Is There a Model-T in Your Future?

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY

I remember the future. I believe we were supposed to be wearing silver suits and zipping about in atomic-powered hovercrafts. The future of my childhood, however, is now, and as far as transportation technology goes, things ain't all that different.

Take government-imposed CAFE standards. "CAFE" stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Created during the energy crisis of the 1970s, CAFE forced auto-makers to improve fleet gas mileage. The US Senate just passed a controversial bill to increase CAFE standards to require auto-makers to achieve a lethargic average of 35 miles per gallon in their consumer-grade vehicles by the year 2020.

Wow. Let's put this into perspective. My 1987 Hyundai got an EPA highway rating of 40 miles per gallon, a figure it often surpassed. My current 11-year-old car also earned an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon, and it averages 38 miles per gallon in real-world driving. So excuse me if I'm not impressed with 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020.

What is futuristic about this bill is the political climate in Washington, where this lame and worthless legislation is currently received as "controversial"—as if it were some sort of ecotopian plan drafted by deep ecologists just back from burning an SUV dealership. The future is now, and it's dominated by corporate interests that can't see past tomorrow morning's stock valuations. Hence, most Republicans in the Senate voted against imposing 1980s Hyundai technology on the American auto industry of the 2020s.

2030 as 1980

Opponents whine that the bill is more radical that it initially seems, imposing four percent per year mileage increases after 2020, culminating in a requirement for private vehicles to average 52 miles per gallon—the same mileage as a 1980s vintage Honda CRX—by the year 2030.

Again, let's put this all into perspective. Current CAFE standards require what auto-makers call "cars" to average 27.5 miles per gallon, while cars that they deem "light trucks," often with less interior room than "cars," can average 22.5 miles per gallon. The 1908 Ford Model T averaged 25 miles per gallon. The "radicals" want 2020's vehicles to show a mileage increase over the Model T of 40 percent.

Now you can cruise down the Thruway, Mom driving and chatting on the phone, kids watching DVDs, Dad checking the weather with his wireless-equipped laptop, the GPS on the dash pinpointing directions to the next oxygen bar, the speed-trap detector blinking green, the E-Z pass debiting tolls—yet mileage-wise, we're still ticking along in our open-air Model Ts. I don't buy it. And consumers aren't buying it either—that's why Toyota just surpassed GM as the world's largest auto-maker.

Speedy Living Rooms

Yes, yes, I'm aware of the counter-arguments. Your Expedition is a nicer ride than a Model T—or even a Honda CRX. But the question right now is what do we really need: a living room on wheels that can beat the neighbor's mobile rec room off the line at the green light, or a fuel-efficient vehicle that makes your ecological footprint a bit smaller while squeezing your wallet a bit less and keeping a few more dollars Stateside?

The same argument applies to vehicle size. Yes, I understand my 1987 Hyundai and my current car are both smaller than GMC Yukons. But really, how big does a car have to be? My current, 38-miles-per-gallon car has carried, at one time, 13 sheets of drywall and 20 eight-foot, two-by-four studs on its roof racks without any apparent damage and not much strain. It regularly hauls 17-foot canoes and 14-foot kayaks up logging roads. It has carried a mélange of curb-scored furniture. It moved my entire household, couches, dressers and tables. It pulls sailboats on trailers. Last weekend it hauled a double bed from Buffalo to Utica. And it's done all this now for 11 years while still cornering better than any machismo-dripping dickmobile. I call it a sporty utilitarian vehicle. It's especially utilitarian since it's still rolling while countless supersized cars have been sidelined by fuel costs. So much for finding new paths and blazing new trails as you take your armada of Troopers, Trackers, Scouts, Outlanders, Foresters and (I love this one) Patriots, on an expedition of discovery in search of elusive Hummers.

Okay. So I can't haul a load of bricks or sand. That's why Home Depot has that "rent me by the hour" truck parked by the exit door. This is called smart living. I don't need to drive a moving van to work every day because one day I might need to move. I can't make this any simpler. You can pack your three kids and your dog into your Ford Focus wagon and have enough roof space left over for all your vacation tools. You just need to pack light, as if you lived on an overburdened planet. You don't "need" a giant gas guzzler—you've just been trained to salivate when you see them. Just like now you're being socialized to turn up your nose at your SUV-driving neighbor. Yeah, 40 and 50 miles per gallon have been technologically feasible for a long time—we just need to advance socially.

What $335K Buys

Let's get back to the anti-MPG argument. One of the lead "think tanks" producing anti-MPG propaganda is the National Center for Public Policy Research, which has received at least $335,000 from Exxon/Mobil and a bundle more from various auto and oil industry execs. Led over the years by such notable figures as former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the NCPPR was an early opponent of the Kyoto accords, forming a front group called the Kyoto Earth Summit Information Center to spread carbon-friendly propaganda. The NCPPR is on record stating that "There is no serious evidence that man-made global warming is taking place" and "There are many indications that carbon dioxide does not play a significant role in global warming."

Gas-guzzling is a hard sell. Hence, most of NCPPR's propaganda relies on its audience remaining ignorant of reality. Their assault on the new CAFE standards centers on a series of 10-second sound bites, what they call "fast facts on the environment," which they provide to carbon-friendly media outlets. Among their arguments is that 52 miles per gallon (the 2030 standard) is "especially harsh" and "very likely unobtainable"—a tough argument to sell next year as consumers queue up to by 55+ miles per gallon Volkswagen Jetta TDIs.

NCPPR relies heavily on the pro-corporate and neo-conservative echo chamber for its quasi-science, quoting similar organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Center for Individual Freedom. Their main "10 Second Response" is: "CAFE standards already result in the deaths of approximately 2,000 Americans every year, since smaller cars are less crashworthy."

Squished Beetles and Rapists

I first encountered "blame the victim" logic when I was a small child. A Cadillac ran a red light on my corner in Brooklyn, t-boning a VW Beetle at 40 miles per hour, instantly killing the family of four that was riding in the VW. As was the case with all accidents on our corner, a crowd of neighbors quickly formed to examine the carnage and watch Mafioso pickup truck drivers divvy up the metallic bounty as we all waited for ambulances to arrive. I still remember one woman holding her face and shaking her head, repeating that small cars should be outlawed.

Nobody saw the Cadillac as being dangerous since the driver was unharmed. This is like blaming a woman for being raped since she was innocently walking to the store rather than out stalking prey herself. Or blaming shooting victims for being shot since they weren't wearing bulletproof vests.

Yes, when a large vehicle hits a small vehicle, the people in the small car are more at risk for injury. That's the argument the carbon-lobby is echoing today. And it's one of the main reasons why people buy SUVs—as a defensive measure against Thruway upscaling. Back to my childhood: I remember standing there as ambulance crews jimmied the crushed carnage from the VW, listening to the Cadillac driver argue, "Da light wuz green, I tell ya." I thought Cadillacs should be regulated, not Beetles.

Another 10-second pro-carbon argument I found particularly intriguing was that lower gas mileage makes it more expensive to drive; hence, people will drive less, which will be better for the environment. Get it? It's your neighbor with the Escalade, not the one with the Prius, who's the greenest. Fuck those sanctimonious, Prius-driving gas hogs. Fuel-efficient cars somehow make your daily commute longer, so let's do away with mileage standards altogether. I guess you really have to stretch to find an argument supporting fuel-inefficiency.

And finally, there's the argument that CAFE standards, not the off-shoring of production by the big three auto-makers, will cost American jobs. Let's get with the program. By 2020, when the 35 miles per gallon standard kicks in, 35 miles per gallon will sound like ancient history. By then we'll be well past Peak Oil, meaning that we'll have used up most of the world's oil reserves, while an industrialized China and industrializing India will have increased their oil consumption exponentially. That scenario alone should push gas prices above seven bucks a gallon in today's dollars.

Then there's the impending collapse of the overvalued dollar. We just can't continue our two-decade-long orgy of importing more then we export, and playing this game on credit. Your buying power today at Target and the Dollar Store guarantees the collapse of the dollar tomorrow as investors shy away from an indebted US economy. When the bill comes due, imports, which in a post-deindustrialized America means damn near everything except wheat and apples, will cost a lot more. And oil is an import. What a gallon will cost in 2020, and then in 2030 dollars, will be a nightmare.

If US auto-makers have any chance of a future, they will have to compete with green hybrid diesel compacts and other fuel-efficient cars currently planned by European and Asian auto-makers. If CAFE standards force auto-makers to get with the p