Opinion: Should We Limit Horsepower In Cars?

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I love going fast, and I make no apologies for it.

Ok that’s a lie. Sometimes, I feel guilty about going fast, guzzling gas, drooling over 5 mile per gallon muscle cars. I know the world is in a bad way, mostly because of cars. Yet I still love them, especially fast ones, because in my opinion life is too short for a 0-60 mph time of 7 seconds or more.

Still though, the easiest way to increase fuel efficiency is to make everyone go a lot slower. Instead of pursuing billions of dollars in new technologies, if everyone would just let off the accelerator, we would save a lot of gas every year. One such way would be to (again) lower the interstate speed limit 55 mph. Yet that didn’t work too well the first time around. What if we went even further, what if new cars were capped at 200 horsepower, and had a top speed of only 60 mph?

Ok, so I felt very dirty and un-American for writing that. I believe the government that governs best, governs least. And again… I love going fast. The only car I’ve ever owned that had less than 200 horsepower was a 1992 Nissan 240sx with 200,000 miles on the clock. And it was STILL awesome.

That disclaimer in place, I feel like exploring this notion that less horsepower and less speed might make sense for a lot of people. During the Nixon Administration, the Dick himself enacted the Emergency Highway Conservation Act, which among other things, lowered the national maximum speed limit to just 55 mph. The idea was to save about 2.2% on annual fuel consumption, though studies say it like saved about 1%, and perhaps even less than that. A major reason why is that most people probably still went 65 mph or faster; they just got more speeding tickets too.

But what if automakers were capped at making a car with no more than 200 horsepower? Realistically, 200 horsepower is probably enough power for 90% of America. The first statistic I look at when I come across a car is the horsepower rating, and every year it seems like even regular cars get more and more powerful. That could be because they have to accommodate ever more technology, safety features, and us hefty Americans. Still, 200 horsepower will motivate most family sedans while allowing us yahoos to have (very limited) fun in a coupe or hatchback. This would also seriously cut back on fuel consumption.

Just look at the average fuel economy of cars under 200 horsepower, and those over 200 horsepower. Once you break that 200 horsepower threshold, it seems very difficult to get beyond 30 mpg (the 2011 V6 Mustang being the one exception I can think of off the top of my head). How much horsepower do you really need to get to work? Something tells me most Americans aren’t in a rush to get to their desks every day anyways.

Ask yourself, what is the top speed of your car? Chances are, it is over 100 mph. There are very few places to legally go that fast, and certainly not on any public roads in the US (though I long for an American Autobahn). Why should passenger cars even be able to go that fast?

So lets get crazy, Big Brother-style government here. What if you could only accelerate so fast? Say 6 mph per second, so it would take a minimum of 10 seconds to reach 60 mph, which incidentally, would be the maximum velocity for any car made in the country. You could probably set the horsepower threshold even lower then, save even more gas, and probably reduce accidents too.

Forget for a moment that this would be a totalitarian trampling of the rights of citizens. Just consider how much fuel would be saved, and perhaps more importantly, how many lives could be saved since accidents from excess speed would essentially be eliminated. I have no statistics to back this up, but if everyone were driving the same speed, traffic congestion would probably be seriously reduced too. People might actually get so impatient with their slow cars that public transportation would end up being the expedient way to get around compared to driving a glorified golf cart.

I’d also like to counter the argument that highways have gotten safer since the 55 mph speed limit was repealed in 1995. I would argue that highways haven’t gotten any safer, and drivers certainly haven’t what with cell phones and other digital distractions; rather, cars have gotten safer. Much, much safer. There are just as many accidents now as there were twenty years ago. People just don’t get as badly hurt when there are twelve airbags going off in every direction every time you run over a chipmunk.

While I’m not proposing this kind of legislation, it is something worth pondering I suppose. We Americans want it all, yet most of us probably wouldn’t notice a difference if all of the sudden their cars lost a couple of horsepower or accelerated slightly slower. I love having the option of buying a car with 400+ horsepower, but I don’t need it. I just want it, really really bad. The only vehicles that really need a lot of horsepower (but mostly torque) are trucks or SUV’s employed for hauling and towing duty.

And muscle cars. Because you can’t burn rubber with 122 horsepower (without getting laughed at).

So anyway readers, weigh in with your thoughts. How terrible an idea is this? Or is this something you wouldn’t really mind?

Image: Wayne State University

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.