Join Date: Feb 2007
"The car of the future may turn out to be no car at all."
Running on Fumes
Does the “car of the future” have a future?
by Elizabeth Kolbert
November 5, 2007
The average new car gets fewer miles to the gallon than Henry Ford’s Model T got.
On September 29, 1993, President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, the chief executives of G.M., Chrysler, and Ford, and the head of the United Auto Workers gathered in the White House Rose Garden to talk about cars. Clinton opened his remarks by reminiscing about his first—a 1952 Henry J that his stepfather had salvaged from a fire—and then about one of his “most prized possessions”: a 1967 ice-blue Mustang convertible. “I think when I left my home it was the thing that I most regretted leaving behind,” he said of the Mustang. “The other people who drove on the roads in my home state, however, were immensely relieved.
“I think that all of us have our car-crazy moments and have those stories,” Clinton went on. “Today, we’re going to try to give America a new car-crazy chapter in her rich history—to launch a technological venture as ambitious as any our nation has ever attempted.” The aim of the venture, the President explained, was to “develop affordable, attractive cars that are up to three times more fuel-efficient than today’s cars.” In addition to being moderately priced and energy-efficient, the new cars were supposed to be safe, comfortable, and recyclable. The automakers and the federal government would design the vehicles jointly—the government would provide much of the funding, and make available technologies that had been developed for military use—with the understanding that at the end of a decade the manufacturers would build prototypes of sedans capable of getting eighty miles to the gallon.
The project was formally known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, and early reports from those involved were promising. By 1997, participants had settled on the specs of the “super car,” as it became known: the sedan would be a lightweight, diesel-electric hybrid. (Diesel engines, because they use a higher compression ratio, consume less fuel per mile than gasoline engines do.) By 2000, the Big Three had all produced concept cars, which were unveiled with much fanfare at the North American Auto Show, in Detroit. G.M.’s car, which was called the Precept, came equipped with two electric motors, one mounted on each axle. Ford’s Prodigy featured an aluminum body and rear-facing cameras in place of side-view mirrors, and the Dodge ESX3 was made in large part out of plastic.
The concept cars were wheeled out, then wheeled away, never to be seen again. In January, 2002, just months before the prototypes of the vehicles were supposed to be delivered and after more than a billion dollars of federal money had been spent, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Bush Administration was scrapping the project. When he delivered the announcement, Abraham was flanked by top executives from the Big Three, at least one of whom—G.M.’s chairman, Jack Smith—had stood next to President Clinton when he launched the program, eight years earlier. Abraham explained—and the auto executives seemed to agree—that the program had been based on a fundamentally flawed premise. The future of the car didn’t lie with diesel hybrids or any other technology that would allow vehicles to get eighty miles to the gallon. “We can do better than that,” Abraham declared. The Administration and the automakers, he said, were undertaking a new, even more ambitious venture, called FreedomCAR. The goal of this project was to produce vehicles that would run on pure hydrogen.
So will a “super car” or a “FreedomCAR” or a “hypercar” or any of the other revolutionary new cars that have been proposed ever get built? Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, the authors of “Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future” (Twelve; $27.99), answer this question with a qualified “yes.” Carson, who covers the transportation industry for The Economist, and Vaitheeswaran, a writer who holds an engineering degree from M.I.T., are “techno-optimists,” as opposed to the “eco-pessimists” they sometimes deride. Yet their argument rests on an account of global trends that is nothing short of terrifying.
Consider what’s happening in India and China. As Carson and Vaitheeswaran point out, car ownership in both countries has been and still remains, by U.S. standards, almost absurdly low. There are nine personal vehicles per thousand eligible drivers in China and eleven for every thousand Indians, compared with 1,148 for every thousand Americans. But incomes in the two countries are rising so rapidly—the Chinese economy grew by eleven per cent last year and is expected to grow by the same amount this year—that millions of vehicleless families will soon be in a position to buy automobiles. Assuming that incomes continue to rise, in a few years tens of millions of families will be buying their first cars, and eventually hundreds of millions. (To satisfy increasing demand in India, the country’s second-largest auto manufacturer, Tata Motors, is set to start producing a four-door known as the one-lakh car—a lakh is a hundred thousand rupees—that will sell for the equivalent of twenty-five hundred dollars.) Were China and India to increase their rates of car ownership to the point where per-capita oil consumption reached just half of American levels, the two countries would burn through a hundred million additional barrels a day. (Currently, total global oil use is eighty-six million barrels a day.) Were they to match U.S. consumption levels, they would require an extra two hundred million barrels a day. It’s difficult to imagine how such enormous quantities of oil could be found, but, if they could, the result would be catastrophe. “Just consider the scale of the potential problem—for instance, the effect on global warming of seven hundred and fifty million more cars in India and China, belching carbon dioxide,” Carson and Vaitheeswaran write.
It’s tough for Americans (or, in the case of Carson, a Scotsman) to argue that, for the sake of the planet, citizens in developing countries shouldn’t buy cars. It’s very nearly as tough to imagine Americans deciding, for the sake of the planet, to give up driving. Since the planet can’t handle ever-increasing numbers of gasoline-consuming, CO2-emitting vehicles, it follows, Carson and Vaitheeswaran argue, that a radically new kind of car will have to be invented. They aren’t particularly clear on how this car will work—they are keen on a number of (mostly unproved) technologies—or on who, exactly, will develop it. But they are convinced that once the right steps are taken—Carson and Vaitheeswaran advocate a stiff carbon tax, and urge Americans to support any politician with the courage to propose such a measure—it will appear. Indeed, they maintain that the “race” to create the “car of the future” is already under way.
“The good news is that a promising suite of technologies—ranging from flex-fuel ethanol engines to plug-in hybrids to hydrogen fuel cells—finally offers a way to move beyond oil and the internal combustion engine,” Carson and Vaitheeswaran write. In keeping with their book’s generally upbeat mood, the two manage to tell the story of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles as a kind of automotive comedy. Japanese automakers, excluded from the project, mistakenly took Detroit at its word. They assumed that the Big Three actually intended to develop super-efficient vehicles, and, to protect themselves, they stepped up their own research efforts. Within a few years, Honda had introduced the Insight, and Toyota had introduced the Prius; both got nearly fifty miles to the gallon. (Carson and Vaitheeswaran are adamant that the Prius is not the car of the future, though they give Toyota high marks for forward thinking.) The Big Three were then forced to play catch-up: Ford eventually licensed hybrid technology from the Japanese. However “the car of the future” functions, the book predicts that its appearance will transform the American auto industry, either by reinvigorating it or by finally killing it off. In the words of Lee Iacocca, Carson and Vaitheeswaran urge the Big Three to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
“Auto Mania” (Yale; $32.50), by Tom McCarthy, comes to the car of the future via the car of the past. McCarthy is a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, and his book is based primarily on archival records kept at places like the Michigan Historical Center and the Automobile Club of Southern California. (McCarthy notes that, in the course of his research, he put nearly two hundred thousand miles on his car.) The book is structured around a series of decisions that were made by the auto industry between 1900—the year the first national automobile show was held, in New York—and the present day, and it makes the techno-optimism of “Zoom” seem almost dangerously naïve.
Typical of the tales that McCarthy tells is the story of leaded gasoline. The earliest automobiles were designed to run on ordinary—which is to say, unleaded—gas. But in the nineteen-tens, as automakers began to experiment with higher-compression engines, the problem of “knock” arose. (Knock, which can cause engine damage, occurs when the fuel in a cylinder ignites before the piston has reached the top of its cycle.) In 1921, a team of G.M. researchers looking for a way to prevent knock discovered that by adding small amounts of tetraethyl lead, or TEL, to the fuel supply they could solve the problem.
By that point, the toxicity of lead was already well known. Indeed, one of the G.M. researchers behind TEL, Thomas Midgley, very nearly poisoned himself while working on the additive, and several workers at a plant experimenting with TEL died gruesome deaths as a result of exposure to it. (Midgley went on to invent Freon, which was later discovered to be destroying the ozone layer.) In response to an outcry from public-health experts, G.M. and Standard Oil, which had formed a joint venture called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation to manufacture leaded gas, launched a P.R. campaign. Among the arguments the companies made was that there simply were no alternatives to TEL, a claim that, according to McCarthy, there is reason to believe they knew to be false. (Already in the twenties, chemists proposed eliminating knock by increasing the octane level in gasoline, as was eventually done). The Surgeon General was concerned enough to appoint a commission to look into the matter. The commission punted, with the result that leaded gas, heavily promoted by the Ethyl Corporation, soon became the standard at American filling stations. It took the federal government until the mid-nineteen-seventies to order its phase-out. By that point, G.M. had sold its interest in Ethyl, and automakers in general had turned against TEL, not because it caused brain damage but because it interfered with the operation of catalytic converters, an innovation that car manufacturers had also long resisted. It is estimated that by 1996, when the sale of leaded gasoline for use in cars was finally banned in the U.S., seven million tons of lead had been released from automobiles’ exhaust pipes into the air, and nearly seventy million American children had been exposed to what would now be considered dangerous blood-lead levels.
At the start of “Auto Mania,” McCarthy writes that his is “not an angry book. We don’t need another angry book about automobiles.” In fact, as he acknowledges, many of the stories he recounts have already been told (and, arguably, told better) in earlier, more indignant works, like Jack Doyle’s “Taken for a Ride” (2000) and Keith Bradsher’s “High and Mighty” (2002). What distinguishes “Auto Mania” from these works, besides its tone, is the scope of its indictment. McCarthy doesn’t blame Detroit for the ills of Detroit; he blames all of us.
McCarthy argues—convincingly if, once again, not terribly originally—that, to Americans, cars have never been just a means of transportation. Our choices about what to drive have always had a social component—keeping up with the Joneses—and an antisocial one: outdoing the Joneses. Both impulses have, of course, been fostered or, if you prefer, exploited by automakers, but, in the end, responsibility for our decisions is our own. In the early nineteen-eighties, Detroit introduced new versions of several S.U.V.s, including the Jeep Cherokee and the Chevy Blazer. The timing seemed perverse; as McCarthy notes, “Americans who had grown up listening to Ralph Nader crusading for safer automobiles, who knew that automobiles caused smog, and who lived through the energy crisis in the 1970s, certainly understood that larger, heavier vehicles burned more gasoline and posed a threat to smaller, lighter vehicles in collisions.” Yet sales of the redesigned S.U.V.s were so brisk that even the automakers were surprised. The vehicles may have been dangerous, wasteful, and unnecessary, but what the hey, they were fun! “More smiles per gallon,” promised an ad for the Suzuki Samurai, an S.U.V. that enjoyed wide popularity until reports suggested that it was prone to roll over.
Like Carson and Vaitheeswaran (and just about anyone else who has looked at the numbers), McCarthy views current trends in car-making, car buying, and car driving as deeply problematic. But he sees little reason to believe that challenges like global warming and declining oil reserves and rising demand in China and India will be dealt with any more expeditiously than leaded gasoline was. McCarthy takes up the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles only long enough to dismiss it as an evasive tactic. By his account, the Clinton Administration initiated the partnership to avoid the more effective, but politically riskier, step of raising fuel-efficiency standards. Ditto for the Bush Administration and the FreedomCAR program. Talking up the car of the future, McCarthy suggests, is just another way Detroit has found to insure that it never arrives. It’s worth noting that the average new car sold in the U.S. today gets twenty miles to the gallon, which is virtually the same as it got in 1993, when the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was launched, and—remarkably enough—less than Henry Ford’s Model T got when it went on the market, ninety-nine years ago last month.
Detroit has to change. Detroit won’t change. The two statements seem incompatible, and yet here we are. The Big Three still claim to be on the verge of introducing revolutionary new technologies—“Imagine: A daily commute without a drop of gas,” a G.M. ad touting a battery-powered car (still in the concept stage) exhorts—even as they continue to fight higher fuel-efficiency standards, on the ground that meeting such standards would be technologically infeasible. Their selective incompetence brings to mind Masetto da Lamporecchio, from “The Decameron,” who pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to screw the nuns.
It now seems clear—and both “Zoom” and “Auto Mania” present a compelling case on this point—that car design could be radically improved. Already the technology exists to more or less double fuel efficiency. (A great deal could be accomplished simply by trimming the weight of the average vehicle, which has increased by almost thirty per cent in the last two decades.) The failure of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles notwithstanding, tripling fuel efficiency also seems feasible. Such gains would have a huge impact in terms of oil consumption—passenger vehicles in the U.S. now account for forty per cent of the country’s oil use, and ten per cent of the world’s—and greenhouse-gas production.
But improving gas mileage will take us only so far. Once the Chinese and the Indians really start driving, doubled or even tripled fuel efficiency won’t suffice. This is why Carson and Vaitheeswaran regard the Prius merely as a stopgap: the true car of the future has to accommodate everyone, which is to say six and a half billion, soon to be nine billion, people.
Hard-core techno-optimists insist that this goal, too, could be met, if only automakers and politicians would apply themselves to the task that up to now they’ve taken such pains to avoid. This is a comforting argument; unfortunately, though, it assumes precisely what’s at issue. After all, just because someone has never bothered to enter the New York City Marathon doesn’t mean that if he runs in it he’ll win.
Ultimately, designing the car of the future is such a daunting challenge because it’s bigger even than cars. As anyone who owns a BlackBerry or a cell phone or a flat-screen TV knows, technological change, when it comes, can come fantastically rapidly. But when we charge our video iPod nanos we are drawing power that, for the most part, is still generated as it was in Thomas Edison’s day. It’s true that hydrogen cars, which the Bush Administration and the Big Three claim to be working on, don’t need gasoline—the “freedom” in FreedomCAR is supposed to represent “freedom from dependence on imported oil”—but they do need hydrogen, which has to be produced using energy from somewhere. If that energy comes from, say, burning coal, as nearly half the electricity generated in the U.S. does, then the puzzle hasn’t been solved; it’s just been rearranged. The same catch applies to plug-in cars and cars that run on ethanol. (Ethanol made from corn takes almost as much energy to produce as it yields.) If someone, somewhere, comes up with a source of power that is safe, inexpensive, and for all intents and purposes inexhaustible, then we, the Chinese, the Indians, and everyone else on the planet can keep on truckin’. Barring that, the car of the future may turn out to be no car at all. ♦
Interesting article, no doubt. I'm not gonna get all worked up just because the two guys that wrote the book have all the credentials in the world doesn't mean they can read and tell the future. I also love how they make it sound as if the leaders of the Big 3 are just a bunch of incompetent power hungry petrol-heads that have predestined the American auto industry for imminent failure. In reality they're anything but and the American auto industry isn't going anywhere. In the end someone will have an answer somewhere, someday, maybe sooner than later. One thing is for sure though, the car isn't going anywhere, and in the next several generations the car will only become something other than what it is today, but fundamentally the same concept.