These rate of adoption numbers, which Heywood says are borne out by the rate with which efficient diesel engines have spread over the last 25 years in Europe, suggest that short-term changes in fuel consumption must come not from the development of new technologies, but from the wiser use of existing ones. “We don’t have any options other than to reduce the energy requirement in a major way,” he says. Consumers should buy smaller vehicles that use less gas, drive slower and for shorter distances, and optimize fuel economy by staying on top of routine maintenance, such as keeping their tires inflated properly.
Heywood admits these ideas might not be rapidly adopted: “It’s not American to conserve. We seem to have drifted into that attitude. Our culture doesn’t bring us up to think about conserving. It brings us up to think about consuming.”
Heywood says changes in behavior, however, could be encouraged in several ways. Crackdowns on speeding would save gas. High prices at the pump help some, but prices at the time of vehicle purchases are also important. Heywood suggests that, in addition to toughening government fuel economy standards, which would give manufacturers more incentive to make vehicles that use less gas, consumers should be awarded rebates when buying smaller, more economical cars, as well as be assessed extra fees when buying gas-guzzlers.
He also thinks a higher gas tax could be palatable, if presented correctly. The money could go into the highway trust fund, which he says is now suffering, providing a justification for the tax beyond just penalizing drivers. Since such a tax would be highly regressive, disproportionately affecting the poor, who might get stuck driving used SUVs, for example, Heywood also proposes a selective reduction in their income taxes to compensate.
Meanwhile, petroleum-based fuel consumption continues to increase, in the United States and other major countries such as India and China. “We can do something about this – but can we on a global level get down to below what we’re consuming now? That’s an unbelievable challenge,” Heywood says.