The Efficiency Paradox: A Review of “Two Billion Cars”

My review of Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon’s Two Billion Cars is just out, in the new issue of The Wilson Quarterly.

Here’s a taste:

“Efficiency” is a soothing, lovely word that means little on its own: efficient as compared to what? Take the American car (please). As veteran transportation and energy specialists Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon write in Two Billion ­Cars—­their authoritatively prescriptive challenge to the “transportation monoculture” that plagues the United States and Europe and looms in China and India—automakers have been making their cars more fuel efficient on the order of two percent annually. And yet the actual “corporate average fuel economy” of cars has made less commendable gains: “The bottom line is that although technologically the modern U.S. car is more efficient than ever before, gaining more work from a gallon of gasoline, those efficiency gains don’t show up as fuel economy gains.”

What happened? All the efficiency gains were consumed, by size and horsepower (not to mention increased driving). In 1976, the Honda Accord, which captured the wallets, if not the hearts, of Americans reeling in the wake of high fuel prices, weighed 2,000 pounds and got a reported 46 miles per gallon in highway driving. “Ten million Accords later, the car had ballooned,” write Sperling and Gordon. “The 2008 model is 78 percent heavier, equipped with an engine nearly four times as powerful and loaded with power options.” It also gets 17 miles per gallon less on the highway than its predecessor. This example is not atypical: “Today’s granny car would have qualified as a performance car 25 years ago.”

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13 Responses to “The Efficiency Paradox: A Review of “Two Billion Cars””

  1. aaron Says:

    Speaking of the parenthetical, how do the cars compare to each other on the real road now?

  2. aaron Says:

    Another thing to consider is that increased horsepower is not necessarily wasted efficiency. On the contrary, it’s an exemplar improvement. The problem is that people buy the number, but don’t put it to use. Better horse-power yields greater fuel economy, provided it’s used. Problem is we don’t use the horse-power, which would also improve throughput and decrease the biggest fuel waster, stop-and-go driving.

    The problem is that people drive half asleep most of the time, oblivious to the world around them. If people were alert enough to put that horsepower to use effectively, they would also be less accident prone.

  3. Nicole Says:

    It seems that a lot of their discussion about general efficiency (or lack thereof) got mired in a subtle argument I just couldn’t let go of…the whole, “let’s just make gas far too expensive for anyone to afford. THEN we’ll see who’s driving!” … I was horrified at the thought but it has plagued me since I read the book. Aimless debates about fuel efficiency (and even fuel cells for that matter) seem to pale in comparison to the real conversation I had with this book. I know, I know…that just replaces one set of problems with another but it’s all temporary.


    I like your work.

  4. Jack Says:

    I remember the good old days in the 60-70s when cycling on streets meant that the fastest cars were little 911s that a cyclists could see over and easily share a lane with safely. The “fast” vehicles as defined by driving habits are now monster SUVs and pickup trucks that cannot be seen over and too big to share a lane. Then there’s cell phones, horsepower and road rage to deal with today that didn’t exist before.

    Getting better gas mileage, better efficiency, were the desired objectives but these tech gains were used for unintended purposes. Tech policies were not balanced-supported with other governmental policies (like toll roads, higher fuel taxes, mileage taxes, etc.) to capture the ultimate prize, a reduction in total fuel consumption. Highways were expanded and widen while cycling infrastructure-law enforcement were conveniently ignored. Since fuelish behavior was subsidized via federal policies, we got more of it, not less. Until these bad habits become expensive (higher taxes or higher gas prices), Americans will choose the path of lowest costs-highest convenience.

  5. Eric Says:


    I don’t think you understand what horsepower is for. Horsepower is not a significant matter in maintaining your speed. If you’re maintaining 70mph as you go down the highway, it doesn’t matter how much horsepower you have.

    Horsepower is meaningful in a few circumstances — acceleration, going up steeper inclines, towing something heavy. As your vehicle weight goes up, you need greater horsepower to maintain similar performance.

    So in fact greater horsepower is more of a factor in stop-and-go driving than it is holding a fixed speed.

    Would you please explain your claim that greater horsepower leads to better fuel economy provided it’s used?

  6. Gordon Says:

    Horsepower is somewhat meaningless.
    Getting more HP from an engine does not mean that it will use more fuel.
    The more efficient the engine is the more power it will produce to a point. Example, take a Chevy v8 from 1955 and measure the power output. Now update that same engine with all the latest electronic controls and fuel injection systems that are used on todays engines and use the new cylinder heads. It will produce more power. It will also use less fuel.
    Cars are way to heavy and have too much air drag.
    Google Renault Vesta and Daihatsu UFE 2.
    Most people also DEMAND hard acceleration. That requires lower gearing and more power, bump the gears from say 3.5:1 to something like 2.5:1 and fuel efficiency will go way up. But rocket like acceleration will be gone.
    Depending where that horsepower is being produced also will come into play. If the engine is producing 300 HP at 3,000 rpm or 6,000 rpm. How big is the engine? 15cubic inch or 500 cubic inch?
    Getting high fuel mileage is no big deal, does the public want it?

  7. aaron Says:

    Horse power means more efficient and faster acceleration, the most fuel intensive part of driving and most sgnificant factor in throuput at bottlenecks.

  8. Stephens Says:

    Yep. I wish the 1989 Honda Civic hatchback had never gone out of production. My 2001 Civic gets worse gas mileage.

  9. Eric Says:


    Once again I think you’re making stuff up. More horsepower does not necessarily mean more efficient. Take a look what Gordon said in comment #6. By changing the gear ratio, you get slower acceleration and yet better fuel efficiency. And it’s widely known that jackrabbit starts are bad for fuel efficiency.

    You also make a vague claim that acceleration is “the *most* sgnificant [sic] factor in throuput [sic] at bottlenecks” (emphasis added). You’ll have to be clearer as to what you need, and back up the claim that you’ve identified the “most” signficant factor.

  10. Rix Says:

    A year or two ago, a car mag tested the acceleration of a 1984 Ferrari against a new Hyundai Entourage minivan. The Ferrari won, but not by much.

    Truly, that is automotive progress.

  11. aaron Says:

    Jack rabbit startS are very different than accelerating quickly. Increased throughput with faster acceleration is common sense. See any industry/operations text book, or read The Goal. You can also see that gasoline consumption over vehicle miles traveled has declined over the past several years as gas prices rose and people drove slower.

  12. aaron Says:

    Eric, transmission is a different issue.

  13. MikeOnBike Says:

    We’ve heard of “hypermiling”, driving in a way to eek out the minimum fuel usage.

    I think Aaron is talking about something different. But I’m not sure. What does it mean to “use” horsepower? What sort of bottlenecks should we be horsepowering through?

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