Fueling the Push for a Better Car

Posted: Aug 24, 2007 12:00 AM
Fueling the Push for a Better Car

Today’s modern technology would doubtless awe the people whose pioneering work made it possible. If Alexander Graham Bell flipped open a cell phone or Philo T. Farnsworth watched a high-def television, they’d be dumbfounded. Technology has taken their relatively crude inventions and made them immeasurably better.

But suppose Henry Ford took a spin in a 2007 Lincoln Town Car. He’d undoubtedly be impressed with the leather seats, the thunderous sound system and the power windows. But when he looked under the hood, he’d feel right at home.

Sure, the internal combustion engine’s been improved since the Model T days. For example, fuel injection has replaced the carburetor, and electronic ignition eliminated the crank. But Mr. Ford would certainly recognize the basic system: An 8-cylinder engine burns gasoline to turn the wheels and drive the passengers.

It’s long past time to improve this design, and it’s critical that we do so.

Think of it this way: Policymakers stress the importance of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. To do this, they’ve subsidized ethanol and passed automotive fuel economy standards, among other things. But none of these measures have worked -- and they won’t. To use less foreign oil, we need to make the internal combustion engine obsolete, by creating the next generation automobile -- a car that doesn’t run on gas.

That may sound impossible, but it isn’t. Somewhere there’s an inventor who can design an affordable car that runs on clean fuel. This person simply needs the right incentive, and here’s where private groups and foundations can help.

They could use the Ansari X Prize as a model. That competition promised $10 million to the first team that could put a man into low-earth orbit. Eventually, 26 teams from all around the world vied for the prize. To fund their efforts, these inventors lined up $100 million worth of private research and development -- R & D worth far more than the prize that was eventually handed out in 2004.

For a similarly small investment, foundations could encourage private citizens, academics and auto industry experts to develop the next generation car.

It’s time to set up a fund to reward the first person who develops a commercially viable alternative-fuel car. Such a fund could offer to pay, say, $25 million to this lucky inventor. It’s a lot of money, but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the billions our government has spent in recent years to subsidize the ethanol industry -- subsidies we’re all paying for and few are benefiting from.

Everyone knows that incentives work. Employers offer bonuses to workers who exceed expectations on a project. Even the government frequently pays contractors a bonus to finish projects ahead of schedule. Why not use rewards to speed the production of a better automobile?

It may seem as if the internal combustion engine will remain around forever. But it won’t. Eventually, something will replace it.

Recall that just 100 years ago, many worried about whether cities could continue to grow. After all, more people meant more horses, and what would a city do with all the resulting manure? Cars changed all that. Tomorrow’s vehicles will do something similar, because once they’re invented, they’ll allow us to travel without burning any foreign oil or generating any exhaust.

But they won’t invent themselves.

Lawmakers have failed to solve our oil problems because they’ve tried to pick winners. Only the market can do that successfully. We need to set up a reward and then get out of the way. That will drive inventers to finally create something that’ll eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, and in doing so improve the environment. The next Henry Ford awaits.