What if fuel efficiency followed Moore’s law

At current rates by the year 2026 we will be able to drive, on average, 37 miles on one gallon of gas in the US. Wow. If that number strikes you as underwhelming then just consider, as a comparison, growth in the computer industry over a corresponding time period. Most portions of the computer industry have followed Moore’s law, a doubling in speed, capacity, efficiency every one to two years. This has proceeded since the 1970s to today, pretty much unabated.

Historical fuel efficiency trends in the US

Historical fuel efficiency trends in the US. Note that on the scale from the graph below, this would be a straight line.

PC hard disk capacity (in GB). The plot is logarithmic, so the fitted line corresponds to exponential growth.

PC hard disk capacity (in GB). The plot is logarithmic, so the fitted line corresponds to exponential growth.

My late grandfather, Gideon Kramer, was a very forward thinker- a futurist even. He was not very tolerant of lack of progress in some areas. He would have said “there’s just NO EXCUSE for this kind of thing”- actually, I think he probably did weigh in on exactly this issue. But really, IS there an excuse for this kind of thing? I’m sure there are sound practical reasons why fuel efficiency hasn’t increased much- at all- since before the 1970s. Even the most cutting edge fuel efficient vehicles, hybrids, and electrics don’t really do all that great. But there were likely very sound practical reasons why humans would never travel into space, never come close to eradicating polio and smallpox, we would never have hand-held communication devices with computational power unimaginable 30 years ago in our pockets. And yet we have done all these things.

So this raised the question: What if fuel efficiency DID follow Moore’s law? Where would we be?

If fuel efficiency in the US started following Moore’s law, with a doubling time of two years, in 1980- about the same time the computer industry really took off, we would have been able to drive from LA to New York on 1 gallon of gas in 1994. By 2002 we could have climbed in our cars, driven around the WORLD, and THEN had to refill our 1 gallon gas tanks. In 2009 we could have driven our cars to the moon- the frickin’ MOON- on, you guessed it, 1 gallon of gas. By the year 2026 we would be able to drive to the SUN- 93 million miles- MILLION MILES- on 1 gallon of gas. (this was, I should mentioned, not overlooked by Gordon Moore himself).

Calculations based on a doubling time of two years.

Calculations based on a doubling time of two years.




Here’s another way of thinking about it. If I drove 25,000 miles a year, which is about twice the national average, I would be able to buy a car- put one gallon of gas in it and drive it for forty (40) years without refueling. This is making a couple of assumptions- the first being that engine life would also follow Moore’s law and my car would actually last that long, and the second limitation is that the gas in the tank would actually go bad long before it got used up. In a few years we would be able to hand down the family gallon of gas to our kids and grandkids- a family heirloom that could continue to be used by generations to come.

So don’t get the wrong idea, not everything in the automotive industry has failed to follow Moore’s law. Apparently the tire pressure used in cars has obeyed Moore’s law, albeit with a longer time period for doubling. Really. That’s the best you can do automotive industry?

Clearly, there are technical and theoretical reasons why fuel efficiency hasn’t followed Moore’s law and probably can’t. However, it seems clear that the potential for fuel efficiency in vehicles is simply not being realized. Is this due to technical or practical constraints, or just simply because the demand isn’t there? I tend to believe that we just don’t want it or need it bad enough to make it happen. But I believe we can do better and we will be forced to in the near future.

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