Automobile The Next Cigarette

A recent report on the IEEE website claims that the car of the future is not a hybrid, electric or even hydrogen powered vehicle. In fact, it is no car at all. It seems that a group of pie-in-the-sky futurists have decided that the automobile in any form is a bourgeois abomination. The hope for the future is mass transit and electric bicycles say the urban planning pundits. This shocking bit of utopian navel gazing comes out of the New York Times's second annual “Energy for Tomorrow” conference, which was devoted to “Building Sustainable Cities.” One prognosticator went so far as to pronounce the car the next cigarette, soon to become a pariah to all right thinking lefties. It is unsurprising that a bunch of big city officials and socialist leaning academics would prematurely announce the demise of the automobile, but then futuristic urban planning has a long history of being unerringly wrong.

Writing in the IEEE web column Energywise, Bill Sweet provides a gushing overview of one of the most asinine ideas ever to pop stillborn from a thinktank. With a modest recovery underway in the US and continued growth in Asia auto sales have recovered somewhat in recent years, yet many of the “experts” at the Times's conference have come out strongly anti-auto. Here is how Sweet put it:

Most shocking, perhaps, was the level of hostility expressed by many speakers to the automobile as such. Jaime Lerner, a former mayor of Brazil's Curitiba, known for the work he did there introducing an integrated mass transportation system that has been copied the world over, expressed the belief that cars some day soon will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today. “The car is going to be the cigarette of the future,” Lerner said.

The distaste Lerner and others expressed had to do not merely with pollutants and gasoline but, first and foremost, with congestion and what you might call human equities. Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, said his transportation reforms emphasized wide use of mini-buses (like the VW “Volksbus” seen ubiquitously in Mexico City), which after all emit pollutants and consume hydrocarbons too. The decisive factor for Penalosa is the amount of urban space consumed by a bus, as compared with a private car. “If we are all equal before the law,” he said, then “a bus carrying 100 people should be entitled to 100 times as much road space as a private car.”

It is totally amazing that those who do not own or drive personal automobiles think the rest of us are willing to adopt their inner-city lifestyle, content to use public transportation and share-a-ride bicycles. Don't misunderstand, we have no objection to public transportation in cities—it is outside of cities that the myopic green view fails. In reality, half of humanity lives outside of large urban areas where personal vehicles are not just a nicety but a necessity. Those who live outside of major cities in North America, Australia and elsewhere know this and are not about to relinquish their private vehicles.

The fundamental truth overlooked by the navel gazers is that the automobile freed the common man. In America, Henry Ford's spindly wheeled creations put the nation in motion. For the first time, people were free to pick up and move if times grew hard in their area or there were better jobs in the offing somewhere else. And move the people did, sometimes all the way across the continent. There is a reason why California became so car crazy, most of that state's citizens arrived by car.

Not everyone is ready for public transportation.

Europe, with its higher population densities and long established rail network, may not be as wedded to the auto as America but remember, the Volkswagen was intended as the “people's car.” Even a century ago the automobile was embroiled in politics, so it should not be surprising that the leading edge of progressive (i.e. socialist) thought aims to deprive the masses of their individual mobility. The statement by former mayor Penalosa, a Green and Liberal Party politician who has been notably anti-auto while in office, shows the origin of such warped thinking.

The alternative on offer from the green crowd is the electric bicycle. With the well publicized failure of a number of electric car start ups the hope is that electric bicycles will catch on in the US like they have in the EU. Electric bicycles are already popular in Europe and in China, which has more e-bikes than cars on its roads. In an article on the Yale website, Marc Gunther makes the case for the electric bicycle:

Globally, electric bicycles outsell electric cars by a wide margin. An estimated 29.3 million e-bicycles were sold in 2012, with perhaps 90 percent of those selling in China, which has more electric bikes than cars on its roads. E-bicycles are popular in Europe, too, selling about 380,000 a year in Germany and 175,000 in the Netherlands in 2012. By comparison, about 120,000 electric cars were sold worldwide...

E-bicycle makers eagerly market themselves as “green.” Dashboards on e-bicycles sold under the Polaris brand and made by a Miami-based company called EVantage include a “carbon footprint savings” function to calculate how many pounds of CO2 are saved by using the bicycle in place of a gasoline-powered car. Evelo, a Boston-based startup, recently launched a 30-day electric bike challenge, asking people to give up their car keys and blog about using their electric bikes. “We don’t want to wean people from bicycles,” says Boris Mordkovich, Evelo’s founder, who previously worked at car-sharing company RelayRides. “We want to wean people from cars.”

Automobiles are not just utilitarian transportation modules, they are reflections of individual personality and outward displays of financial achievement. The upwardly mobile professional lusts after a flashy BMW, Audi or other sport luxury machine while the upper class tools around in big iron from Mercedes, Bentley or Rolls Royce. The hyper rich go in for boutique fashion statements from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Austin Martin. The young tend toward trendy “cute” little cars that showcases their Joie de vivre while tree-huggers go for a Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf or any of the myriad hybrids now available. Show me a Chinese electric bicycle rider and I will show you someone wishing they could afford a real car.

An electric bicycle by Evelo of Boston, MA.

In our homogenized cookie-cutter world cars are one of the few areas of personal expression left to the average citizen. Cars reflect our self image, aspirations and dreams. Given that China just became the largest car market in the world, eclipsing the US, future growth in auto sales seems assured. If a gaggle of academic urban planners tries to keep the masses from owning cars they had best stay cloistered in their ivory towers—the masses just might rip them limb from limb if they venture out in public.

Indeed, the car retains its place as the status symbol in a developing world. This is why Tata's attempt to sell a simple, micro-car failed in India—prospective buyers preferred to wait until they could afford a “real” car. As the company discovered, the Nano proved that even the world's least wealthy drivers aren't interested in a vehicle marketed as the world's cheapest car.

Even the poorest drivers didn't want the world's cheapest car.

With the recent USGS announcement that updated oil and gas resource assessment for the Bakken Formation and a new assessment for the Three Forks Formation in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, it looks like predictions of “peak oil” have again been less accurate than a newspaper horoscope. The assessments found that the formations contain an estimated mean of 7.4 billion barrels (BBO) of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. The updated assessment for the Bakken and Three Forks represents a twofold increase over what has previously been thought. No oil shortage in sight.

Word on the street is that the US will be a net energy exporter by 2014, so it looks like gasoline prices are not going to go through the roof. This is nothing short of a disaster for the electric car industry. Electric bikes? Perhaps they will find a place in big cities and retirement communities, but outside of that they will remain a curiosity. The automobile will be with us for a long time, particularly if they perfect self driving models. I look forward to “driving” the 1000 miles to visit my family while writing a column, a book chapter or two, and maybe watching a movie. Until then I continue to celebrate the humble car, an invention that has brought more real freedom to more people than any urban planning wet-dream put forth by vacuous intellectuals.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

I would rather have one of these than an electric bicycle any day.