Can Industrial Design Save Us From Being Pumped Empty?

After I posted my solar blog where I raved about how solar technology is going to save the planet I realized I never addressed the other big problem, which is cars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a guy and I love cars. My dad was in the car business for years, my brother is an ASE Master Tech, I grew up surrounded by motor heads and I write for a couple of automotive clients including the NADA, aka the Blue Book guys.

As we motor into Memorial Day Weekend the mood on America’s highways is a major bum out due to the fact that gas is 4 bucks a gallon and the price of crude continues to rise. Who do you blame? The likely candidates are the oil companies who are showing record profits. We could also point the middle finger at the car companies, OPEC, the refinery business, commodity speculators and ourselves.

I say forget the blame game. We’re Americans. We love cars. We love traveling on the cheap. But I think we can still be Americans and still love cars while backing away from Mr. Gasoline. The alternative is of course alternative fuels but I’m not completely down with all that. Ethanol got Brazil off imported fuel but they make theirs out of switch grass, a garbage plant that they have lots of. What happens when we make ethanol out of corn which is what we have lots of?

You get rich farmers here and food riots in Asia. Good for the farmers, not so good for the people starving. Here’s the other thing about ethanol. It burns hotter than gas but doesn’t have the same range. You lose 20% of how far you can go on a tank so you have to factor that in with the alleged cost savings.

The other alternative is biodiesel which is usually made from soybeans, another food source. Biodiesel has some celebrity endorsements from regular guys like Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Turns out the original diesels were made to run on vegetable oil so even today’s engines will take bio just fine. The refinery boys have figured out how to remove sulfur from diesel which is a particularly nasty pollutant and diesels are inherently more efficient than gas engines. But to run the whole country on 100% biodiesel, you’d need a lot of beans, babe.

Which brings me to my point. Are your ready? Electric Car. Say it with me…Electric Car. Oh wait, I know. I’m crazy as hell. It’s been tried, right? They can’t go fast enough or far enough? People won’t plug them in, blah blah blah. What will change everybody’s mind about electric cars? How about if gas hits 5 bucks a gallon? How about if it goes to 10? Yeah. That’s what I’m saying and the technology is coming up on us fast in the hammer lane.

My wife drives a hybrid Lexus SUV. It has a V-6 that cranks out 268 horsepower and the thing weighs 4300 lbs. I drive a Mercedes C-230 – okay don’t give me a hard time about the car. It’s the entry level Benz and it just had it’s fifth birthday, all right? The point is, the Mercedes is running a 4 cylinder plant with dual overhead cams. Because it’s a kompressor, it’s supercharged and fast as hell but the point is it’s still a four banger and it only weighs in at 3185, more than a thousand pounds less than the Lexus.

So which car do you think gets better mileage? Actually the Mercedes does but not by much. The wife drives like a maniac but even with that the Lexus averages about 21 mpg with the Mercedes usually hovering around 22-23. While you’re coasting or breaking or rolling along in bumper to bumper traffic in the Lexus you’re getting 99.9 miles per gallon. There’s a gauge right on the dash that tells you. That’s because under those conditions it is an electric car.

The next step is plug-in hybrids and from there we’ll be moving to full functioning electric vehicles or “EV’s.” Still not convinced? Google Tesla or Chevy Volt. Wait don’t bother, I’ll put the links below. Not everybody is convinced that electrics are the answer so I’ll give you a link for that too. And lets’ not forget about the humble Prius a half electric that Toyota is selling like hot cakes. Speaking of Toyota they’ve announced a plug-in version of the Prius for 2010. That’s in two years, dude. Want to go for a ride?

Scott Sowers


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