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  Geotimes - May 2008 - Geologic Column

Iím Ending My Affair!
Fred Schwab

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been having an affair for years. I’m still madly in love, but I’ve got to end it! It’s just not right.

My first fling began about a month after I got married. It involved Ruby, a brand-new, candy apple red 1965 Volvo ($2,045). We carried on for 28 years until I left her to the mercy of a high school auto mechanics class (in exchange for a $1,600 tax deduction). Currently, my wife Claudia and I foolishly have five cars (collective age is 75 years, total mileage 620,000). Over the years, we’ve favored Volvos. We ostensibly chose them for their safety and sensibility, but subconsciously believed they ensured entry for our kids into the “right” schools. Transportation aside, Americans pick specific car models for image as much as for freedom. And our automobile addiction is like a heady, whirlwind love affair.

“Automobile ownership is an almost inescapable requirement for life in the United States. … We need to use pressure as consumers and citizens to force automakers to offer vehicles that are safer for the environment and ourselves. This includes turning to government regulation to do so.” So concludes Tom McCarthy in his fascinating new book, Auto Mania, Cars, Consumers, and the Environment. McCarthy reviews the 20th century history of the American experience with the automobile, including our on-again-(mainly)-off-again romance with fuel-efficient vehicles, our brief dalliance with safety and functionality instead of power and styling, our craving for second (even third) cars, and the long, sad saga of high compression engines, tetraethyl lead gasoline additives, the Clean Air Act and catalytic converters. McCarthy sadly, but I think correctly, concludes that many of us want a cleaner environment, but are unwilling to either pay for it, or change our behavior to attain it.

A second book, Zoom by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, recounts the sad decline of Detroit’s Big Three; the economic, political and environmental damage imposed by the close linkage between “Big Oil” and the automobile industry; and the failure of citizens and government to squarely face up to energy issues. The authors emphasize the ongoing revolution in engineering that began with the Toyota Prius, but now includes hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels and digital technology. These advances will (and must) rapidly change the face of global transportation in the next few decades.

What’s the hurry? The bottom line: too many inefficient, gasoline-burning vehicles emitting too much pollution. Henry Ford’s 1908 Model-T not only got better gas mileage than some 2008 models but could also run on ethanol. The present standards require a fleet average of about 25 miles per gallon. These standards treat passenger cars (27.5 miles per gallon) and light trucks (pickups, minivans and SUVs collectively, at 22.5 miles per gallon) differently, although recent federal court rulings may change this. Congressional action in December 2007 will raise the fleet average to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, to roughly match present standards for the European Union and Japan.

Short-term remedies that delay the day of reckoning include increasing the availability of smaller engines with less horsepower, more gas-electric hybrids (now a scant 2 percent of the American market), more diesels (minimal now) and more gas-powered subcompacts. Unfortunately, these solutions can be no more than temporary for a variety of reasons. The entrenched transportation infrastructure in the United States caters to urban sprawl. We build highways rather than long-distance, high-speed rail and urban mass transit systems. Furthermore, the number of miles driven per vehicle in the United States (which increased 151 percent from 1977 to 2001) is expected to increase another 59 percent by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, essentially negating improvement in fuel economy standards.

Two grim, unavoidable realities confront us. First, about two-thirds of the oil burned in the United States fuels transportation (principally motor vehicles). Second, fossil fuels burned for transportation generate about 15 percent of greenhouse gases. In a Nov. 5, 2007, article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert illustrates the hopeless future for conventional motor vehicles. Kolbert reports that in the United States, there are close to 1,150 passenger cars (which consume 40 percent of the country’s oil) per 1,000 eligible drivers; in China, it’s nine per 1,000 and in India, it’s 11 per 1,000. If Chinese and Indian car ownership rises enough so that their per-capita oil consumption reaches just half that of ours, an additional 100 million barrels of oil would be burned daily. Presently, the world consumes almost 90 million barrels per day. Doubling consumption is unrealistic even if the increased carbon dioxide emissions that would result are discounted.

Obviously we must quickly develop an alternative for the conventional gas-powered, internal combustion engine. Biofuel-powered cars and electrical plug-in engines shift rather than solve the problem. It’s also unrealistic to think that eliminating urban sprawl and adapting to a mass transit-dependent lifestyle is feasible. Our best hope probably lies with hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles like the prototypical Honda Clarity and Chevy Equinox.

My youthful indiscretion with the internal combustion engine was misplaced! Will Claudia take me back?

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail:

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