $2000 above the cost of current technology outputting the same power. The course will be a road racing course, completed at any speed, but with three dead stops per lap. The vehicle will need to complete enough laps to traverse 150 miles on 3 gallons of gas, repeated each direction on the track.

Prize: $2 billion dollars, and with an open license for the technology used but a licensing fee of $300 for every competitor’s vehicle built with this engine technology for ten years from the date of winning the prize.

You want to see the “Big 3” automakers wake up and innovate? Hang $2 billion dollars and big-time licensing fees from there competitors under their noses, and you’ll see some movement. The goal is difficult enough to require big strides in technology (made difficult by engine power requirements and vehicle weight) to accomplish, but no so far in the future as to be beyond the scope of current technology.

This is just an off-the-cuff idea. It is wide open to some tweaks based on the input from people with better understanding of the technological problems and cost issues than I have. Of course, we could make any number of prizes to acheive desirable technological goals. Perhaps things such as alternative fuels would be preferable to reducing oil consumption, but may be farther out in the future. But our current policy of incremental increases in CAFE standards does nothing but drive automakers to incremental innovation. We need a new approach, and this seems like it just might work.

(Note: I realize that government involvement in research is not a truly libertarian goal. However, the government is already involved in research, and not doing a very good job. This is a big improvement over the current system in cost, and it just might work.)