The United States can slash its use of petroleum dramatically by 2035 by adding a heavy dose of hybrids to the market, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To return U.S. fuel use to pre-2000 levels, however, carmakers would have to improve efficiency and consumers would have to learn to love hybrids, trading features like increased speed and size for higher fuel efficiency.
"There's all this fascination with vehicle technology--more hybrids, more diesels, and so on," said study author Anup Bandivadekar, an analyst at the International Council on Clean Transportation, in a press release.
"But this result shows that you can achieve a greater reduction in fuel use at a potentially lower cost just by focusing on reducing fuel consumption rather than increasing performance and size," said Bandivadekar.
MIT researchers looked at consumer behavior and fuel infrastructure to project three scenarios of how changes in car technology might change petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions. In each case, they assumed heavy improvements in fuel economy across the board.
In the best case scenario, aggressive adoption of hybrids would make carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent lower than if no changes were made in the next 27 years. That would require 55 percent of new cars on the road to be hybrids or plug-in hybrids, leaving 44 percent to run on gasoline.
If factors remain as they are now, we can expect to see fuel use rise to 35 percent above 2005 levels by 2035, according to the study. It noted that 22 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from cars and light trucks, which guzzle 10 percent of the world's petroleum.
It's cheaper in the near term to improve the efficiency of gasoline cars than to push advanced technologies that aren't ready for mainstream adoption, the study found. And putting more diesels and hybrids on the road wouldn't dent petroleum use much before 2025. The benefits of plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would also come later.
The MIT researchers called for immediate governmental support through fuel-efficiency tax credits to drivers and car makers, as well as replacing agriculture subsidies with funding for biofuels research. The findings appear in Bandivadekar's engineering doctoral thesis.
The government is requiring corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards by 2020 of an average 35 miles per gallon, which MIT researchers found to be weak.
However, America's love affair with SUVs already appears to be crashing as crude oil surpasses $120 per barrel and pump prices hover over $4 per gallon in many regions.
One in five cars sold in April was a compact or smaller, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Smart Cars, long popular in the narrow streets of European cities, came to U.S. dealers in January.
Perhaps the coolest green car on the market is the electric Tesla, whose Santa Monica, Calif., showroom opened Monday.
Sources funding the study included the Ford-MIT Alliance, Shell Hydrogen, and Environmental Defense.