A comprehensive research paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concludes that by seriously embracing more environmentally friendly vehicles -- starting with hybrids and plug-ins that prioritize the use of lightweight materials -- the U.S. could trim 30-50 percent of its current gasoline consumption by 2035. The wide-ranging, five-year study, "On the Road in 2035: Reducing Transportation's Petroleum and GHG Emissions," delineates numerous changes that would be required to cut both fuel usage and critical greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels as part of a comprehensive makeover of the American passenger-vehicle fleet.
A follow-up to the group's 2000 report, "On the Road in 2020," this latest MIT research contends the most significant short-term gains can be realized by aggressively pursing efficiency enhancements on both gasoline and diesel engines -- alone or as part of a hybrid system -- developing even more efficient transmissions, trimming vehicle mass by up to 20 percent and significantly reducing both mechanical and aerodynamic drag levels. It also projects that fully implementing this degree of package optimization will likely increase vehicle costs by $1,500-$4,500. Equally critical, the study contends that owners must change their basic mentality regarding the size and types of cars and light trucks they choose to drive. "We've got to get out of the habit of thinking that we only need to focus on improving the technology -- that we can invent our way out of this situation," said John B. Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who led the research. "We've got to do everything we can think of, including reducing the size of the task by real conservation."
Looking out over a 20- to 30-year time frame, the study foresees hybrids, plug-in electrics and ultimately hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles as being the real keys to trimming U.S. gasoline usage by up to 50 percent -- or some 68 billion gallons annually -- and dropping GHG percentage levels by nearly as much. However, until fuel cells do enter widespread use, the researchers anticipate the relative decrease in the quantity of petro-based fuels used will markedly outstrip the relative decline in greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, they stress the absolute necessity for "carefully crafted government policies" that will move the transition process along with a genuine sense of urgency. As Heywood notes: "Unless you've got lots and lots of vehicles with the better technology, the impact will be limited."