Every year, for the last twenty years, a group of thinkers have gotten together to discuss breakthrough solutions for our world. This year I went there in a 2010 Toyota Prius to learn and be inspired.
©2009 Isaac Hernández
Given that the UN Climate Change Conference is happening in Copenhagen December 7-18, much of the conversation was dedicated to the idea of reducing carbon emissions. Everybody seems to agree that we can reduce our emissions by 80% by 2020, with the technology we have available today. Thousands of experts are saying that waiting until 2050 to reduce our emissions by 80% is not enough, causing irreversible damage. Unfortunately the US government thinks it is. But the people at Bioneers don’t despair, instead they get into action, with many solutions, some of which I will share here in the following months.
As Ken Ausubel, co-founder of Bioneers, said, “if your kitchen is on fire, you don’t just sit there depressed. It’s time to grab for the extinguisher.” It’s a fact that we humans produce 70 million tons of CO2 every 24 hours. Changing the light bulbs to low energy fluorescents and remodeling our homes with energy efficient windows is part of the solution, but not enough. We need to let our leaders know that we want more. And sometimes we have to become the leaders.
Take Jack Hidary, for example, he wasn’t happy with the amount of CO2 put into the New York air by the 13,000 inefficient Ford Crown Victoria pullulating on its streets and avenues. So he helped form SmartTransportation.org, a coalition of health, civic, business and environmental organizations working together to improve our lives through innovative transport solutions. In just two years, their initiative has replaced 25% of the taxi fleet with more efficient hybrid vehicles. A hybrid taxi costs the same than a Crown Victoria and saves the driver about $5000 per year in gasoline. Even if the $2000 batteries have to be replaced after three years, it makes sense to drive a hybrid in the city, doing 30 miles per gallon instead of 10-12mpg for a Crown Vic.
Jack thinks that in two more years the full fleet of yellow cabs will be high efficiency vehicles. He didn’t stop there. He talked to dozens of executives about the pollution generated by their “black cars”, the Lincoln Town Car vehicles that sit in front of office buildings, idling. When Jack showed the executives photos of the cars emitting carbon dioxide, they agreed to replace their fleets with hybrids.
Mr. Hidary is happy with these results, but he wants more. “At the current ramp rates,” Jack says, “Green Vehicles won’t reach 5% of total US fleet before 2030. Even the Obama Administration’s goal of 1 million plug in hybrid electric vehicles by 2015 won’t represent more than .4% penetration.
Renewable energy for the creation of electricity in the US is in a similar situation, reaching less than 4% of the total, in a market dominated by coal burning, with 46% of the total. But Hidary thinks that it’s within our reach to change this very quickly. Thanks to social networks like Facebook, we’re becoming more connected, with many positive results.
Imagine that you’re driving your car and someone hits you from behind. You get out of the car ready to yell at the other driver. Imagine that there’s an application for your phone that allows you to see if you’re somehow connected to another person. This is something that will happen very soon, according to Jack Hidary.
So before you start screaming your lungs out, your iPhone buzzes and lets you know that the man who hit you has a common friend with you, and not only that, he’s also going to the same birthday party you’re going on Saturday. The relationship with that person suddenly transforms. You exchange phone numbers and look forward to seeing each other at the party. No need for police or insurance reports.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” These are the words Chief Seattle said in 1854. They hold true now as much as ever.
This connectivity helps us communicate solutions much faster than ever. One solution that Hidary thinks is worth spreading is PACE, a system that started in Berkeley, California, from the hand of Cisco Debris and Dan Cayman, and is now in 15 states. What’s PACE? A great way of allowing everybody jump into the renewable energy bandwagon, permitting people install solar panels for very little, and ultimately allowing for the home owner to charge the batteries of their electric car at no extra cost to their pocket or the environment.
How does it work? PACE provides long term loans, payable over thirty years. The payments are tied to the property tax, so you just pay a little bit every month to wean yourself from coal, possibly the same that you would be paying for the old-fashioned electricity.
For $3500-4500 one can transform a Toyota Prius into a plug in version, thanks to Lithium-Ion kit made in China, with the installation made by 3prong power, which was present at the Bioneers Conference. The cheaper transformation allows only for 15 miles on fully electric mode, while the other doubles the range to 30 miles. Can you imagine if you could drive to work and then come home and charge the car with your solar panels?
“Yes, that’d be nice,” says a woman checking the Prius, “but if I live within 7 miles each way from my work, I think I rather take the bicycle.”
It’s true that the bicycle is still the most renewable energy available, but you cannot convince everybody to ride bicycles, that’s why every solution helps move us along towards the goal of reducing CO2 by 80% in 10 years.
Many people at the conference seemed to agree that China is in a privileged position to lead the world with renewable energy, given that your country doesn’t have as many political hurdles as the US and it’s already investing heavily in solar plants. There’s much to do still, but our children will appreciate the investment we do today or they’ll suffer if we don’t. Make sure you’re a part of this revolution. Just like Jack Hidary, be part of the action and the solution.
Al Volante de la Vida
Ahora que se nos pasó la resaca del año nuevo, es hora de ponerse a trabajar por un año mejor, tanto al volante como fuera de él. Nos servirá para vivir más tiempo y más felices.
©2010 Isaac Hernández
Todo puede comenzar al volante, porque pasamos muchas horas al día sentados dentro del carro. Según Tom Vanderbilt, autor de Traffic, Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), el estadounidense medio pasa 438 horas al año viajando en carro.
Quizás usted no crea en las resoluciones de año nuevo que se olvidan a la semana de hacerlas. Es normal sentirnos confrontados cuando hacemos una promesa muy grande y acabar abandonándola con una excusa: “En realidad no quería hacer eso”.
El Reiki, una práctica originaria de China y evolucionó en Japón, que se basa en cinco principios que comienzan con “Kyo dake wa” (Sólo por hoy en japonés), puede enseñarnos a enfocarnos en las metas del día a día en lugar de en algo que parezca imposible. Aplicaremos estos cinco principios al volante, para manejar y manejarnos mejor.
Sólo por hoy no me preocuparé. Descansaré bien por la noche para así poder enfocarme mejor en el manejo. Hoy no ahogaré mis penas con alcohol o drogas que puedan poner en peligro esa misma vida o la de los demás. En estos tiempos de crisis es fácil preocuparse, pero lo mejor es ocuparse, aunque sólo sea por hoy. Si no estoy preocupado tendré más facilidad de estar presente al volante, atento a todo lo que me rodea, abierto a nuevos caminos que se abren.
Sólo por hoy no me enfadaré. Me olvidaré del “road rage”. Respiraré profundo y me tranquilizaré, canalizando esa energía en algo positivo. Seré cortés, dejando espacio a los demás carros, cediendo el paso a quien lo necesite (incluyendo a los peatones). No causaré accidentes. Utilizaré los intermitentes, prenderé las luces para que me vean en cuanto esté a punto de ponerse el sol y quitaré las luces largas cuando haya un carro frente a mí para no cegar a su conductor.
Sólo por hoy honraré a mis padres y maestros. Mis padres me dieron vida. Los aceptaré como son, y como no son. No discutiré al volante. Estaré relajado. Respetaré las normas de tráfico y las opiniones de los demás, aunque no esté de acuerdo. Estaré dispuesto a aprender todos los días de mis maestros, y de los niños. Mi hijo me dijo una vez algo así: “Si tu te enfadas con otro conductor, manejarás peor, y eso hará que otro conductor se enfade contigo, y otro se enfadará con él… No te enfades.”
Sólo por hoy me ganaré mi sustento honradamente. Me aplicaré en mi trabajo. No me distraeré mandando mensajes de texto o hablando por el teléfono móvil mientras manejo. Llevaré puesto el cinturón de seguridad. Me enfocaré en mi crecimiento sostenible. Pondré lo mejor de mi mismo, amando lo que hago, aunque sólo sea conducir entre el tráfico al trabajo, agradecido en tener destino y trabajo.
Sólo por hoy mostraré gratitud por todo lo que me rodea. Manifestaré mi agradecimiento con los otros conductores, con mis padres, y con el mundo, por las oportunidades que me ha dado, por el carro que puedo manejar. Agradeceré el poder vivir en este mundo, circulando por estas carreteras, recordando que soy parte del atasco. Lo que le pasa a uno nos pasa a todos.
Feliz Año Nuevo.
It’s as good a time as ever to start working for a better year or a better decade, at the wheel of an automobile or at the wheel of life. A little thought may help us live longer and happier.
©2009 Isaac Hernández
I’m writing from the last day of 2009 in California, already 2010 in China. Right now we in Santa Barbara are getting ready to receive the new year of the Roman calendar, while in Beijing most people are
already sleeping after the celebration. By the time these words have been translated to Mandarin and printed, the Year of the Tiger will also be imminent. It’s a perfect time to make New Year’s resolutions.
Perhaps you don’t believe in resolutions, which can have a tendency to get forgotten a week after they’re declared. It’s a normal thing to feel confronted by a big promise, and end up abandoning it with an
excuse: “I didn’t really want to do that”.
Perhaps you don’t believe in Reiki, the energy practice of LING QI, which began in China, and is used for healing. Whether you believe in it or not, there are five Reiki principles that, in Japanese, begin with the words “Kyo dake wa” (Just for today). I’ve discovered that they can be very practical for New Year’s resolutions. These three
words can inspire us to focus on our goals day by day, instead of looking at larger, yearly, seemingly impossible goals.
Given that Americans spend an average of 438 hours a year in a car, according to Tom Vanderbilt (www.tomvanderbilt.com), author of Traffic, Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), the
car will be the vehicle for my resolutions.
Think about it. 438 hours per year adds up to 1.2 hours per day. I know people that spend more time than that daily behind the wheel. Nevertheless, if the average person spends that much time in a car, by
the time I’m 70 years old, I’d have spent over 30,000 hours on wheels! And judging by how long I’m taking to write these words, I’ll spend another 30,000 hours writing about driving! This seems like a ridiculous amount of one’s lifetime to spend in traffic, trying to get somewhere. For this year, I will focus on being happy where I am,
instead of trying to get somewhere, hurrying, fighting to get through. But wait, I’m forgetting about the Reiki principles: Just for today I will focus on being happy where I am. So I have adapted the Reiki
principles to the automobile, whose intention is to allow for small daily measures of peace that add up to a longer, happier life.
Just for today I won’t worry. I’ll get plenty of rest before I drive so that I can focus better and be present at the wheel, enjoying every second of it. Today I won’t drink alcohol or do drugs before driving, putting my life and those of others in danger. Rather than worry, I will focus at the wheel, even if it’s just for today. When I’m not
worried, I can be in the moment, aware of all the surroundings, and open to new experiences, willing to take the road less traveled.
Just for today I won’t get upset. I’ll intentionally let go of any “road rage”. I’ll breathe deeply, redirecting this energy into something positive. I’ll be polite, allowing space for the other cars, and yielding to others (including pedestrians). I won’t cause accidents. I’ll use the turning signals. I’ll turn on my headlights before sunset so that other people can see my car, not just when I need to see. I’ll use my high beams when I need them, and will switch
to low beams when there’s traffic coming the other way so as to avoid blinding other drivers.
Just for today I will honor my parents and teachers. My parents gave me life. I will accept them as they are, and as they aren’t. I won’t argue (especially not at the wheel). I will relax. I’ll respect the traffic laws, and the opinions of others, even if I don’t agree. I’ll be ready to learn every day, from my teachers, and from children. My son once said to me, “If you get angry at another driver, you’ll drive worse, and that will make another driver get mad at you, and another driver will be angry at him, and you’ll create a lot of upset drivers.
Just don’t get angry.”
Just for today I will earn a living honestly. I’ll apply myself to my work. I won’t get distracted sending text messages or speaking on the mobile phone while I drive. I’ll wear the seatbelt. I will make a living sustainably, using only what I need, turning off the lights when I’m not in the room. I’ll consider walking, riding my bicycle or
taking public transportation before driving, to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases and to keep the Earth a living space for future generations. I’ll give the best of myself, loving what I do; even the simple things like walking or driving, feeling fortunate that I have legs and a place to go to.
Just for today I will be grateful for everything that surrounds me. I’ll express my gratitude to other drivers, to my parents, my children, to the whole world, for the opportunities that are given to me, for the opportunities that are coming my way, for the old and reliable Honda Civic that was given to me by my father-in-law (thank you, Bud). I will be grateful for all that I have and all I don’t have, for the oceans that provide rain, for the air that lets me breath. I will be thankful for being able to live in the world, circulating these roads, remembering that I am part of the traffic jam. Whatever happens to me happens to everyone. We’re all connected.
Happy New Year!
PS. A Chinese proverb says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back”. You’re arriving to the Year of the Tiger before me. Could you please tell me how the year is? ;) My email: email@example.com
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Celebrating the American Roots and Growing New Green Branches
©2009 Isaac Hernández
Bob Lee, the man behind the rebirth of the HEMI V8 engine in 2003, has recently been replaced by Paolo Ferrero as senior Vice President of Chrysler Powertrain. Lee continues at Chrysler, but now Ferrero, who served as vice-president of product engineering at Fiat, calls the shots when it comes to engines.
Fiat owns 20% of Chrysler Group LLC and has management power. As part of the investment deal, Fiat will provide its fuel-efficient engines to Chrysler. If Fiat were to manufacture these engines in the US, the Italian company would be allowed to purchase an additional 5% of the American brand.
Some people in America are afraid that the Fiat takeover would represent the end of the HEMI engine. At Chrysler LLC, they love the HEMI and they’re making sure that the Italians learn to love it too.
During a recent visit of the Italian Minister of Economic Development, Claudio Scajola, to the Chrysler headquarters, the Italian delegation was shown the wind tunnel with no other than a HEMI Chrysler Viper SRT-10 ACR in it.
During the MotoGP Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix races in Laguna Seca, California, Fiat Yamaha Team riders former World Champion Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo drove a 425-horsepower 6.1-liter HEMI-powered Dodge Challenger SRT8.
I have been lucky to drive the Dodge Challenger HEMI on the Willow Springs racetrack first by myself, and then with Erich Heuschele at the wheel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu3G-HthIh4). Erich, Supervisor of Vehicle Dynamics SRT Engineering, is passionate about the HEMI. He later gave me a ride in the Viper ACR (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcbLujK2Gy8)
Today I want to celebrate the Hemi heritage, in honor of those men and women who have given their ingenuity to develop the hemispherical combustion chamber, which with its arched shape, allows for the spark plug to be placed in the center of the chamber and the position of the valves allows for better breathing of the engine.
The first Chrysler HEMI engine was an inverted V-16, rated at 2,500 horsepower, developed for WWII aircraft, but it never made it into production. Fiat’s own history has a hemispherical engine, the one that powered the A.L.F.A. 40/60 GP car in 1914. There have been other hemispherical engines before, in racecars from Peugeot, Pipe and Miller, as well as production cars from Duesenberg. Stutz and Offenhauser, among others.
Chrysler continued developing the HEMI after WWII, but it wasn’t until the Chrysler C300 came out in 1955 that the legend began to be written. It was the first production car in the US with over 300 hp. Chrysler won the NASCAR Grand National title and the AAA Championship, with a whooping 33 race victories. Many say the C300 was the first muscle car. The FirePower engine came to propel different models of Dodge, Chrysler, Imperial and DeSoto cars. The Hemi engine died with the 1959 model year.
The legend was reborn in 1964, specifically to win at NASCAR. And win it did. Richard Petty dominated in 1964 and 1966 with the blue Plymouth Superbird Number 43, powered by the 426 Hemi (426 for its cubic inches, or 7 liters). It became such an important part of American car culture, that in the 2006 film Cars, Pixar included a car inspired on the Superbird, named “King”, voiced by Petty himself. It was for this second generation that Chrysler trademarked the name Hemi. Its life came again to an end in 1971.
The first Chrysler HEMI lasted for four years, the second one for twice as long. If we were to follow mathematical logic, the third generation (built in 5.7, 6.1 and 6.4 liter variations, so far) born in 2003 should be around until 2015. Will it? Unfortunately, as much as Americans love their HEMI, sales may not be supporting its long-term survival.
The HEMI of the future?
American ingenuity will find a way to have fun with cars and be environmentally friendly, now that our main focus ought to be to reduce carbon emissions, so that our children don’t have to suffer extreme global warming.
Popular Mechanics (PM) modified a Dodge Challenger SRT8, turning it into an Eco+Muscle car. The idea is to use “inexpensive aerodynamic aids, a state-of-the-art electric drive system and some other helpful bits” to turn the Challenger “into a parallel hybrid plug-in/solar/electric that burns no fuel at all in everyday driving.“
PM paid $30,740.00 for the Challenger, and quite a bit more on gasoline, doing 9.0 mpg in stop-and-go traffic. On the freeway, because of the computerized cylinder deactivation, they could get as much as 25.4 mpg on the highway.
The tuners went all out, trying to squeeze as much power out of the V-8, even adding a nitrous system. Then they added a UQM electric motor, at a weight penalty of 89 lbs. producing 125 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque. The electric motor provides all torque from the very beginning, improving acceleration for the Challenger. How do you power it? With 28 Exide Select Orbital lead batteries in the back seat, producing 336 volts. This was the best compromise between power and price, according to PM. They’d prefer a lithium-ion system, but pricing was out of their range.
The racing stripes on the carbon fiber hood are actually flexible solar panels, which help charge the batteries. “On a sunny day, they recharge the battery at a rate of 2.5 amps”.
The rear axle was modified and so was the fuel tank. There’s also a fuel cell under the trunk. Making everything fit took some genius. You can read more about it in http://media.origin.popularmechanics.com/documents/ecomuscle/index.html.
The cool thing about the Eco+Muscle Challenger is that the foot pedal controls the combustion engine, while a hand throttle sends powers the electric motor.
To compensate for the extra weight, many body parts were replaced with carbon fiber. The car sports new lighter seats and no rearview mirrors, which were replaced by more aerodynamic video cameras.
There’s still work to do. The engineers are still trying to make the car work on fully electric mode in the city. Right now, the Hemi has to idle to power the power steering and power brakes even if the electric motor is driving the car.
The Eco+Muscle maybe a crazy idea, and an expensive one (PM doesn’t say how much it would cost to build one without all the sponsors), but it’s definitely a fun idea. My hat goes off to the people who want to reconcile the muscle with the eco, the past with the future.
From my Chinese Green Car column.
©2009 Isaac Hernández
I’ve just returned from Portland, Oregon, and I have seen the future of transportation: a place where cars and bicycles live together in harmony. Before Portland, I had only witnessed this in Amsterdam and Xi’an City.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the automobile. There’s something meditative about driving a well-built car on a well-built road, being present; being one with the road. But I also love bicycling. I can get the same feeling of power and peace at the handlebars of a mountain bike zooming past trees on a single track, or on a bike lane through city streets.
I thought that a world of bicycles and cars living together could be possible after going to China in 1998. I was there to document world bicycle Trials Champion Hans Rey. We rode around Xi’an, including a visit to the Terracotta Army, and all the way to the Sea of Bamboo and Emei Tan, in Sichuan Province; both by van and by bicycle. Xi’an at the time had impressive bicycle boulevards as wide as the car boulevards.
Amir Moghaddass Esfehani reports that China sent officials to Europe in 1866 to learn the latest technological developments of the Western world. Binchun came back with this report: “On the avenues people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There’s yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses.” (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68).
Since then, China went on to become the “kingdom of bicycles”, as Qiu Baoxing, a vice-minister with the Ministry of Construction, said in 2006, when he announced, according to the British newspaper, The Guardian, “that any bike lanes that have been narrowed or destroyed to make way for cars in recent years must be returned to their original glory.”
Los Angeles, California, was considered a “kingdom of cars” during the same time period. The first cars here were railway streetcars, pulled by horses and mules, starting in 1873, not long after China’s discovery of the bicycle.
By 1887 there were 43 rail car franchises in LA. And in 1881 the first successful electric rail system was completed. By 1911, many rail car companies had merged. In 1944, Los Angeles had two railway companies, Los Angeles Railway, with 1042 yellow streetcars, and Pacific Electric, with 437 red electric cars. The Pacific Electric Railway covered four counties, with 1,150 miles of track and over 109 million passengers that year.
But Los Angeles was becoming the car capital of the world; combustion engines paved the future. Trolley transportation was slow, moving at an average of 11 miles per hour, according to Scott L. Bottles (Los Angeles and the Automobile). But car transportation was slow as well, with automobiles spending 30% of the time stopped at intersections.
In 1937, The Automobile Club of Southern California suggested “a network of traffic routes for the exclusive use of motor vehicles over which there shall be no crossing at grade and along which there shall be no interference from land use activities.” January 1st, 1940, the first “express highway” was born. The term evolved to expressways and parkways, and then freeways, as in “free from congestion”.
But a rapid railway system still was part of the plan. Stone and Webster reported in 1939 to the Transportation Engineering Board of the city of Los Angeles that freeways should be designed to include rail tracks, necessary as densities increased. They even called for a subway system under Wilshire Boulevard. One freeway, over the Cahuenga Pass, did include tracks for Pacific Electric in its median.
The fate of the yellow cars may have been decided in 1943, when General Motors invested in American City Lines, a bus company, which in turn bought stock in Los Angeles Railway (up to 59% in May of 1945), and started dismantling the system. A similar fate awaited Pacific Electric in 1953, purchased by Metropolitan Coach Lines. By 1959 only one trolley line still existed, from Los Angeles to Long Beach. It closed two years later.
General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack, and the Federal Engineering Corporation invested in National and American City Lines, which bought more than 100 electric systems in 45 US cities, replacing them with GM buses. The streetcars were burned, with the exception of a few placed in museums. It was after all, the time for “autopia”; rail lines were seen as a way of transportation for the poor.
The Seventh Circuit Court of California tried the companies involved and summarized the case: “On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were indicted on two counts, the second of which charged them with conspiring to monopolize certain portions of interstate commerce…. The American City Lines having been dismissed, the remaining corporate and individual defendants were found guilty upon this count.”
In 1948, the United States Supreme Court (in United States v. National City Lines Inc.) reversed lower court rulings and the case was moved to Illinois. At the end, each company was fined $5,000, and each director was fined one dollar. It was a slap on the wrist for cutting transportation possibilities for millions of people.
From 1963 to 1990, when the Blue Line opened, there were no trains in operation in Los Angeles. Building new lines has proven difficult. If you are elderly or can’t drive for any reason, it’s tough to get around. Today we look back at the one thousand miles of rail that were dismantled and see an asset thrown away. We’re trying to back pedal and have a feasible public transportation system in LA. If only we hadn’t get rid of them 50 years ago!
In the meantime, China thrived on bicycles. Back in 1978, there were less than two million passenger cars in China… and 148 million in the USA. By 2006, the number of cars in China had increased to 27 million, and to 251 million in the USA.
It’s predicted that by 2021 the number of motor vehicles in China could reach 130 million, or one car for every 10 people. In the US there’s at this time one car per inhabitant. In California, due to the number of people with classic car collections, there are 10 cars per person!
Many people in the USA fear the consequences of continuous car ownership growth in China, and its effects on the environment and the economy due to the expected increase in demand of oil. But it’s a selfish approach to think that we in the US can enjoy our cars, but the Chinese can’t. I say let people enjoy cars, but let’s all do it responsibly. Which brings me back to Portland, Oregon.
That city has been fighting for years to increase bicycle traffic, by making it easier for people to ride, with miles of bicycle lanes, and boulevards (for exclusive bike use, away from car traffic). More and more businesses have showers so that employees can freshen up before starting the work day, and priority is given to bikes in many intersections, with the inclusion of green boxes painted on the street at stop lights. Cars must stop behind the green zone, allowing bicycles to go first when the light turns green.
The more people that ride bicycles, and the better public transportation, the more automobile drivers can enjoy their driving without traffic jams. Perhaps that’s why driver are so courteous to bike riders there, because they appreciate that it’s a bicycle in front of them, and not another car. After all, where is the freedom that the car is supposed to provide when you’re stuck in a traffic jam?
As I said, I love automobiles, but I love them under the right conditions. I work at home whenever I can. I couldn’t stand driving a car everyday to go to work and back, especially not in stop-and-go traffic. Whenever I can I walk or bike to the store. When I take classes at the university, I go by bicycle; it keeps me in good shape and saves money. Yes, I use the car when I need to go to Los Angeles, 100 miles south of my home in Santa Barbara. If time permits I’ll take the train; because of our culture of automobiles in Southern California, unfortunately our trains are not very fast, and not well connected.
So while Portland is trying to be more like China, increasing bicycle friendliness, I fear that China is trying to be more like Los Angeles. Believe me, you don’t want to “go” there. The city of movie stars is very unfriendly to communal life. It’s difficult to do anything without a car, so you become a slave to your car, instead of the automobile being at your service when you need it. You need to drive to get anywhere, and the rush hours are longer and longer. And only 0.6% of its population commutes by bicycle. Which reminds me of the sticker I saw on a bike in Portland, “you’d be happy to if you were riding your bicycle”
In the future, cities will be friendly to bicycle traffic and easy to get around by train and bus. In the future you will enjoy the car on a racetrack during the weekend.
In the future, cities will be more like some places in China, where the bicycle is still king. If China wants to look to the USA for ideas in the year 2009, just like Binchum looked to Europe in 1886, turn your eyes to Portland, Oregon, not Los Angeles, California. Don’t buy the streetcar companies and burn down the trolleys. Don’t set your bicycles on fire just yet. In fifty years you may wish you had those bicycle lanes and those train tracks back, just like LA. Cars, trams and bicycles can live together. Just look at Portland.
From my Chinese Column
©2009 Isaac Hernández
It always puzzles me how the English language refers to fuel consumption as fuel economy. Perhaps it’s all relative; I suppose a 100mpg AutomotiveX-Prize contender (see last month’s column) really has fuel economy, compared to the current consumption standards.
While we wait for the X-Prize winner, the US government has proposed a 35.5mpg goal by 2016. This is not new. The Bush administration had already proposed in December 2007 a fleet-wide average goal for cars and trucks of 35mpg, by 2020. In the current regulation, cars must average 27.5 and trucks 23.1mpg. The CAFE standard will increase by five percent each year, building on the 2011 standard, until we get to 2016. The new goal is a national fleet mpg average of 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for light trucks.
According to the White House, “the projected oil savings of this program over the life of this program is 1.8 billion barrels of oil. The program is also projected to achieve reductions of 900 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions under the life of the program. That is equivalent to taking 177 million cars off the road or shutting down 194 coal plants.”
What the White House has accomplished is for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work together to set standards for greenhouse gases. From these standards, they’ve come up with the fuel consumption figure.
It took some compromises from everybody. California, for example, had to give up their own Clean Air Act and go along the goals set for the rest of the nation. Under California’s plan, the fuel consumption average still worked out to be 35.5mpg by 2016, but the curve to get there was a bit steeper. The White House wants to give car manufacturers more time to get to the new goal.
And, like all laws, there are exceptions manufacturers can work around. For example, heavy vehicles, like the Hummer H2, are exempt from this regulation because they are considered farm or work vehicles. In fact, during the Bush administration, you could even get a tax rebate for the value of your car, if it weighed over 8500 lbs. and was used for business. Other loopholes include mileage credits for selling flexible-fuel vehicles, even if these never run on E-85 fuel.
In my hometown of Santa Barbara, for example, there are no Ethanol fueling stations. I’d have to drive over 100 miles, to Los Angeles, to refuel on E-85; a short distance, if you consider that a couple of years ago, the only E-85 gas station in California was in San Diego, another 150 miles south. Today there are five of these stations in Sacramento (propelfuels.com), one in Brentwood (conservfuel.com) and the mentioned one in San Diego.
Yes, California has a long way to go, but there are also many agents of change, including Daniel Emmet, from Energy Independence Now (ein.org), who pitched governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the idea of a Hydrogen Highway.
Emmet has an ally in Arjun Sarkar, whose official title at the University of California at Santa Barbara is “sustainable transportation change agent”. He has been championing alternative fuels for many years, and is the brain behind our very own Green Car Show, since 2001. Through this show, our citizens have been able to choose more wisely among many different alternative fuel options, including some electric cars from Miles Automotive (milesev.com), manufactured in China. Sarkar is a big proponent of the use of multiple fuels, from natural gas, to electricity to hydrogen.
Perhaps because of the government credits for flexible fuel cars that can burn ethanol, General Motors and Chrysler invested energy in developing this kind of vehicles. They also touted fuel cell and electric car prototypes, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they brought a full hybrid into the market. While we wait for the promised land of the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, GM is selling hybrid versions of the Saturn Vue, the Chevy Malibu and the GMC Sierra/Cadillac Escalade. Chrysler launched a hybrid Dodge Durango (sharing technology with GM), but never brought it out to dealerships.
The two other big players in the US automotive industry, Ford and Toyota, have been selling hybrid cars for many years now. Is it perhaps a coincidence that these manufacturers haven’t required any government assistance, yet? I’m not saying that the hybrid car saved Toyota and Ford, but the fact that these companies have had these available for almost a decade speaks volumes about the different way of thinking.
Yes, GM brought us the EV-1 electric vehicle back in the 1990’s. And they have shown many fuel cell cars over the years, including a Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell, which is actually being tested in real life in Los Angeles. But where was the GM “Prius” when they needed one?
Manufacturers have claimed that US consumers don’t want fuel-efficient vehicles as long as gasoline remains under $2 per gallon. Last summer, when the price reached $4 per gallon in Santa Barbara, hordes were selling their SUVs and buying small cars.
Will it take a surge in gasoline price to sell cars under the new CAFE standards to the public? An increase in gasoline tax would do the trick, but don’t ask Americans to pay more tax on gas. We have no problem ever increasing taxes on cigarettes, but people have much emotion about their gas. During the last crisis, Oregon tried to pass a law to increase gasoline tax by just 1 cent per gallon with a voter initiative, in order to fund the police force, and it failed to pass.
Some Republicans propose a gasoline tax hike in exchange of lowering employment taxes, thus not increasing taxes, technically, but moving them around. This way we would tax something that we don’t need (CO2) instead of something we need (jobs).
The EPA and NHTSA foresee flexibility in compliance with its proposed standards based on certain credits. Credits can be earned for fleet over-compliance in a given year, and applied in future years. Current consideration is to allow credits to be carried forward for at least 5 years.
And while the new standards are designed to make all type of cars and light trucks decrease their fuel consumption, there probably will be ways in which manufacturers can transfer credits among its fleet. Plus, plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles will count towards “super credits,” by making each of these vehicles count as more than one, with a multiplier to be decided.
And since the mpg figure is actually figured mathematically from the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, critics say that the improvement of AC systems will count towards the figurative reduction of fuel consumption.
The car manufacturers seem to like the new plan as it simplifies the system, by getting rid of different laws for California, and the other States that were going to follow the Clean Air Act. Some say that GM and Chrysler had no option but to stand behind the president, after all, the government owns 60% of GM.
Obama’s office, which has been accused of being Communist by conservative right-wing Republicans, is setting these standards for all car companies, but also its own company, GM, which some say that it stands for “Government Motors”.
The irony is that GM may have not been in such dire straits if it wasn’t for the old CAFE standards, which gave unfair tax advantage to large SUVs, by exempting them. SUVs became the chicken that laid the golden egg. And even though SUVs still enjoy relative strong sales in the USA, given the circumstances, the Big Three became too comfortable with large vehicles and an easy profit, and have not quite learned yet how to make a profit with small cars (or so people say).
Does GM have an unfair advantage with the government on its side, and the possibility of setting up laws that favor their own company? The US legal system won’t let the government get away with helping its own company. It will be impossible for GM to be an exclusive supplier of police cars, for example, or for the White House to give away GM cars with your tax rebate.
Some question the government’s investment in GM. If you were to buy a car company, why buy one with so many troubles at such high price? And if we really want to reduce fuel consumption, why not invest in a new company that makes electric cars already, not one that promises a plug-in hybrid in the future? Look at Daimler, which sold Chrysler before it went bankrupt, and now it’s buying 10% of the electric car company Tesla Motors.
As I write these lines, I hear that Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co. is possibly buying Hummer, contracting vehicle manufacturing temporarily, thus keeping the Shreveport, Louisiana, factory (where the H3 and H3T are assembled) open until at least 2010. While the H3 does have to follow CAFE standards, the H2 doesn’t. It’s up to Sichuan Tengzhong to make Hummers that the public wants. A 100mpg Hummer, anyone? Why not? Who says a purely American brand also has to be a gas guzzler?
About gasoline, Hollywood illusions and Cash for Clunkers.
©2009 Isaac Hernández/AutoTao.com
I recently received the latest DVD release of the Fast and Furious saga, as a media review copy. After a couple of weeks, I finally decided to pop it in my Made In China Mac Book Pro, to finally watch it and write the review. My father, a brilliant magazine publisher in Spain (www.luike.com), told me once that news are like hot potatoes, and you have to pass them on to your readers before you get burnt. With this DVD, I got scolded, taking so long to review it. But I must admit that, even as a car journalist, I’ve never been into the Fast and Furious saga, not even the first one, which it turns out it was called The Fast and the Furious. I’ve never seen any of them, until now. A couple of years ago I was even invited to visit the set for the third installment FF3, known as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) and see the filming of one stunt. If you are a FF fan, you may think, “What a waste that he got to go and I didn’t!”
So I decided to give Fast & Furious (2009, directed by Justin Lin, born 1973 in Taipei, Taiwan) a chance, looking for hidden metaphors and lessons. The opening scene is reminiscent of the great train robberies in Western films, but instead of stealing gold, they’re running away with gasoline. As Michelle Rodriguez’ character, Letty, says in the movie, “Down here gas is gold, bubba”. That’s the first metaphor. In the Dominican Republic, where the scene takes place, gasoline is scarce. Is this the way it will be for all of us in the near future? Watch the special features and you’ll see Los Bandoleros, a short directed by Vin Diesel (who plays Dom in the movie) and you’ll get more details behind the gasoline robbery. They’re stealing gas from the rich for the poor. You’ll also get Tego Calderón´s poignant political commentary from behind bars in a Dominican prison: “There were cars that ran without gasoline, suckers. But what did those son-of-a-bitches do? They pulled them out of the market. Why? Big business. Why the hell are they in Irak, fighting? Fighting for oil. And us, fighting each other for dumb shit.”
A pretty spectacular opening for a movie, with sliding cars, pretty girls and explosions, all that’s necessary to please my testosterone. I tend to like more intellectual movies, but I have to admit Fast & Furious grabbed my attention, with surprisingly good acting and an interesting plot, plus action-packed driving, both with 81 stunt people and with computer graphics (CGI) and green screens. Yes, I would have liked a few more plot twists, but what I got was enough to feed my imagination in order to write this column, which is actually not about the film, even if it seems like it, but about feeding you my thoughts about cars, driving, gasoline, Hollywood and the US government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.
The DVD comes with a warning at the end: “The motor vehicle Action sequences depicted in this film are dangerous. All stunts were performed in controlled environments with professionally trained stunt crews on closed roads. No attempts should be made to duplicate any action, driving or car play scenes herein portrayed.” I would add, the quasy-love making scenes in this film are dangerous too, they can get you pregnant. And a final warning, the words in this column are merely my opinion, don’t believe any of them, or do, but question, always question…
Having gone through the mandatory lawyer-mandated lingo, I will say that the DVD comes with great featurette about the filming of the opening scene. Here you see the stunt drivers performing the 180 slide and then going into reverse without stopping (pretty impressive), and you can also see that the gasoline tank trailer is actually a vehicle in itself, with someone hidden inside driving as he looks down a relatively small opening. See? don’t believe what you see. It could be CGI.
Watching the movie remind me of a personal illusion that I lived. In one of the car meetings in the movie there’s at least one vehicle from Swift Car Club (www.swiftcc.net). I actually know some of the people from this club, including Albert García, its president. During a photo shoot with his tuned Chevy Impala (with a BMW front end and a Mercedes rear end), we met a guy who claimed to be a Hollywood make-up artist. He said he knew Paul Walker and that he was sure that Paul would love Albert’s car and would probably buy it. I didn’t know who Walker is, and it turns out he is the big star in the original FF movie, The Fast and the Furious (2001), the second FF, 2 Fast 2 Furious, this last fourth one, and most probably also in the future fifth installment. To make the long story short, he was/is a scam artist, looking for attention by throwing names of movie stars and doing make up jobs on people. I started the blog when I met him (and it ended when he called me, apologized and said that his conning days were over). Second lesson today, don’t believe necessarily everything you see in Hollywood, or everywhere else.
The next scene in FF4 features a funeral, and Dom watches from atop a hill, with an oil platform behind him; is it a metaphor for a funeral for gasoline? The next action part of the movie includes an illegal street car race in Los Angeles. After watching the movie I happened to drive to LA, and found myself wanted to drive fast like in the movie. Bad idea. Remember the warning about the motor vehicle action being dangerous? People die doing these things in real life. The innocent lives lost to street car racing cannot be brought back for a second take. This scene looks very much like a video game. It even has animations that are supposed to look like a navigation system, but are more video game like. Do they want to sell you the FF video game? Most probably, as Vin Diesel, producer for this last installment also has a video game company and got the video game licensing rights for the FF name. Here’s the third lesson: reserve reckless driving to your video game console. It’s more fun, cheaper, and legal. And easier, remember, it took 81 stunt drivers and many copies of each car, plus computer animators, to make what you see on the screen.
I won’t go into detail about the rest of the film. I don’t want to spoil it for viewers. But I will point out what I see as the future of the automobile. As gasoline prices climb, we will see buyers buying smaller four-cylinder cars for their daily driving, perhaps more hybrids and even alternative fuels. Would Vin then change his name to Vin Biodiesel? No, I guess it doesn’t have the same ring. The Y chromosome will still control our desire to drive big V8 cars like Dom’s 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS 454, but these will become, more and more, weekend drivers.
Wait a second, it’s already true, people are trading their SUVs, mostly Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Cherokee for Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla… at least for now, thanks to a government program known as Cash for Clunkers that provides up to $4500 to trade in your gas guzzler for a smaller vehicle. A gas guzzler is considered by the government a car that does 18mpg or worse. So my 1998 Volvo V70, with an average rating of 20mpg does not qualify. It’s kind of upsetting for me that the government is giving my money (the 1,000 million dollars in aid, soon to become 3,000 million dollars, comes from our taxes) for people to trade in their cars, but I cannot take advantage of it to trade for a more environmental car. So a person with a 18mpg car can buy a 20mpg car and get rewarded, but I cannot trade my 20mpg car for a 25mpg car and get the bonus. I plan to write a letter to Obama himself. Why do people who bought SUVs when they didn’t really need them, get rewarded now? Shouldn’t responsible people, who are already saving gas and want to save even more, be taken care of too?
Which brings me to my last point. You can drive an economic car, or even a bicycle to work, and you can still play with cars. As you can see in the DVD extras, even Vin goes to driving school to have fun. When he drives around Los Angeles he doesn’t go crazy. He drives responsibly. With the abundance of racing driving schools, you don’t even have to own a V8 to experience one. Heck, you could just play the sound of a V8 engine out the speakers of your electric car. In Fast & Furious, Dom’s Buick Grand National sounds like a V8, but in real life these cars, also known as GNX, are powered by V6 engines. If Hollywood can do it, why can’t you? Come to think of it, I wonder how many of the crashed FF cars did Universal Studios trade in for new ones under the Cash for Clunkers program…