With the recession only getting worse, politicians are starting to consider the unthinkable: letting the auto industry go bankrupt. Economists and politicians are considering the future of the car in the United States and who needs to shoulder its burdens. The short-term answer may not lie with hybrid cars, as many Americans might expect, but with smarter, more economical designs that use readily available engine technologies.

If you’re looking for a car that would make even a Prius blush with envy in terms of fuel efficiency, the best place to start is Europe. Cars overseas are generally much smaller and are designed to be just enough for a person to get around. The lineup of Opel cars, a German manufacturer owned by General Motors, has a significantly better average gas mileage across the board than GM’s domestic lineup. Much of the savings in gas mileage simply because companies manufacture lighter cars abroad than in the U.S.

Another difference in Europe is the prominence of diesel-powered cars. Diesel engines, once hated for being excessively dirty and loud, are now commonplace in Europe. They excellently power small cars and even take into account the high cost of diesel fuel in comparison to gasoline. Mileage for small hatchbacks easily tops that of any hybrid. A diesel-powered BMW 5 Series, a fairly sizeable luxury car, boasts a competitive fuel economy in comparison to existing hybrids due to good aerodynamics and an efficient diesel engine. These engines are also more sustainable through the use of biodiesel, which is far less energy-intensive to produce than bio-fuels for gasoline cars.

The reason we don’t see many of these cars in the U.S. is because the U.S. has different regulations. European countries ease nitrogen oxide emissions regulations for these small diesels because overall, they are more efficient. These nitrogen compounds form photochemical smog and contribute to global warming. Furthermore, safety test standards for European cars are run on an almost incompatible rubric to U.S. safety standards, making many European models illegal due to safety technicalities.

The good news is that there are solutions to these problems. The appearance of a few diesels like those on the market in the U.S. — the Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec sedan, for example — shows that there are ways to reduce the emissions of diesel vehicles to levels about the same as a gasoline car — or better. One of the more novel approaches is a urea tank that nearly eliminates nitrogen oxide emissions. Better catalytic converters, part of the exhaust system to remove emissions, are another option. With increased focus on developing these technologies, diesels could become a viable engine in this country, even under strict emissions controls.

On the matter of safety standards, there are a number of fundamental differences in the automobile culture of the U.S. that need to be considered. First aid, car maintenance and even economical driving instruction are often required to obtain a license in Europe. Europeans also base their crash test regulations on the assumption that occupants use their seat belts. Safety standards in the U.S. consider both belted and unbelted occupants, resulting in more emphasis on air bags and heavier designs that may or may not be necessarily safer for belted drivers.

For car companies to have compatible standards, compromises need to be made. Focusing more on accident prevention and making motorists more responsible for their own safety would go a long way toward allowing automakers to introduce street-legal, fuel-efficient cars in America. And where a change in driver culture won’t make up for safety differences, automakers should invest in lighter materials that don’t hinder fuel economy.

Of course, there is no greater motivation for a smarter fleet of cars than a public that isn’t wary of smaller cars. The days of owning a big SUV are rightfully over, and Americans need to take the initiative to warm up to smaller, lighter cars. As long as the public is afraid of driving something smaller than the large plodding symbols of a languishing auto industry that we currently drive, there won’t be an automotive revolution anytime soon.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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