Tuesday, August 24, 2004

An interesting surprise

Flint, the auto writer, has a very educated take on what we should do if there is an oil crisis. For those of you who think 2 dollars a gallon is a crisis, and I live in LA where oil is the most expensive, and cars are the most necessary, you have no idea. If Saudi Arabia stopped giving us oil, expect prices to go up to four bucks a gallon, easy.

What would we do? It would cause a lot of people to downsize immediately. Those people with luxury SUVs, and in leases would immediately do a trade in. No way are they going to pay six or seven thousand a year in gas costs.

What are the alternatives? For Americans there are basically two, and in several states, only one. Diesel cars, and hybrid cars. In 7 different states, mostly in liberal areas of the country, like the Northeast and California, new diesel cars cannot be sold. What does this mean? It means that a very high efficient form of transportation is not available. VW is the only company that sells diesel cars in the US, and they get very comparable mileage to a Prius. Bet you didn't know that? The downside is that they pollute a lot more. Hence their illegality. However, diesel fumes only create smog, they don't cause global warming very much. So you'll die of lung cancer, but the world won't explode.

Hybrids are the other choice. Right now, there are only three sold in the US. They are the Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, and the Honda Civic Hybrid. The Insight is not at all popular, and because it is a two door, it is not useful at all for families. The Toyota Prius is expensive, and hard to purchase due to its popularity. The Honda Civic Hybrid is the size of the Prius, and gets comparable mileage.

Within a year or so, there will be many more hybrids on the market. Toyota and Honda should have hybrid versions of every one of their four door cars, as well as some of their SUVs. Ford as well will have the Escape in hybrid form.

As gas prices steadily increase, Americans will have to downsize. A hybrid allows a vehicle class a size higher to have the mileage of the class below. But this is within reason. An enormous electric motor would be required to power a huge truck or SUV, when the car is idling. The electromagnetic radiation from such a motor, not to mention the danger of electrocution would be significant.

Cars are about to get dramatically more expensive. Hybrids themselves aren't necessarily more expensive, but because they are dramatically more complex than a regular gasoline engine, automakers can force customers to use dealerships for repairs, and charge an arm and a leg. The only way to stop this will be goverment intervention. From an environmental standpoint, I do not want the US to become like Europe, where everyone drives a diesel. Diesels are basically as good of fuel sippers as hybrids, but they are far more polluting. From the standpoint of someone who thinks the best method is usually the least technically complex, diesels are superior. A diesel engine is far easier to fix, and there are many trained mechanics who can fix one in America.

This is something of immense importance to Americans. Two thirds of our oil usage goes into cars. The price of oil directly affects our lives, since virtually everyone drives, or is driven. Hybrids and diesels are an intermediate step to an inevitable future without oil. It is a future that will be within most of our lifetimes. It will be the great industrial question of our time: What will our cars run on? I see diesels and hybrids as an intermediate solution, but not a permanent one. Vehicle enjoyment will take a more European form: quality interiors, amenities, and handling. Not power, spaceousness, and brawn.

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