I'll tell you one of my darkest fears. I fear that the future of the personal car is going to look increasingly like that of the personal computer; fascinating, frustrating, full of unrealized promise and real disappointment. With that in mind I have been trying to re-envision my future without focusing on cars. Frankly I've been searching for something to take the sting out of my embrace of the broken automotive dream. In this spirit an idea came to me. Hoshi needs a cocktail!
So I'm really hoping that someone will come up with a bottle of celulosic ethanol for me this holiday season. Getting the ingredients right is going to take a lot of testing of course. I would really like to find a quafable variety of antifreeze though that would probably be redundant. I do like the aesthetics of the drink pictured above. Variations could include olives or olive oil as an homage to biodiesel. A cherry or cherry blossom to remind us of Japan would be good. This is going to take a lot of time. I welcome your suggestions for the "Hoshi" aka the Sidetrack.
In a previous post I talked about the root problem for US automakers. Briefly stated it's that the American public doesn't look at them as AUTO makers but as TRUCK makers. And for many years the best selling vehicles in the United States have been............wait for it.........trucks. The Chevy Silverado/Ford F150 combo has dominated single model sales for a couple of decades. Each individually outsells even the most popular passenger cars including Camry and Accord; and by a wide margin. Both GM and Ford developed other more carlike vehicles (read SUVs) from these platforms and sold those in large numbers as well. Profits were high. Gas prices were low. Life was good. Only when gasoline reached the $4.00 per gallon level did the public hunger for these vehicles wane. It seems a bit unfair to call for Rick Wagoner's head for producing the vehicles America wanted to buy.
But Ford and GM are international corporations and while the US market is the world's largest and very profitable it is also unique. There is just not much demand for big thirsty trucks in the rest of the world. Certainly not as personal vehicles. So both manufacturers have large design teams in Europe making cars for the rest of the world. The world that somehow gets by on about half the energy per person that we do. These are cars that could be built here now and would at least stand a chance of remodeling the image of the industry giants. So what's the problem. Well uh...........government.
While European cars meet standards that are nearly identical to US standards for safety and emissions they are not EXACTLY the same. Consequently bringing a European model to the states requires a costly and lengthy certification process that really changes very little. The New York Times recently published a very informative article on this subject that I have linked here. The bottom line is that while Congress is demanding that GM become responsible for developing the consciousness of America it would do well to relax the regulatory gauntlet for existing European cars, at least on an interim basis. This would do more to insure the prompt introduction of modern, safe, green cars than any other measure. Simple, obvious, and politically feasible. Getting Americans to buy sensible green cars is another matter.
I actually feel embarrassed for GM CEO Rick Wagoner as he finds himself pleading with congress to save his company. It's like wrestling with the tar baby. The more you struggle the more you are stuck. Showing up the first time in the corporate jet was a mistake of course. Bringing the hybrid mule the next time just looked like pandering to anyone who was paying attention. I'm still struggling with the concept of lending many billions of dollars to a company you could buy on the open market for about 3 billion dollars. Why not dispense with the political theater and buy the company. Now they want his job of course. Maybe he should resign and wait to head up the oversight comittee that would follow the purchase of GM by the American people. It wouldn't pay nearly as much as his current position of course.
What's good for General Motors is good for America. Indeed.
As synchronicity would have it I passed by the magazine rack at the Y yesterday where someone had left the September 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. A station wagon special edition. I couldn't resist. Here in the states SUV's replaced all the station wagons in the 90's. Now we are starting the slow slide back to common sense with a stopover at Crossover Vehicles which are really 4 wheel drive station wagons that are too big but still command the premium price of the SUV's of old. One feature was on the Studebaker Wagonaire. An early 60's attempt to save another failing car company. Just two years away from extinction and grasping at straws to redeem years of failed business strategies, Studebaker took a chance on this innovative design. Sort of an All American spin of the Citroen 2CV. Why can't we have useful modern versions of designs like this? Imagine this at the local Costco with a 60" flatscreen TV rather than a refrigerator sized box. Tres chic.
The seven dollar Accord turned over 200,000 miles on my last tank of gas. I don't drive it that much. Fact of the matter is I should drive it less than I do. Usually I convince myself that I have to drive exactly one mile to work because I always take my dog, Sidney, or I have to pick up something on the way home. The real reason is I would have to get going 20 minutes sooner if I walked. Now I actually almost made the effort when I was paying $4.00 a gallon when I realized that even a 2 mile round trip was costing me about 50 cents in fuel alone. Our customers who commuted to Denver were noticing too. That 40 mile commute was up to about $10 a day for most of them. Yesterday I had to get gas for the first time since I saw 200K turn over. I had really mixed feelings about this.
Which illustrates the problem for thinking Americans. It's one thing to think about global warming and energy independence when your wallet is emptying on a daily basis. But we live in a society that has been designed to take maximum advantage of cheap energy and it's pretty damn inconvenient to have a conscience at these prices. Here's hoping that Obama fella is a good salesman.
Pity the poor auto industry and shed a tear for GM and Chrysler. December sales drops rivaled and exceeded those you have seen in your IRA. Even Honda was off 30% and they are already building the cars that GM envisions itself building when it gets healthy. The sad truth is that any investment in the auto industry is going to perpetuate everything that needs to change in the old economy. We no longer live in a world where increasing the amount of cheap fossil fueled mobility is a measure of wealth. And hybrid cars aren't the answer either. Ask any of the many Toyota dealers sitting on large inventories of Priuses.
What is needed is nothing less than a design revolution that reaches into every phase of our lives from the design of cars and housing to the design of cities. The new economy will be based on increasingly intelligent, shared transportation to destinations that are increasingly local and convenient. Perversely, our progress toward a low energy consumption future will sometimes result in lower prices for fossil fuel. This will tend to undermine the public will necessary to invest in the technologies and designs needed for the future. Failing to make that investment or being lulled back by the siren song of cheap energy will only increase the shock of the inevitable transition.