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Car Culture Out of Fuel?

Author Chris Turner’s “The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need” published this year by Random House Canada provides some interesting commentary about the future of the motor vehicle.

Mr. Turner talks about “sustainable transport” in an early chapter suitably entitled “Out of Gas”. He refers to both the obvious starting point—the automobile’s reliance on a non-renewable, polluting energy source obtained in large part from the other side of the world, and to the unique challenges of congestion posed by the automobile:

“Despite its abundant inefficiencies, its wanton wastefulness, the ruin it makes of human life and landscape with clockwork frequency,” Mr. Turner says that we simply “can’t imagine living without it.”  This is not, says Turner, “a testament to the car’s advantages,” (of which there are many, he agrees) but to our collective “failure of imagination.”  We are so deep inside “car culture” that imagining other possibilities has become almost impossible.

Mr. Turner credits droplets from the tailpipe of a futuristic Ford Contour P2000 for his intense interest in this subject. The particular P2000 had an electric motor that got its power from a fuel cell that combined hydrogen from a tank in the trunk and oxygen from an air compressor in the front to generate electricity and wastewater—the tailpipe droplets.

It was not a complete fix for a number of reasons. First, hydrogen production requires electrolysis which requires an exterior electricity source still most commonly generated by burning hydrocarbons. Secondly, fuel cells currently require rare and pricey platinum. Thirdly, distributing hydrogen raises many thorny, safety problems. However, it was at least some progress.

The other obstacle to a shift from “car culture”, is that steady developments in existing technologies, like the hybrid car, are proceeding apace to the point where “Some hyper-efficient next-generation hybrid will almost certainly come along to tackle [emission] problems adequately.”

As Mr. Turner sees it, the trouble with car culture goes deeper than reducing emissions.  Cars have become “one of the most powerful symbols of individual liberty in the free world”. The result is gridlock.  Mr. Turner puts it this way: “The dream entices with visions of (fast driving) up empty winding mountainside roads—the kind so beloved by the makers of car commercials—but the reality is much more often stop–and–go, lurch–and–stomp, honking screeching road-raging gridlock… a catastrophically unsustainable wreck of a system that simply begs for change.”

Mr. Turner finally shifts his focus to exploring the costs of gridlock and the potential solutions including congestion charges and public transit.  Presumably, most of us who are fortunate enough to have vehicles, are not ready to give them up anytime soon, especially if we can continue to obtain fuel, and eventually get where we are going. But, these are things definitely worth thinking about.

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