Don’t expect this week’s gas-out to solve anything

Last Saturday a woman standing in line with my wife and I told us not to buy gas on May 15.

She beamed at her Ford Super Duty pickup. She said she’s tired of paying so much to fill it, and she’s looking forward to sticking it to the gas companies.

The gas companies love people like her.Voluntarily not buying gas on May 15 won’t solve anything because people are just going to buy more gas on May 14 or May 16. My wife sees this effect on her business, on a smaller scale, all the time. On and around April 15, she doesn’t sell much because people just paid their tax bills. So the cashflow dips, but then the customers are back with a vengeance within a couple of weeks. To a lesser extent, the same thing happens on most major holidays.

Business is like that. Every business has at least a few slow days in a year.

Gas-outs have been happening ever since the beginning of Gulf War II. I remember people at work talking about one in 2002, and another one in 2003. I’m sure there have been some since then but my e-mail filters usually catch them.

In case you don’t remember, in April 2002, gas jumped to $1.40-plus a gallon. Then in September of 2003, it surged to $1.70-plus a gallon, then it backed down into $1.50 territory. By mid-2004, we were in $2.00 territory, and it’s been there ever since. Well, except when it’s been $3 a gallon, that is.

Did you ever think $1.40 gas would sound good?

Gas prices are high right now primarily for two reasons. One is investor speculation. You can buy gasoline futures the same way you would buy stocks. And right now it’s a much safer bet that $100 invested in gasoline right now will be worth more in August than the same amount of money invested in, say, Time-Warner stock. So investors with a Las Vegas mentality (and there are lots of them) have been investing in gasoline and, in some cases, crude oil, which is the raw material gasoline is made from.

The second factor is, well, we’ve proven time and again that we’ll pay these high prices. We’ve been paying $2 a gallon for gasoline for three years. When gas prices go up, there’s no incentive for the oil companies to rush to fix the problem that caused prices to go up. We keep buying gas, and they keep raking in record profits year after year.

There are a couple of things we can do to drive gas prices down again. But none of them are short-term fixes.

Basically, we’ve gotta burn less gas. Driving less helps. Instead of running to the store the minute you remember you need something, make a list, plan out a route, and go get everything in one trip. Google Maps has a cool new feature now where you can punch in a destination, then add multiple destinations, and drag them around to try to find the optimal route and cut down on backtracking. Every little bit helps. I use this web site every single weekend. Besides saving me gas, it almost always saves me more time than I end up spending planning the trip in the first place.

But that Super Duty pickup truck is an even bigger part of the problem. Every day when I go to work, I see people driving ever-bigger pickup trucks. Or Chevy Suburbans. Pickup trucks are designed to haul cargo, while Suburbans are designed to haul families. As commuter vehicles, they’re doing neither. At 12 miles per gallon, all they’re really doing is burning a lot of gas.

My Honda Civic burns 1/3 the fuel that a pickup truck burns. It’s not even a hybrid. I get mad when it costs me $36 to fill its tank. But when a pickup truck with a 30-gallon tank is sitting on empty, you’re looking at $90 to fill it.

Most of us only haul stuff on weekends. Given that it costs $30 to rent a U-Haul, you would be better off driving a Civic during the week and renting a U-Haul on the days you need to haul a lot of stuff. Odds are you’ll find you really only need a lot of cargo space a few times a year anyway.

The same logic can apply to large vans and SUVs. A lot of people buy those and justify them by saying they go on a trip once or twice a year and they need to haul a lot of luggage and extra family members. Considering that monster vehicle is costing you anywhere from $30 to $60 a week more to drive than a passenger car costs, it’s costing you about $1,500 a year to drive that thing. And that’s just in gas–it’s not even counting the higher monthly payments. It would be a lot cheaper to rent the thing twice a year. Even renting a 15-passenger van would be cheaper.

And if you rented those vehicles when you needed them and drove a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla the rest of the time, you’d be burning 1/3 the fuel you’d otherwise burn. Drive a hybrid, and you might be able to drop that down to 1/4 or so.

Imagine what would happen if 100 million households decided to cut the amount of fuel they burn by a third. That would actually stand a chance of causing fuel prices to drop permanently.

I think the government ought to try to sweeten the pot a bit, offering incentives for owning any fuel-efficient vehicle, not just hybrids, in order to encourage this to happen more quickly. But that would make sense, and petroleum companies and most auto manufacturers would oppose it, so I don’t expect it to happen.

But as long as people keep driving huge vehicles with capabilities they only use a handful of times a year, and just complain about sky-high gas prices, those prices will stay high. Complaining alone doesn’t accomplish anything.

I’ve talked economics enough, so if anyone’s still reading, hopefully you’ll indulge me for a few minutes. Every time I turn around, I hear about the problems with the possible solutions to the gasoline. Ethanol, biodiesel, and hybrids all have their problems.


Why aren’t we combining them?

The fact is, hybrids do save energy that otherwise gets wasted, and if you drive them correctly, that means better fuel economy. So a gallon of ethanol gets fewer miles per gallon than a gallon of gasoline. Wouldn’t a hybrid ethanol/electric engine more than make up the difference?

Biodiesel isn’t quite as efficient as petroleum diesel. But diesel fuel of any type gets more miles per gallon than gasoline. Why aren’t we building hybrid diesel/electric engines to reap even bigger benefits?

And why are plug-in hybrids only available as hacks by garage tinkerers? If you plug in your hybrid, you can do your local stop-and-go type driving entirely on electricity and not burn a drop of gasoline. Why isn’t this benefit available to the masses?

And why not take it a step further? My car sits in the hot sun in a parking lot for 8 hours a day, five days a week. What if it were a hybrid with solar panels, using those solar panels to charge the battery? Of course the benefit wouldn’t be the same as plugging the car in overnight, but the energy doesn’t cost anything either, aside from the cost of the solar panels.

Maybe there’s a good reason why a diesel/electric hybrid that plugs into the 110 outlet my garage and has solar panels on it doesn’t exist. But the light bulb didn’t exist either, until Thomas Edison decided its benefits outweighed the pain required to invent it.

Maybe there’s someone out there who knows how to build the thing. The world would be a better place if someone would.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t expect this week’s gas-out to solve anything

  • May 13, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    A little over 50% of the cost of a gallon of gas is for the crude. If you cut back on consumption, the King of Saudi Arabia and Senor Chavez, will raise the cost to pay their bills.
    The Chinese are picking up the slack when it comes to burning gas. They are buying more cars each year.
    Unless we adopt the lifestyle of Europeans, we will continue to pay. The ones who own cars have been paying through the nose for years.
    Move across the road from your job or make the government provide public transportation.
    See you on the bus.

    • May 14, 2007 at 6:53 pm

      Ah, but if we don’t reduce consumption, prices have nowhere to go but up. Reducing consumption is the only way that stands a chance–a gas-out will not.

      On the other hand, if we drive smaller cars and just rent the bigger vehicles as we need them, we save money no matter what gas prices ultimately do.

      But I do wish we were more like Europe, both in regards to public transportation and car size. I’ve worked a couple of weeklong stints in Washington DC, and being able to ride the Metro was absolutely blissful. St. Louis’ equivalent is a start, but it still doesn’t go enough places.

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