Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gas is not the measure of all things

What profiteth a man should he gain the fuel economy yet lose his soul?

Will we as President Obama promises, all be driving electric cars by 2015? I know I won't, unless it's a third car for doing grocery shopping or I take up golf. I simply don't drive enough miles to see an economic payback in my lifetime, but far, far more than that, the loss of an outlet for my passion for machines would be like the loss of a loved one. For a hundred years, cars have been an art form, expressing things that nothing else ever had or could have. Then came the American consumer and his disposable Japanese appliances and the passionate creations of an Ettori Bugatti or an Enzo Ferrari or a Zora Arkus-Duntov or a Larry Shinoda have begun to give way to whatever cheap piece of tin will get us and our bottles of water to places of further consumption.

To drive some soulless disposable transportation appliance isn't in me. I'd rather walk. To sell it as a technological advance is a bit like trying to convince me that moving to a Tokyo style beehive hotel would be more "modern" and efficient and thus more desireable. It would be if I were a bee. As a man, it would be a sentence.

Mr. Obama made a point of telling us this afternoon, that today's esyouvees don't get the mileage of a 1908 Model T and I want to be the first to tell you that he's wrong! The 1908 offering from Ford was the Model S. The T debuted as the 1909 model in October of 1908. There was no 1908 Model T. Of course his attempt to use the iconic automobile to show that we haven't advanced technologically is fallacious. My 1926 model T, admittedly a bit heavier than the 1909, got about 15-18mph at about 25 Mph. Top speed was about 35-40 if you didn't care to live very long (or about burning up the engine) since the brakes are horrifying and the high center of gravity made for easy rollovers -- much like today's esyouvees. The fallacy of distraction lies in the fact that fuel economy is a small part of what makes a good and safe automobile whether or not it is poetry in motion.

The real problem is not that we haven't developed more fuel efficient engines -- we have. There's almost as much difference between the engines of 100 years ago and today as there is between a 1909 telephone with a crank on it and the digital voice mail, caller ID phones you can buy cheaply today. The Model T made about 20 horsepower. With the same fuel consumption a modern engine may get as much as 600. The same degree of progress applies to tires, brakes, suspension systems and materials. They are all vastly improved. It's just that we do everything we can to induce people to feed childish fantasy with heavy iron trucks that weigh more than 7 times what a model T weighs and travel three times as fast but without much more stability. We do everything we can to make people get everywhere by car and take more and more stuff with them.

Do I really want a battery car that has to stop and pay someone to switch batteries every two hours or less if I drive with the air conditioning and lights on? No. Do I want a car that when it runs out of charge on some remote road at midnight or in the center lane in rush hour will need to be towed? No. Do I want to go back to the 1930's in terms of handling? No. Do I want a car that would force me to take non-existent public transportation should I want to drive to Orlando or Miami? Of course not. Give me the Model T! At least it had some soul, required some skill, could be customized in infinite ways and made the driver feel glad to be alive. There is far more to technology and to life than cheap, basic and Puritan transportation.

I can drive off the Chevrolet lot with a brand new 30+ mpg car made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum that does 190, holds track records around the world and will take me to California in air conditioned comfort on a few tanks of gas -- which only take a few minutes to pump -- and sorry, I'm not giving up my red roadster and the topless joy it gives me on an open road to be enclosed in some grotesque, airless little Pokemon clone like something from a Disney Movie. Not so that some twit can make up for his feelings of insecurity by driving the Incredible Hulk's own Monster Truck.

The technology needed to slash fuel consumption is there already. the problem is a culture that separates people from their occupations by 20, 40, 60 or more miles without benefit of trains; that has women spending days chauffering children and driving between malls many miles apart. The Problem is a culture that promotes fear and phobia in order to sell "safe" vehicles that get into far more accidents and that offers tax breaks to people who lease essyouvees.

Yes, slippery slope arguments are inherently fallacious too, but I have nightmares about Americans of the future living in stainless steel beehives, wearing uniforms and living the lives of worker bees so that we can continue to procreate ourselves out of anything remotely like the kind of existence that is worth having.

The way to better transportation is through having far fewer cars and far more trains. the way to better cars is more likely through light weight alloys and composites, but also through fuel cell hybrids with batteries or supercapacitor storage far in advance of anything on the drawing boards today. The way to motivate and fund it is through taxing gross vehicle weight, since taxing only fuel is regressive.

Untill all these dreams come true, you'll have to pry the keys to my Chevy from my cold, dead fingers.


Baltazar said...

How about giving up roads and having "rail-cars" overhead rail[s], on ground rails,or any other combination?

betmo said...

mmmm.... you are speaking to someone who doesn't give a rat's behind about cars :) i want something to get me where i need to go- and to transport my crap. but i got your point and you are right. we are so reactionary to everything that we don't see the forest through the trees. investing in mass transit like almost everywhere else on the planet- and planning our living spaces accordingly- would help ease the transition to autos and other areas to enviro friendly. we could make cars and whatnot that were efficient and cool- but we certainly don't need to have so many. not when most folks go to and from their jobs everyday and that's pretty much it. often, the common sense approaches are the ones ignored because they are obvious. the powers that be can't be made to look powerful if they are stating the obvious :)

Buffalo said...

Okay. So I'm a cynic that sometimes buys into conspiracy theories. I'm buying into one now.

I fully believe we currently have the technology that increases mileage dramatically and reduces pollution by an equal measure.

Sure. I could be terribly wrong. But I don't think so.

Capt. Fogg said...

Some people don't give a rat's ass about art or music or architecture or industrial design or even nature. I think it's a shame.

Simply "timing" the stop lights on suburban roads could save enormous amounts of fuel: eliminating toll booths, reducing the number of shopping centers with every entrance and exit possessed of its own untimed traffic light. we haven't come close to trying things that work better than what we're clamoring about. Getting rid of the esyouvees alone would make things better and safer than putting a few million electric cars on the road. We're neglecting to fix the problem in favor of daydreaming about impractical, uncomfortable solutions and it won't work. Electric cars were tried and found wanting a hundred years ago for the same reason they will be again. America needs to go on a diet and that means more than having a diet coke with your fries and bacon-cheese megaburger.

For what it's worth, I have too much background in engineering and things like thermodynamics to buy into the idea of 100mpg carburettors or water burning gadgets. I think we've come very close to the theoretical limits of reciprocating engines, although we could still see some improvements using exotic things like ceramic pistons. I don't think we will though. Fuel cells are inherently much more efficient and I still think that's the way to go.

We once had the electric rail systems we need today, but we tore them out. We've reduced the need to work in a central place, but we still commute.

What I'm really trying to get across is that our increasing population is forcing us to lead lives like animals in factory farms and instead of protesting it, we protest freedom as though we didn't deserve space and time and leisure; individuality and dignity.

In most European countries, when you travel from Paris, for instance, you're in the countryside almost immediately. There's no hundred mile halo of malls, lots and concrete or sprawling, soul-eating developments -- just small towns and nature. That's largely the result of people living near where they work and getting there on trains, streetcars and buses. It's the result of planning rather than swashbuckling development with no purpose other than to make money for developers.

We are passionately arguing for fewer choices and more proscribed lives even while we clog up the countryside and dirty the air trying to flee it. It's all so American.