When companies like Tesla, Volkswagen, Chevrolet and Toyota drop word that they have a new concept EV (electric vehicle) or high MPG (miles per gallon) car in the works, people have good reason to get excited. Ever elusive and attractive, the electric car is an invention that has been ten years away for the last thirty years. The dream that we can make our daily commutes cost pennies, avoid the gas station and do it in a sexy sports car body enters the American psyche in a big way. So when a story breaks that one of the latest contenders in the market, the 261 MPG Volkswagen XLI, isn’t going to come to the U.S. because “it’s too efficient” and “threatens oil profits” it’s convenient to buy into the conspiracy theory and blame big oil. Even though the XL1 won’t be reaching U.S. production lines it was never built to in the first place. Begging the question, why then was the car ever made?
Killing the MPG rumor:
Before continuing let’s put the rumors to rest. The real reason the car won’t be in the U.S. is not because it’s too efficient.
As Michael Ballben of jalopnik.com mentions in his article, the first and perhaps biggest reason that we won’t see the XL1 in the U.S. is because of safety standards. Note that the XL1 is not a plug in electric or even a hybrid. The car is powered by old-fashioned fossil fuel combustion. This makes the car susceptible to the safety standards of every other automobile currently in America.
The XL1 is still very much a concept car, and in the pursuit of streamlined lightweight aerodynamics the designers left several features that are required by U.S. law out of the car design, including: side and rear view mirrors, crumple zones and even bumpers.
Yes, it is possible but unlikely that big oil is the reason the XL1 won’t be leaving Europe. After all, the industry is known for using hardball tactics to protect their profits. Take for example the use of lead in gasoline for the greater part of the 20th century. Even as a known toxin that causes sterility, memory loss and stunted growth it took over two decades for legislation to appear that mandated the production, use and distribution of unleaded gasoline. By employing scientists to promote a pro-lead stance and paying lobbyists to protect against political action the oil industry was able to stymie the switch to unleaded gasoline for decades.
The same tactics could be used to regulate auto standards in favor of inefficient gas-guzzlers—preventing EVs and high MPG cars like the XL1 from coming to the states. But remember that futuristic cars are not only produced overseas; as jalopnik.com reminds us Tesla is the bigger and closer threat to oil profits.
Why build the XL1?
It is clear that the VW XL1 is not a direct threat to oil profits because it was most likely never meant to be a production car. It is more likely that the XL1 is an engineering pet project for Volkswagen designed to draw attention to the brand. It is meant to show the public that the company can compete in the efficiency market with brands like Toyota, Tesla and Chevrolet.
Volkswagen doesn’t actually need to have the car on U.S. lots for consumers to show up and purchase a car. Let’s face it, as much as we all would love a Tesla Roadster, Model S. or Volkswagen XL1 these cars are out of most of our price ranges. Just like how high-end Macintosh computers sell entry-level laptops, high-end cars sell entry-level commuters. The brand recognition gained by making the XL1 may be enough to get some consumers on the lot and away from VW’s competitors. It’s an arms race and right now VW has the biggest missile… the XL1.
It is true that outdated automotive safety and material standards prevent cars like the XL1 from entering the U.S. market, but ultimately that’s ok. Engineering projects like the XL1 proves a bigger point that we often forget, products like cars that we use on a daily basis can be designed more efficiently. Although the XL1 may not be in your garage in the coming year, it is a stepping-stone towards a more efficient automotive future.