Machine mimics man: Automakers fight car obesity, weight wins

Tribute-Bruce-Snowden-Picture courtesy thesocietypages.org

As many of us are painfully aware of, power and weight are at constant odds. Too often, the battle is won by sheer weight, as energy succumbs to obesity. The same goes for the cars we drive. Machine mimics man. As the car industry grows older, cars get heavier. They also gain power, and most of that added power is used to drag the added heft around. Exhaust escalation usually goes hand in hand with the extra expended energy.

California-based Paul Williamsen is chief of training at Lexus. He also received fame as the author of “BMW Fuel Injection: The Enlightened Approach,” a self-published underground bestseller describing the taming of the bedeviled K-Jetronic, a mechanical fuel injection system that beset many European cars in the final decades of the last century, a curse as complex and mysterious as a WWII Enigma machine. Today, Paul shared with his friends a fascinating chart.

The animated chart plots the fleet average power to weight ratio of cars sold in the US, and it does so from the gasoline crisis years of the 70’s all the way to today. Using the fleet average is brutal, and necessary. Lightweight cars may look green on paper, but they only reduce emissions and fossil fuel consumption if they get sold en masse, and only if they take away share from the gas-guzzling behemoths.

Looking at the chart, a few items become evident immediately:

  • Like people, cars get heavier as they gain power.
  • Over time, the power to weight ratio improves only slowly
  • In the past decade, improvement has accelerated.
  • Detroit’s carmakers did shed power and weight in the malaise era, then made a sharp U-turn in the Reagan years.
  • Germans move aggressively from lower left to upper right.
  • Japanese follow with their usual deliberate caution.
  • Daimler added substantial power, but only inconsiderable heft.

All in all, if you are looking for a big break-through on this chart, you won’t find it. If cars would get smarter instead of just bigger and brawnier, you would see a general move to the left of the chart, coincidentally, a direction overweight Detroit took for a while, only to reverse course. If that Carter-era Detroit diet would have moved the plot a little higher to the left, the industry, and Detroit would be in a much better shape today.

“Some car companies look like monsters on that chart,” Chiharu Tamura, Deputy Chief Engineer of the light-weight, high-power Lexus LFA, tells me privately. “They get bigger and stronger, but not necessarily smarter.” Easy for him to say. His 3,300 lbs light all carbon-fiber LFA with a 552 hp engine would be way off the chart, somewhere in the power to weight stratosphere.

That, however comes at a price, $375,000 to $445,000 to be exact.

Newton is a bitch.