Last summer, when the price of gas skyrocketed to $4.00 per gallon, it seemed to surprise Detroit as much as it surprised drivers.
Actually, today's engines are much more efficient than they were 30 years ago. Manufacturers are using technologies like variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation, and downsized engines with turbocharging.
It's just that the efficiency has been diverted to power jackrabbit starts in heavier cars.
Now, manufacturers say they need time to develop cars that sip gas rather than guzzle it. At the start of World War II, Detroit switched to tanks and jeeps in just six months. But short of that national mandate, it'll take a while to design new products and re-tool factories.
Experts say lighter cars or smaller engines would be an easy way to achieve fuel efficiency. Detroit could even keep the weight in cars that makes some people feel safer, according to David Kittleson who teaches mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
"I think smaller engines would do wonders," Kittleson says. "We'd probably be able to obtain at least a 30-percent fuel economy gain if we just dialed back to acceleration rates typical of the 1980s, which were perfectly adequate."
“People like their SUVs.”John Broadhurst
Most cars are available in two or three different-sized engines. Kittleson says Detroit could just eliminate the larger engine; no need to re-tool.
"If they wanted to, they could run the factories that produce the smaller cars 24-hours-a-day until they get more production lines out there."
But would Americans buy those cars? That's the question auto executives have to answer.
Another U of M professor, John Broadhurst, was a consultant for the British auto industry. Here in the wide-open spaces, even with more expensive gas, Americans will still want high performance, he says.
"People like their SUVs, they like their large Ford Explorers and things like that, and they do convince themselves they are safer," Broadhurst says. "And of course they are safer, if they run into a Smart Car or something like that. But if they run into an 18-wheeler, they're no safer than anything else. But they like to feel they're at the top of the food chain."
On a recent morning it was pretty quiet on the sales floor of the Walser Buick Pontiac GMC dealership in Bloomington.
A half-dozen cars are on display -- with huge red Christmas bows on their hoods. It's early in the morning, but these days it's quiet all day here.
Doug Sprinthall shows me a Buick Lucerne. It gets 26 miles to the gallon on the highway.
"Even a relatively large car like this, with modern engine technology and front wheel drive, gets respectable gas mileage," says Sprinthall.
Sprinthall's job is managing new car inventory for Walser. People aren't buying much these days because of the shaky economy, he says. But what they are buying has changed like a see-saw, with the drop in gas prices.
"A few months ago we had no Pontiac Vibes in stock, which is the Pontiac version of the Toyota Matrix, and we were swimming in Yukons, which is the GMC version of the Chevy Suburban," says Sprinthall. "We had a big sale on Yukons last month; we sold more Yukons in one month than we had in the previous six, and we've got Vibes sitting all over the lot right now. "
Sprinthall acknowledges that it's partly because the company promoted them heavily.
"But you can only promote when there's market," he says. "If we had done that when gas was $4.00 per gallon, we would have just been burning advertising money in the lot."
One thing seems apparent: as long as gas prices are low, consumers don't have much appetite for fuel-efficient cars.
Sprinthall's experience is that some people who bought fuel-sippers last summer, when gas prices were high, have come back to trade them in for what they had before -- SUVs, trucks and vans.
"There's some culpability in this whole crisis, with the big three manufacturers: they were chastised on Capitol Hill for not building cars that people want," says Sprinthall. "The sad reality is they actually were building the cars people want. Maybe they weren't building the cars that people should be driving."
So if we want to know how Detroit will design its cars of the future, maybe we should look in the mirror.