Americans own 244 million motor vehicles—more than any other country by a wide margin. Yet we have only 203 million licensed drivers. Even if we all do our part and start driving continuously, we’d still need to leave 41 million cars parked. Cars pollute, contribute to global warming, kill more than 40,000 Americans a year, and injure some three million more in the process—and yet with Detroit begging for bailouts, and environmental and financial crisis upon us, history teaches us one undeniable fact: America needs more cars—now. We’ve done it before. Europeans invented the automobile in the late 19th century with a specific market in mind: rich guys with more money than sense. The car was intended to replace the private carriage, not the wooden clog or paper-stuffed boot the workers wore to the factory—that’s not who cars were for. It took fifteen years for an American to reinvent the automobile: Henry Ford’s Model T, in 1908. The Tin Lizzie served a whole new population because it was a new kind of car, a disruptive technology. Designed for the rural market, the T was smaller, easier to fix, and designed for unpaved roads. It was also the first “open source” automobile, encouraging everyone to make parts and accessories for it. Over the next twenty years, we became a nation on wheels.
History repeated itself in the turbulent 1960s, when Japan became the next great automobile power not by replacing the cars in American driveways but by adding to them. It is commonly believed that the Japanese took over the automobile market when the long gas lines and odd-even rationing of the 1970s induced a switch to small cars. But really, by the 1970s the Japanese had already abandoned the strategy of marketing Toyotas against Chevrolets.
Following the lead of Volkswagen, the Japanese began exporting to the US in the 1950s. Toyota, for example, debuted the Crown for the US market in 1957. The Crown was the Japanese version of a full-sized American sedan, and had been designed primarily to displace American cars from the domestic Japanese market. In the US, it never made a dent. But the VW Beetle, a compact car with a noisy engine and oddball styling, became a big hit—as did Toyota’s later, smaller imports, such as the Corolla.
The Beetle and Corolla didn’t go after the American family car but instead helped create an expanded market for the personal car. Young people and single people opted for this new breed, as did families who wanted a second car. (Detroit’s entries into the personal-car market—including pony cars such as the Mustang and compacts such as the Maverick—outsold their Japanese and European rivals by far, making the trend permanent.)
One hundred years after the debut of the Model T, it’s time for Americans to reinvent the automobile again. While Europe sees climate change as a dangerous gorge ahead and want to slam on the brakes, the uniquely American solution should be to hit the gas and try to jump the canyon. (Evel Knievel used a rocket and didn’t quite make it, but fear not.) We don’t need $25 billion in loan guarantees to Detroit Dinosaurs. We need to encourage the myriad entrepreneurs who want to create a new kind of car. Standing in their way is big government: subsides for the existing players in the global automobile/road/oil complex, rules and regulations that raise significant barriers to entry, and a century-old web that regulates the ownership and use of vehicles in a way that makes it sensible to keep driving that old Escalade even with high gas prices.
In 1970, Neil Young dreamed he saw silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun. Now he just wants his 1959 Lincoln convertible to get 100 miles to the gallon—and if anyone can get 5,000 pounds of Detroit baroque to run on cleanly generated electricity, I guess it’s the maker of Live Rust. He’s started a company called LincVolt in Wichita that’s working on a zero-emissions engine to power his old Lincoln. The new spaceship is white and has tail fins, but that’s progress for you.
Young’s got his own idea for a Detroit bailout: Give money so they can continue to make cars in Michigan, just don’t let them make engines anymore. The factories would stay open, the workers would remain employed, and there would be a blank canvas for anyone who wants to try their hand at providing zero-emissions power.
One company that would probably jump at this chance is Tesla Motors of California. Like the Japanese automakers before them, Tesla has decided to build its technology, production capabilities, and name with a car that nobody really needs. It’s a two-seater that shoots from 0 to 60 in under 4 seconds—the rarified end of the performance spread inhabited only by Lamborghini, Ferrari, and souped-up Corvettes. It’s a plug-in electric with a 240-mile range that sells for $100,000. In 2011, expect to see a sedan that sells for around $60,000, with similar range but sensible enough to be a workaday car. While Detroit goes hat in hand to Congress for billions, Tesla is using a $200 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy to secure cheap capital for building a new production plant in San Jose.
If your ego doesn’t need a sports-car boost, there are plenty of companies ready to provide you with a serviceable electric car—and one made in America, if you prefer. There is the Zenn electric from Canada, two models from Wildfire Motors of Ohio, and a range of models made by Global Electric Motors (owned by Chrysler) of Fargo, North Dakota. Some of these vehicles are little more than enclosed golf carts, but some are full-blown city cars. No one’s suggesting that we turn the world into Fantasy Island or Leisure World where golf carts rule the road. But these so-called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are the perfect supplement to your all-wheel-drive status symbol.
The trouble is that not every state will let them on the road. Even where they are street-legal, the federal government limits their speed to 25 mph. The thinking behind the rules (passed in 1998) that govern their speeds—along with limiting their weight and so on—can only be described as keeping the streets safe for SUVs. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety suggested the following label:
WARNING: This vehicle is a LOW-SPEED VEHICLE and it should only be used in low-speed and low-density traffic. Occupants of this vehicle face a significant risk of serious injury or death in collisions with larger vehicles.
This information from the traffic safety establishment could just as helpfully be printed on the soles of shoes. In any case, it’s sure to limit the usefulness of these otherwise perfect machines.
PUT THE PEDAL TO THE METAL
The further one goes from internal-combustion orthodoxy, the harder it becomes for the regulatory regime to cope. No wonder there aren’t more Twikes on the road. Granted, the goofy name doesn’t help, but this three-wheeled, two-seat, hybrid-electric vehicle is far out. Top speed is 55 mph, but you have to pedal while the electric motor helps out. The technology’s not much different from the increasingly popular electric-assist bicycles, but the Twike boasts a weathertight cabin, pedals for two, and joystick steering. As with many builders of unique machines, the German maker of Twike has trouble staying capitalized.
Current Tesla buyers are in it for the fun, but how exactly would ownership of a Tesla sedan work for someone who also wants to travel from New York to DC (you might just make it) or from LA to Vegas on a gambler’s whim (you won’t). The harsh reality, for the moment, is that that trip is best done in your old carbon burner.
But why can’t you keep both? Nowhere is it written that you’re only allowed one car. In 1924, GM head Alfred Sloan told shareholders that the company would make a car for “every purse and purpose.” Sloan had the right idea but didn’t go far enough. Today’s cars are variations on a tired theme. Rather than offering a blank check to Soviet-style behemoths like General Motors, now is the time for government to force open the market for a wide variety of Specific Motors. Innovation is out there. With the help of a new regulatory regime, it could revolutionize the road.