Technosophy: Resistance is Voltage over Current

I was born just a few months before the first major petroleum crisis to hit the United States, in those last few days before the American car-buying public got its first hint that maybe – just maybe – the gravy train wouldn’t run forever. In response to the Arab oil-producing nations putting the screws on the world economy in October of 1973, my father – a shadetree mechanic since high school, which at that point was only three years ago for him, admittedly – decided, very reluctantly, to bite the bullet and buy a small car.

But not a foreign car, and especially not a Japanese one. Everyone knew that foreigners, especially Asians, couldn’t be trusted to build a car that wouldn’t fall apart within a year, and besides, parts had to come from overseas, making the supply unreliable and probably expensive. (His benchmark for this was the high price and scarce availability of parts for British cars, the only foreign cars he could really be said to approve of. It was only later that Dad realized the truth: Jaguar parts are expensive because Jaguar like to charge a lot of money for them, not because they have to be shipped to the dealers from Britain.) No, if the Hutchins family were going to suffer the indignity of having to ride in a small car, it was at least going to be an American small car.

The only problem with this, as anyone else who was there at the time can attest to, is that in the early 1970s American small cars were rubbish. That said, Dad was also not a Ford man, so at least we escaped having the worst small car ever made. Instead we had a Chevy Vega. An orange one, no less, which was fortuitous in that the rust it would inevitably develop wouldn’t show as obviously. I have only the dimmest memories of the Vega – it only lasted until I was about three – but I recall thinking it was cramped inside even then.

Fast-forward to 1976; the ’73 fuel crisis had mostly abated and happy days were here again. The Vega had pretty much rusted out anyway, and it was okay to have a big car again – so my father, overcome with glee, threw caution to the wind and ordered a brand new, fully customized Monte Carlo from our local Chevrolet dealer. It took months to come, and when it did, well. The 1977 Monte Carlo wasn’t just big, it was colossal – and at the time it was considered a mid-sized car! It had a hood you could land military jets on and four-foot-long doors that weighed about 100 pounds apiece. The front seats swiveled so you could get in and out without all of that pesky sliding-across-the-seat stuff you have to do in normal cars. It was the swankiest car Chevrolet made that year.

It got about 10 miles per gallon.

This became something of an issue in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution sparked the second major U.S. fuel crisis.

Probably not coincidentally, it was around this time that cars powered by things other than gasoline started to become vaguely worthy of the average consumer’s attention. “By the year 2000, $BIGPERCENTAGE of cars on America’s roads will be electrically powered” became the same kind of car-magazine mantra that “by the year 2000, cars will fly” had been in the middle of the century. There were a lot of pie-in-the-sky announcements of forthcoming new products and promises of wonderful things in the future.

Then the price of crude started to come down again and everybody more or less forgot about it, except for a few hippies and other ahead-of-their-time enviro-nuts. Electric cars went back to being inconvenient curiosities that weren’t really good for anything. The most the mainstream did at the time was to start looking more closely at diesel-powered cars, because – weird as this is to consider now – at the time, diesel fuel was considerably cheaper than gasoline, even when oil prices spiked. That was clearly an evolutionary dead end, especially when considered environmentally rather than economically.

Over the last 20 years or so there has still been the occasional spasm of searching for alternatives (oddly, they seem to coincide eerily with Middle East wars), but they always peter out again. The Alewife station on the Boston T’s Red Line had a rank of spaces with chargers for electric cars in the parking garage, right up by the entrance to the station, for years. I think I saw an actual electric car parked in one of them once. Last time I was in the station, the chargers appeared to have been removed. And yes, you do see the odd city bus or UPS delivery vehicle with a decal on the side proudly announcing that this vehicle runs on used fryolator oil or grass clippings or something, and that’s fine. It’s not as if a city bus could do anything with the power to go faster than a reasonably healthy man can walk anyway. Apart from that, though, it’s pretty much been business as usual.

Well, here we are in the first decade of the 21st century, and everything’s gone wrong again. Not only is gasoline ridiculously expensive by U.S. standards (which, since I live there, are the only standards I consider personally relevant), but now the green lobby has acquired such social, if not political, power that people who drive real cars get the same kinds of evil looks on the street that you’d once have had to do something really outrageous to get. Walking around in a full-length coat made of veal, say.

Admittedly, that kind of crackpottery isn’t new – I once, in about 1992, had a patchouli enthusiast come up to me at a gas station while I was filling up my 1968 Pontiac Tempest and inform me that I was “no better than a murderer” and that he hoped I was proud of myself. The temptation to pull the nozzle out of the car, douse him with premium unleaded, and strike a match was very, very strong. It seems to be more prevalent now, though. You get the same kind of feedback for driving small, reasonably economical cars like the one I have now, a Saab 900S convertible, and from people who you would swear are habitual bathers.

It is, distressingly, starting to look more and more like proper motor vehicles will eventually be forced out, turning the world into some hideous motoring dystopia, like in that old Rush song about the guy with the Ferrari 166. I’m not going to do the usual gearhead thing here and try to trot out obviously forced rationalizations about why piston-engined cars are practically necessary or the like. Yes, electric cars are still ridiculous. Yes, they don’t have a long enough range, high enough reliability, or low enough cost to be worth bothering with. Yes, most of those on the market right now are either insanely unsafe, utterly impractical, or both. Even the best of the current crop of electric cars that I know about, the Tesla Roadster, is hugely expensive, has only a 200-mile range, and takes three and a half hours to recharge. I live in the far reaches of Maine. They’re never going to sell me an electric car, unless I have no choice in the matter at all, before they can make one that will get me to Boston and doesn’t take a full viewing of Seven Samurai to “fill up”.

But that’s just it: Eventually, I’m sure they will. Everything I’ve said about electric cars above was also true of early motorcars, and all those problems were eventually surpassed. If engineers keep working on electric cars, they’ll one day achieve the same sort of evolution, and the electric vehicle will have arrived. Maybe the answer is fuel cells, I don’t know. I’m not sanguine about driving around with a charge of somehing so enormously more explosive than gasoline as hydrogen on board, but don’t go by me.

I’ll be sad when that day comes, anyway, for no better reason than that I like internal combustion cars. I like changing gears and keeping track of revs, even though in practical terms that’s just a contrivance for overcoming the piston engine’s main limitation, its inability to provide smooth or consistent power across a street car’s wide range of speed requirements. I like torque and horsepower ratings. I like the noise they make and the idea that, even if I’m never going to have any reason to ask it to, my car could go really fast. (Well, okay, the car I actually drive couldn’t go really fast, but it could still go quite a lot faster than I ever drive it.)

Yes, in strictly practical terms, I agree that there is nothing I require of a motor vehicle that some future electric model will be unable to do… but I can’t accept that we’ve climbed our way to the 21st century just to start accepting things that can only do what we need them to do. And I decline to just sit back and be demonized because I like cars that rev and make a bit of smoke. Technological progress is supposed to be about a steadily increasing standard of living, not more effective austerity measures.

Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.

About Gryphon

In his career - well, not so much a career as a series of interesting but usually ill-advised vocational choices, if we're being honest - Benjamin D. Hutchins has been a tech support grunt, an Internet operations tech, a small-town print reporter, a public relations writer, and a semiprofessional muser upon the random. Now he's working on several books (none of which, just to buck tradition, is the Great American Novel), eyeing the relentless march of personal gadget technology with bemusement and often suspicion, and wondering what's with these kids today, with their clothes and their hair and that stuff they think is music.His first book, Off the Top of My Head: Personal Reflections of a Small-Town Newsman, can be had here or here.
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  • MegaZone

    Yeah, you know what I drive, and it isn’t exactly frugal – especially with my right foot. But as far as I’m concerned it is worth it, because I enjoy driving it. I love the feeling, the noise, and the power. I like having a car that responds when I put the pedal down, and hits a buck without any effort – if I don’t watch it when passing someone.

    (For those who don’t know, I drive a 2006 Dodge Charger R/T Daytona.)

  • Ivan Y

    At this point, no one is really forcing anyone to switch to electric cars or hybrids. There are plenty of places in the world with a much more expensive gasoline (well, they’d call it “petrol” or “benzine”) and they are still driving “normal” cars. Well, maybe on average the cars are smaller but it has more to do with stuff like parking and getting around small centuries-old streets.

    Anyhow, the situation is different now than in the times you described. As world’s booming economies demand more oil, it’s getting harder to find and extract especially now that countries are nationalizing their resources and squeezing out major corporations. So the push for alternative technologies isn’t here just due to environmental concerns, but from a simple fact that we have to figure out ways to transition from oil eventually if we want to avoid major conflicts.

  • Gryphon

    At this point, no, but what worries me is that it’s coming. Maybe not within the year, but I’m concerned that the ongoing hardening of attitude I see toward motoring will reach a point where those of us who like a rev or two will simply be overrun within my lifetime. The underlying reasons don’t really concern me for these purposes. I’d much rather see some of that massive research effort going toward finding ways to keep real cars working, out from under the spectre of peak oil, rather than all of it being put into faffing around with electric and fuel cell vehicles that are specifically designed to have performance that is barely adequate. I don’t want barely adequate. I don’t think that’s what The Future is supposed to be about. I don’t want to be the old codger explaining to the youngsters that there used to be these things called “automobiles”, and that unlike the fuel cell people transports of 2055, they were actually fun to drive.

  • Tom

    There are (or were) electric cars that weren’t just motor scooters in disguise. I suggest renting “Who Killed the Electric Car”. Some of these cars were performance vehicles, too. In a nut shell it’s about how the oil companies and car companies had, in the recent past, tried to keep this technology from developing and getting to market. And it’s not one of those tin-foil-hat conspiracy films.

    Besides the politics of oil, we have increased demand from China and India, a weak dollar, and commodity speculation driving up the price, a very different situtaion than 20 or 30 years ago. With a limited resource such as oil, can you imagine just the economic effects if the two most populous countries (more than 3 billion people?) want cars the way the US does? The price of gas may slide back 50 cents by the end of summer, but the trend is clear for every incerasing prices.

    We have yet to decide what is “adequate performance” as a nation. I’m not sure what all qualifies as a “real car” but get the feeling from reading above that anything that isn’t a performance vehicle isn’t a real car. (I’m guessing Echos, Civics, Rios fall into this?) I know driving is so ingrained into the American psyche that it’s almost considered a freedom akin to those in the Bill of Rights. It is exhilarating driving a perfomance vehicle, but the future economics just isn’t there. Most people will want an affordable way to get back and forth to work and the market and will sacrifice a “rev or two” for economy. Or they will just do without.

    But I don’t think anyone has to worry about losing cars that can give a rev or two. I suspect even performance vehicles will always be available, but at a premium.

  • Gryphon

    As far as what is and isn’t a “real car”, that’s occasionally a tough judgment call. It largely depends on what you’re trying to do with it, and how you feel about cars. Mind you, I’m not saying that everyone should be a car nut. If you (and I’m using the royal “you” here) are the sort of person who doesn’t care if your car is only barely adequate to the task at hand – if it’s genuinely the case that all you’re interested in is a rolling box that will get you from A to B in relative safety and in accordance with all applicable local, state, and federal ordinances – that’s great. Get a Rio. It’s all the car you’ll ever need.

    What I resent, and what I see more and more of in the future, is the growing cultural expectation that that’s all we’re all interested in – or at least all we’re going to get, regardless of interest. You (and now I am not using the royal “you”) say the future economics aren’t there for today’s performance vehicles; I’m not sure I buy that – in fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t – but let’s say for argument’s sake that I do. Even if that is in fact the case, I think some of the 21st century’s vast technological might should be directed toward fixing the future economics of high-performance motoring. This is as opposed to the current development strategy, which seems to be almost entirely geared toward cowering before said economics instead.

  • Tom

    I actually think those economics are here, certainly the signs are visible:

    1) SUVs and Hummers aren’t moving off new car lots like they used to.

    2) Priuses are back order for 2 or more months.

    3) Sharp increase in people trying to trade in less fuel efficient models. One car dealer says he deducts $200 off trade ins each time a barrel of oil increases by $1.

    4) Ebay now lists more than a hundred town cars an limosines from companies trying to lighten their fleet, when there are typically on about 10 or so at anyone time.

    Some of these may be knee jerk reactions, I’m sure. But if oil and gas prices continue to climb (though oil may slip back to under $100 a barrel by the end of the year), demand for fuel effiecent vehicles will increase. The big car manufacturers will have to retool or face even more losses.

    The car companies will still produce high performance vehicles, as I first said. They always have, regardless of what their “bread and butter” models were. But producing fewer for lack of demand will make them even more expensive. There has always been a demand for such vehicles, although it may become more a niche market as fewer people will be able to afford them.

  • Gryphon

    Well, the SUV craze was ridiculous and faddish from day one. The bulk of the million and one types available today are poorly engineered garbage, not anywhere near capable enough to be of any actual use offroad, but carrying just enough slapped-on pseudo-truck pretention to be worthless as cars too. The few people who actually have some use for that kind of vehicle are still buying the same utilitarian models they’ve always bought; most of the rest of that bloated market segment is just trash, the automotive equivalent of costume jewelry.

    The thing is, the Prius craze is also ridiculous and faddish. It’s a terrible car that’s selling like hotcakes because people think buying one makes them virtuous and good, when in fact it just makes them exactly the same sort of marketing-guff-believing herd-followers as the people who thought a Hummer would make them manly. It doesn’t get anything like the magical fuel mileage the manufacturers tout, it’s got more things on it to go wrong than a normal car, it’s a technological dead end, and its safety record is, to put it charitably, uninspiring. Driving a Prius is an ostentatious announcement that you’re nobly enduring a lousy car in order to be ecologically conscious and supportive of alternative technologies when it is, in fact, neither. If the bulk of SUVs are costume jewelry, the Prius is an Armani hairshirt.

    (What I find really hilarious, though, are the new vehicles that are hitting showrooms lately which pander to both fads at the same time. These supposed hybrid SUVs – I mean, seriously? Who does anybody think they’re fooling with those?)

    As for point 3, I think what you have there is a car dealer having found a creative new way to screw people on trade-in. This is not exactly film-at-11 territory. :)

    Still, you do have a point. I don’t think the situation is anywhere near as dire as we’re being told, but in a way, that’s what annoys me. The SUV thing needed to die anyway, simply because it was stupid, but that’s no reason to let it take down other segments with it. And no, I don’t believe that the really high-performance automobile will ever completely disappear, but then, I’m not really concerned about the very far right-hand end of the bell curve.

    What worries me is the contraction of the middle of the market. If the trend continues as it’s going now, we’ll end up with a world where there are basically three kinds of cars: ultra-expensive, super-high-end sports cars; ultra-expensive, super-high-end luxury cars; and slow, boring crap. And I just don’t see the need for it. I can’t accept that we’ve come this far as a technological society just to relegate one of our best inventions to the status of “dull plastic box for going to the supermarket in” for the bulk of the population.