It was a bit anticlimactic: The Obama administration announced this week that it had finalized its 2017-2025 green car rules, and will require automakers to achieve 54.5 mpg as a fleet average by 2025.
It probably means adding more plug-in hybrid and battery cars, but it also means increasing the efficiency of the gas cars we've been driving for more than 100 years. If they'd put automakers' feet to the fire back in the day we'd have all grown up with 30 mpg, instead of 20 at best. It's amazing how much innovation that regulation unleashed. Obviously, $4 a gallon fuel is a motivator, too.
"This is truly a watershed moment," said Michelle Robinson, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program. "Twenty years from now we'll be looking back on this as the day we chose innovation over stagnation." I totally agree, but 20 years from now, we'll look back and see some milestone nobody is recognizing now.
Many of the great moments in history went ignored. Ever heard the name Nicholas Joseph Cugnot? I thought not. Well, this Frenchman, who died in 1804, invented what was arguably the first automobile in 1769. It was a very nose-heavy steam carriage, meant for military applications (hauling artillery). The three-wheeler was capable of 2.5 mph, and had to stop every 15 minutes to build up steam.
Cugnot, who built several vehicles (including a four-passenger steam tricycle), was apparently competent at his craft. In 1771, he actually managed to crash one of his carriages into a stone wall, thus earning himself the distinction of causing the first road accident. (Something like 100 years later, another Frenchman invented the bicycle and crashed that too, in Connecticut of all places.)
Anyway, Cugnot was not recognized for his genius. The French court ignored his contraption and failed to follow up with manufacturing offers. Even in his home town he was a prophet without honor. In fact, a contemporary French newspaper placed a bored mention of its field trials near the end of an otherwise lively discussion of an agricultural fair. He died in obscurity, probably in the gutter next to Edgar Allan Poe and other notables.
The point is we recognize Cugnot's genius now, long after it does him any good. The poor fellow who invented the copying machine showed it to 20 companies before the small firm that became Xerox took it on.
The electric car is currently a political football, kicked around as Obama's folly by his enemies. Who knows, 50 years from now we might get a holiday for the date circa 2010 when the first Volts and Leafs hit the road and began to free us from the tyranny of oil.