/ 23 December 2009

Gas-guzzlers bite the rust

Detroit, Michigan, was never going to be a tourist attraction. It doesn’t have the cheap allure of sunshine and celebrity that the west coast of the United States has, it doesn’t have the vibrant urgency of New York City and it doesn’t have any natural wonders.

But it is home to the US’s big three car manufacturers and, as such, at the turn of the millennium it was hallowed ground.

Ford, General Motors and Chrysler experienced some of their highest sales volumes in the past 10 years and no one save for bunny-hugging actors with fake tans cared for electric cars as words such as hybrid, hydrogen-powered and compressed air weren’t just namby-pamby foreign concepts, they were downright rude, like swear words.

In 2000 the sub-compact Smart car – which now commands 70 dealerships in the US – was just a two-year-old struggling to be seen and heard.

In its heyday the North American International Motor Show (aka the Detroit Motor Show) put on a performance of note. Car execs came crashing through windows in Jeeps and herded cattle down the main street with Dodge trucks. But by 2009, when I went to the show, their stands were lined with anxious blue-collar workers hoping they wouldn’t lose their jobs and the big three had well and truly been blind-sided. The Great Depression was making a comeback and, were it not for the unrelenting snowfalls, tumbleweeds wouldn’t have been out of place at the Cobo exhibition centre in Detroit.

Inches of snow hid the downtown city grime and, while winter’s icy grip made Detroit look almost beautiful, the people in malls laid bare its broken spirit.

Every shop I walked into displayed sale signs and practically every American I spoke to complained about how many times his (insert any American brand here) truck broke down and how he just got tired of seeing other American trucks stuck on highways and that’s why he was now buying ”them foreign cars”.

Three years earlier at the Los Angeles Motor Show in 2006 there were no signs of depression. It was all glitz and glamour and chockfull of perfectly plastic schlebs.

In retrospect it was there that I realised that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California ”governator”, had unwittingly become the perfect metaphor for the American car industry.

I was drooling over the Bugatti Veyron from the glass barrier set up around it when I noticed someone walking towards me.

Entranced by the Veyron’s beauty I was unaware of the commotion going on around me until Arnie was right next to me. I looked at him, briefly caught his gaze and was thoroughly confused. How could this shrivelled-up old man who was shorter than I be the invincible Terminator? But the security detail that brusquely pushed me out of the way confirmed that it was indeed Schwarzenegger.

Thanks to artificial enhancements Arnie had grown to an unnatural size, which was unsustainable and, like any synthetically puffed-up entity, he had to be deflated.

Ditto for American carmakers and the gas-guzzling giants they’re still so fond of.

North America is where, to a large degree, gas-guzzlers were born and it’s where they are slowly dying. Chevvies, Caddies and such have inspired more than novels, songs and odes to Route 66; they inspired a devil-may-care lifestyle that we all lust after in some way or another and, although the gas-guzzler addicts movement might have to be taken underground, not everyone will wash their hands of muscle cars quite so easily.

In the past 10 years the world has made significant advances with alternative fuel sources for cars, but none of them is entirely convincing.

Technically, electric cars don’t have carbon emissions, but they’re reliant on power from coal plants, which pollute the atmosphere, so, though not quantifiable per car, they are responsible for the production of pollutants, even if the pollution from smoke stacks might be less than the carbon emissions from millions of exhaust pipes.

Most petrol-electric hybrids emit fewer carbons than ordinary cars, but they’re not as fuel-efficient as some diesels. Also, most hybrids use nickel-metal hydride batteries, which aren’t as biodegradable or as energy efficient as lithium-ion batteries, which are used in the Tesla fully electric roadster.

Hydrogen-powered cars are very expensive, as is the technology and the production of hydrogen. A hydrogen filling station is said to cost about R50-million to R100-million.

Biofuels such as bio-ethanol would seem the logical option if it wasn’t for the fact that biofuels are produced from agricultural feedstocks and are causing worldwide food shortages.

I’m holding out for a compressed air car or a hydroelectric car because these seem to be the cheapest, most Earth-friendly technologies that don’t in some way rely on fossil fuels. Until then I’m hoping South African company Optimal Energy gets its electric MPV (Joule) on the road at a reasonable price with government incentives as every company from Audi (with its spectacular E-Tron) to GM (with its Volt) is working on seemingly viable electric cars, which should even be available in South Africa in the next three years. Though given how splendidly inept most Eskom managers are I don’t know how often those people with electric cars will get to work.

It’s other innovations, which have been developed in the past decade that I’m excited about. These include the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency competition, which involves driverless cars negotiating off-road terrain as well as run-of-the-mill traffic situations without any human intervention. End-of-year Christmas parties need never again result in drunken drivers artistically wrapping their cars around trees.

And there’s the flying car (or drivable airplane), which was successfully tested by the US company, Moller, which is now preparing for engine production; another flying car is being developed by Nasa, which predicts that two-car families will have one road car and one flying car in their garages in the next 30 or so years. Can you imagine the Quentin Tarantino-like melee that would result from the production of flying minibus taxis?

While I believe that the carbon emissions of cars need to be drastically reduced, I find it hard to get too excited about alternative fuels because I’m not entirely convinced of their efficacy and the so-called reduced impact on the planet. Neither am I at all happy that passenger cars’ carbon emissions are under constant attack when people still eat as much meat as they desire despite several reports by the United Nations and reputable NGOs affirming that the world’s cattle farms cause more damage to the planet than cars ever would.

And what about baby nappies? Did you know it takes 100 years for each nappy to disintegrate? Yet we don’t see governments taxing sprogs or stopping people from further over-populating the planet with their not-so-enviro-friendly progeny.

Maybe the solution lies in a car powered by garbage or poop because there’s definitely no shortage of either product on Earth.

The gas-guzzler is undoubtedly on its deathbed – not only because it’s so last season, but more so because it’s so unaffordable – but I predict it’s still going to be a long time before it bites the rust.

The death, or at least the dying, of the gas-guzzler is a good thing – for both people like me who are sometimes haplessly seduced by power and for the planet, which simply can’t indulge our selfishness anymore.

Still, I wonder whether driving down the road with the barely audible hum of a hybrid in my ears could ever be as alluring as the evocative growl of a V12 vibrating through my body like something forbidden.

Sukasha Singh is the M&G’s motoring editor

Read about the top 10 cars of 2009 from cheap and cheerful to ultra flashy.