Good-bye, old car

A scientist recently told me he still doesn’t believe carbon is the problem behind climate change, and that the best way for America to get off foreign oil is to rely on our internal sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydro-electric to help power a fleet of plug-in electric cars.

I still don’t believe digging stuff out of the ground and burning it for energy is the way a modern society should operate, but I like the electric car idea. And it got me thinking about my first car: a 1973 Dodge Coronet with a 318 engine and a trunk big enough in which to hold a party. Despite its ugly brown color and unexciting body style (this was no Challenger or Charger), I loved that Coronet for the freedom it afforded me and the fact that I could fit a pair of home speakers in the back seat. Gas wasn’t cheap back then (in 1981, it rose above $1.00/gallon for the first time), but I never went too far in the old Sled. Still, I was jealous of Randy Hannum’s Charger, which sported the gas-swilling and neck-snapping 440 engine; or Pat Poggenpohl, who had a Firebird with the big 400 GM and a Hurst shifter. Pat could stand on the gas on a dirt road and spin the car in a complete 360.

And no, we weren’t too worried about gas, carbon dioxide emissions or anything else other than the beauty of that raw power.

Fast-forward to today and my own eldest son, whose first car is a 1991 Honda Accord with an automatic that can barely get out of its own way. Austin cares little about how the car looks or performs, and in fact has decided paying his share of the car insurance is for the birds: He’s selling it and reverting to the Summit Stage. He might tell you he’s trying to do his thing for the earth, but the reality is he’s as tight as the bark on a tree. But hey, in these economic times, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Since none of his other friends seem too interested in anything resembling a muscle car, I’ve concluded from this small sample that today’s new drivers are more likely to value fuel economy and reliability over much else. Kids of the Great Recession, they are, it may well be that the perfect vehicle is simply one that’s cheap to run and has a good iPod hookup in it. More than anything, Austin dreams of an electric scooter of some sort that never needs gas.

Since most people commute less than 30 miles, the idea of a plug-in electric car can make an awful lot of sense. Burning fuel imported from overseas (or anywhere, for that matter) to get around is a silly thing, no doubt, and one we will look back on in the not-too-distant future as one of humankind’s great follies. But burning fossil fuel is, on its face, ridiculous as well. I see today’s emerging energy technologies – wind, solar, geothermal, whatever – as far from perfect but a necessary bridge of discovery between the 19th and 21st century. No, we cannot put windmills or sails on cars, nor is today’s solar technology adequate to power our towns and cities. But I have faith that the world’s scientists and engineers, with America in the lead, will figure out some better solutions.

I just hope that electric car has a kick-butt stereo system

Summit Daily News, June 11, 2009

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