We've Got More Horsepower In Our Driveways And That's A Good ThingS

Science writer Alexis Madrigal put together an analysis showing we have more power in our garage than in our power plants. The data is interesting but the conclusions are fantastically wrong. Having more power is a good, nay, awesome thing.

Here's the data he runs, based on the "peak" horsepower available, which ignores that most vehicles don't frequently use their peak horsepower:

I decided to run the numbers for today's overpowered vehicle fleet. (The math is below.) Turns out we have something on the order of 51 billion peak horsepower sitting in our driveways. That's an incredible 38,276 gigawatts of power available. That absolutely dwarfs the nameplate capacity of our electrical power plants, which total up to a mere 1,087 gigawatts. In fact, each week of 2008, a horrible year for car sales, almost 38 gigawatts of capacity rolled into the streets of America.

Unfortunately, this is where things go awry. After pointing out that we were able to defeat Hitler with 80% less horsepower, which makes little sense, he comes to three conclusions.

The Tata Nano Argument
One, the current size and power of our cars and trucks is just stupid. The Tato Nano, with its 33 horsepower engine, is the way to go. (If all of the world's cars looked like that, going electric would also be a lot easier.) Let's merely note here that the average American passenger car has 7.5 times as much horsepower as the Nano and yet both vehicles will get you to the grocery store or to Nevada or wherever.

Technically, this is true, but with a top speed of 65 MPH it's not going to get there as quickly. Nor does the Tata Nano have to carry the same amount of safety equipment as a comparable car built in Europe or the U.S., so if that Nano gets into an accident the chance of injury is much, much higher (but none of his arguments work if you factor in progress). And if we're concerned about energy efficiency, the new Toyota Prius gets approximately the same mileage as the Tata Nano and will get there faster and with more comfort, more safety equipment, and more style.

The We Don't Need It Argument
Second, the people of just one hundred years ago would be awed by the amount of horsepower every American has access to. The funny thing - the irony, perhaps - is that we no longer need that amount of horsepower to do anything useful. The people of the prairie were scratching and clawing for every kilowatt hour of useful work they could wring out of some oil or the wind. The people of Omaha these days don't need anything like the direct energy services of their forerunners.

Yes, pity the poor people of Omaha with computers, air-conditioning, live-saving equipment like MRIs, and televisions. Clearly, it would be better if we went back to living without as much electricity.

The Insanity Argument
Third, and here's the hopeful part - no sane country would encourage its consumers to get on the technical and performance treadmill that led us to this point. Who would want this piece of the American technological infrastructure and set of consumer expectations? It's resource inefficient and expensive. I wouldn't expect the Chinese to follow our path to the American car anytime soon.

First of all, the Chinese are in fact doing all they can to mimic American cars and it is a growing market for American cars. So, they're apparently as crazy as we are.

But what's really missing here is that American cars are becoming more efficient in large part because of power increases. Automakers are using lightweight parts, direct injection, turbocharging, and other technology to increase power and, at the same time, lower fuel usage. The 2010 Ford Flex with Ecoboost (direct-injections plus twin-turbo) nets 355 HP, an increase in power of 93 HP over the naturally aspirated V6 model, while actually improving the mileage of the vehicle. We've engineered V8 power with V6 fuel efficiency.

Better efficiency is a good thing, but so is comfort, safety, and reliability. People in India aren't buying Nanos because they've made the conscious decision to limit themselves to 33 HP, they're doing so because they can't afford anything else. They're going in the opposite direction by trading the efficiency of bikes and motorcycles for something bigger. Americans can afford bigger, nicer, safer, more powerful cars for the simple reason that we, as an economy, have sought out progress, not rejected it. [Greentechhistory]