Aug 162011

The efficiency of cars has improved dramatically over recent decades. Back in the 1960s, few people worried about pollution or fuel economy. Most were only too happy simply to have a set of wheels with which to blast around the planet, scaring animals and enjoying new-found individual freedom.

With the first major ‘oil shock’ in 1974, when the oil-producing countries of the Middle East implemented huge cuts in output and triggered an economic recession, many countries, especially in North America, brought in a raft of measures aimed at cutting fuel consumption.

The biggest change was the introduction in the USA of a 55mph national speed limit. This was done in a bid to reduce the country’s vulnerability to OPEC’s control over supplies of crude oil. Of course, the 55mph limit is today sold to us as necessary in order to lower the number of people killed and injured on the US highway system.

A few years later, the US brought in its first, absolutely lousy, attempts at reducing pollution from automobiles. These early contraptions featured a mess of hoses and mechanical control systems that tried to cut the level of unburned hydrocarbons generated by America’s prehistoric car engines.

These devices tended to strangle the engines, resulting in the ironic situation in which huge V8 engines were frequently deprived of even the power needed to climb big hills. The idea of the true eco car was at this time pure fantasy, if it indeed even existed in anyone’s mind.

In Japan, however, most people could not afford to drive, let alone park, large cars. The little island was crammed with huge numbers of people who were beginning to enjoy the fruits of the country’s industrial rebirth following WWII.

The Japanese, with a great heritage in the production of motorcycle engines, started to produce some truly world-class ‘econoboxes’, as Americans liked to label them. After the OPEC oil crisis, many Americans were eager to sample the prospect of driving a small, light and efficient car that could travel farther on a gallon of gas than most American cars could manage on a tankful.

Cars like the Honda Civic showed the way for today’s eco cars. They were built lightly, they used small, relatively-efficient engines and they ran on narrow tyres.

Though these were hardly green cars by today’s measures, they certainly helped to educate the buying public, especially in North America, where people were more used to enjoying a plush sofa on wheels rather than a narrow seat trundling up the highway behind a sewing machine.

Toyota Prius - Eco Hybrid Car

Toyota Prius - Eco Hybrid Car

The Japanese have continued to lead the way with environmentally-friendly motoring. The Toyota Prius and its (admittedly fairly weak) competitor, the Honda Insight have managed something once thought impossible – they’ve cultivated a dedicated and expanding following amongst US drivers.

Now, we enjoy a huge variety of eco cars, from relatively mainstream hybrids that may be little more than a sop towards efficiency rules to all-electric vehicles that offer not just green motoring but incredible performance. One can today almost buy an eco car without worrying about any compromises whatsoever.

What’s even better is the promise of a future in which electric cars will let us focus on the use of the car as transport and not have to worry about engine maintenance, repairs or other aspects of life one has to deal with when using a car that runs on petrol or diesel.

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