11 April 2006

Motor Cars & the End of Days

On global warming

Surely it is a sign of the end of days when Kermit The Frog starts shilling for Ford Motor Company. “It is easy being green,” Mr. The Frog tells us, hawking the new Ford Escape SUV. In other words, you can be environmentally conscious and still drive an SUV, as long as it’s a hybrid. Never mind that the Escape Hybrid gets about the same mileage as a 2006 Toyota Rav4 or a 1978 Ford Pinto; never mind that it uses far more gas than a new VW Beetle or diesel Golf and has comparable greenhouse emissions. The Frog’s giving you the green light.

William Clay Ford, great-grandson of Henry, is said to be the spiritual father of the Escape Hybrid. He even turned in his small electric pickup for this new company car. There is no reason to doubt Ford’s green credentials, and he has pushed the company to improve its environmental footprint. But just as the left saw liberals as the real enemy of political progress in the 1960s (Chicago ’68 was the Democratic National Convention, after all, not the Republican), the keen observer may see that green autoists like Ford and The Frog are standing in the way of real progress on greenhouse gas reductions in the transport sector.

Put yourself in an auto exec’s position. Global warming can no longer be denied, and your products create about 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. Every time another Katrina hits (and every Mardi Gras season) people are going to want to know what you’re doing to stop the flood waters from rising. You’re simmering the ocean, salting the tropics and freshening the poles—when all those mollusk shells melt, and when the Gulf Stream shuts down, it will be on your head. Luckily you’ve been down this kind of road before, in the 1970s, so you have some experience. Then, too, people started to see problems with our automobile-dependent lifestyle, and they began to imagine a future without cars.

The authors of the car-free future wrote their fantasies in ink, concrete, and celluloid. The following works of nonfiction appeared between 1966 and 1973: Murder on the Highway, Superhighway— Superhoax, Road to Ruin, Safety Last: An Indictment of the Auto Industry, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age, The Immoral Machine, and Autokind vs. Mankind. Mass transit systems were sexy then too. The Bay Area’s BART began running in 1972, and “America’s Transit System” opened in the bicentennial year in the nation’s capital. The sci-fi look of the trains and stations—so different from New York’s ancient subway—expressed a faith that the future belonged to rapid transit.

But the best and the worst of the car-free future showed up on the big screen. There were the dystopian visions such as The Last Chase (1981), in which Lee Majors and Chris Makepeace lead Burgess Meredith on a high-speed chase across the country as the pair escape the fascists who have outlawed gasoline. That same year, Mel Gibson saved a few precious barrels of fuel from an evil gang in Mad Max II: Road Warrior. The iconic transportation system of the 1976 cult classic Logan’s Run was not a flying car, but rather the monorail system in Disney World’s Tomorrow Land. And the car-free world was played for laughs in Americathon (1979), which imagined a future in which people lived in their immobilised cars while the government held a lottery to pay off debts to American Indians.

Simply put, Americans of the ’70s were asked to imagine—for good or for ill—what a future without cars would look like. The Big Three spent much of the ’80s responding to this existential challenge by building cars that weren’t. GM debuted “a whole new kind of compact car,” the front-wheel-drive X-body sold as the Chevy Citation, Olds Omega, and Buick Skylark. The Citation had a computer-controlled “clean burning engine,” “impressive fuel economy,” and all the design panache of a cereal box: pure square-cornered utility from bumper to bumper. In 1981, Chrysler launched the K car in too many configurations and models to list. It was the product of a government bailout, the only attempt in American automotive history at Soviet-style production. Not only did the federal government underwrite the failing company, it also bought as many of these rolling grey-flannel suits as it could manage. The auto press did its part as well; Motor Trend named each of these soporific machines “Car of the Year” when it debuted.

But being called Car of the Year went counter to corporate strategy. The plan—devised in the 1970s—was to pretend these were not cars at all, and therefore not part of the problem of dwindling oil supplies and environmental damage. Cars were glistening, sensuous things that floated along, tailfins erect, like the ’57 Bel Air. Cars were long, low, and wide, by turns suavely elegant and powerfully imposing, like the ’78 Grand Marquis. The Xs and Ks were not cars. No, they were transportation appliances, so utilitarian as to be visible only when in use, and even then easily forgotten. Sure, cars might create smog, destroy cities, foment unrest in the Middle East—but don’t blame us, we don’t make those things anymore.

Something went wrong with the anti-car plan, though. Americans told to think of their cars as transport appliances did so—but they also realized that the Japanese were building far better appliances. For the next two decades, domestic manufacturers lost market share to imports that were both more fuel-efficient and better built. And now American automobile makers, already weakened by foreign competition, are faced with the prospect of another round of anti-car sentiment, as the effects of global warming become more and more obvious.

Fortunately for the automakers, they have come up with some darn good solutions. They’re working on a time machine to return us to the days before people had heard of anthropogenic climate change. They tested this device at the North American Auto Show in Detroit—it’s a 1970 Dodge Challenger, posing as the 2006 Dodge Challenger concept car. They got rid of the chrome, sadly, but otherwise it’s the same car, right down to the Halloween-orange paint. DaimlerChrysler engineers have even revived the old Hemi engine in recent years, and the new Challenger will get a 6.1-liter version. The designers say they were trying to “evoke all those sweet memories.” In fact, they brought the 1970 original into the design studio to copy. General Motors, meanwhile, is planning to revive the original Camaro with a concept car that might as well have been built in 1968. No cereal-box non-cars this time around, no mention of fuel economy: instead they’re building cars with a capital C, taking us back to the days when real men burned rubber.

If the time machine fails to pan out, they’ve also come up with some greener-sounding fuels. One of the biggest is “natural” gas. What could be more natural than burning natural gas in your motor? Then there is “bio” diesel, which sounds much more polite than “crude” oil. Unfortunately, these are still carbon-based fuels. Ah, but what if you could invent a fuel that drove your car along smoothly and quietly on nothing but water?

The hydrogen fuel cell is the silver bullet as far as the corporations, media, and federal government are concerned. “The coming hydrogen economy” is the fatalistic phrase found everywhere from Fortune magazine to the Department of Energy’s website. The best bit of propaganda appears at the end of a local newscast, or on the Discovery Channel: a jocular reporter zips up in a spiffy new fuel-cell car, then takes a drinking glass to the tailpipe, where he collects the condensing water. A wonder car that runs on water! A generation of beggaring science education is finally paying off.

You’ll have to study hard to learn that hydrogen is not really a fuel at all because although there is a lot of it, most of it is in hard-to-reach places—for example, the sun. It’s also found everywhere that’s wet, but then it’s tightly bound in a chemical ménage à trois with oxygen. The only way to separate these lovers is to zap them with electricity, producing oxygen and hydrogen. The need for electricity is a problem, because America continues to generate most of its electricity by burning coal, the most carboniferous fuel of them all. This seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The eco-terrorists may try to force wind and solar on us, but we’ll stand firm with our coal lobbies.

So what will our future look like? Chances are it will look a lot like our present, only warmer and wetter, with ever more startling images on the news of what is happening in the poorer parts of the world. Eventually it might even start to resemble a bad late-‘70s movie. The irony is, if Detroit decided to put its political muscle and brains behind solving our mobility problems sustainably, there would still be a place for the fun and frivolous cars they want to make and we want to buy and drive. Traditional cities remain the most environmentally friendly way for large groups of people to live, and the potential for information technology to transform public transport remains largely untapped. Driving used to be fun, and doing 2,000 miles a year in a Dodge Challenger still is. On the other hand, 20,000 miles in a Ford Escape Hybrid (using six times the fuel in the process) is just plain tedious. Most of us spend so much time behind the wheel commuting, chauffeuring children, hunting and gathering, that we cannot afford fun cars. We’ll gladly leave (most of) the driving to someone else, and we could use a walk anyway. The automakers had a strong hand in promoting our current land-use patterns; by promoting a shift away from sprawl, they could help to save both the oceans and their own tailfins.

Instead, though, our corporate and political leaders will do all they can to keep us from noticing the trouble automobility is causing. They’ll try to distract us by pretending Nixon is still president and keeping visions of hydrogen fuel cells dancing in our heads. They’ll probably be successful, too—at least until the rising sea water starts to flood the roadways and the eastern seaboard becomes a swamp. That will make The Frog happy. He was born in a swamp. As for us, we’ll no doubt need SUVs to get to the supermarket through the high water. I hear there’s a new hybrid Ford that gets good mileage.

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