The EU Parliament's environment committee is considering a proposal to ban all cars capable of exceeding 100 mph (162 km/hour) from 2013. The proposal, put forward by LibDem MEP Chris Davies, is based on the arguments that cars that go faster than 100 mph are "over-engineered to a ridiculous degree", and that for safety reasons, they need to be heavier, and hence to burn more fuel.
"Cars designed to go at stupid speeds have to be built to withstand the effects of a crash at those speeds. They are heavier than necessary, less fuel efficient and produce too many emissions," says Davies, who resigned as LibDem group leader last year following an unfortunate email exchange on the subject of Israel.* "At a time when Europe is worried about its energy security it is sheer lunacy to approve the sale of gas guzzling cars designed to travel at dangerous speeds that the law does not permit."
There are however just a few problems with Davies' reasoning here. The amount of CO2 produced by a vehicle is a function of engine efficiency and the weight of the vehicle, but efficiency isn't necessarily related to top speed. Nor is engine design solely related to a desire by the customer to have a vehicle that can exceed practically any speed limit - in day-to-day use, the vehicles performance at legal speeds is generally far more important to the purchasers of cars with more powerful engines.
Davies reasons that if the EU declines type approval for cars that exceed 100 mph, there will be no market for more powerful engines, hence design will concentrate on smaller, more energy efficient engines, and hence there will be a substantial impact on CO2 emissions. And given that a negligible proportion of EU vehicle emissions comes from vehicles exceeding 100 mph, this 'virtuous' effect on the direction of engine design needs to happen in order for the proposal to have any effect at all. But costs and lead times in engine development mean that initially, if the proposal goes through, manufacturers will simply put a limiter on the engine (hence no immediate impact), and if it is the case that customers will still want cars with acceleration and a tolerably high cruising speed, then it will have little or no impact on the emissions of future designs either.
And, speaking of impact, what about extra weight demanded by the safety needs of high performance vehicles? It's certainly true that the weight of the average car has increased substantially in the last 30 years, and that some of this increase has taken place (frequently at the behest of the EU) for safety reasons, but given that hitting something at 100 mph isn't a whole heap safer than hitting it at 120 mph, there's not a lot of point in adding more weight to cars capable of 100 mph plus for safety reasons, and, if the vehicle is specifically being sold as a high performance car, there's quite a lot of point in reducing weight.
Extra weight certainly has reduced the effectiveness of improving engine design, but where safety is a factor it's been added by pressure on the manufacturers to reduce road crash deaths, and via consumer demand for vehicles that are safer, or that look safer because they're bigger. Safer at least for the occupants - the low-weight, low speed model of 30 years ago wouldn't be legal now, but balanced excellent fuel economy (despite grossly inefficient engine technology) with the near certainty that if you hit anything bigger than you travelling at any kind of speed, you would die. More recently it has been argued (basically from the same hymn sheet as the suggestion that removing road markings aids safety) that the ultra-cautious driving consequent to this knowledge might reduce road deaths, if everybody's car was dangerous, but whereas 30 years ago the small death trap would only lose to some of the other vehicles around, today it would lose to virtually all of them.
Weight has also been added for reasons of comfort and to provide enticing extras that will induce customers to replace their vehicles more frequently. And demand for better consumption and lower emissions, driven to quite an extent by the EU, has also had an effect in producing a general belief that newer cars are 'better', and 'greener'. Get rid of that three year old car that still drives fine, buy a Toyota Prius and save the planet - that kind of thing. The economic side of the deal gets a lot less attention that raw emission levels, but there's a carbon cost associated with the manufacture of a vehicle, and more frequent replacement (considerably more than was the case 30 years ago), means greater cost (see this Telegraph analysis for an explanation of the "halo effect" on general sales of the Prius, and for some not entirely flattering dust-to-dust cost figures).
Davies' proposal is contained in a draft report of the committee, and may be approved after further discussion later this month. ®
* "I've paid the price for pressing the 'send' button when I was not only angry but blazing mad. I dislike rudeness and I would never have used these words if I had stopped for long enough to put my brain into gear," said Davies at the time.