Point of View

Going farther on foreign oil

May 26, 2009 

When I lived in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, a joke among the few Americans in Ljubljana was that a mid-size car there was a Yugo with a trailer hitch. Cars were a mess, right down to the smoke-belching, two-stroke pea-green Wartburg wagon that my supervisor drove. And, yes, the Yugo was everywhere.

But the folks living in Yugoslavia were geniuses at utilizing every cubic inch in their cars; they hauled more than seemed possible. When my son and I arrived there for a semester, two friends picked us up at the airport in their Volkswagen Rabbit -- a very small car. Charlie and I had five sizable pieces of luggage, but somehow Oto squeezed the four of us and all the baggage inside. Charlie was sitting on my lap, but we made it.

I don't advocate that sort of cramming, but I do advocate some careful thought to the most efficient use of our beloved cars. I have written in this space before about the need for fuel efficiency improvement, and it is now actually likely, given the administration's new mileage and emission standards.

There is no question that some drivers require large vehicles, particularly people in businesses that involve large or heavy items. They need space in the same way that trauma surgeons and plumbers need mobile phones. But the rest of us can downsize at relatively little pain.

Following the European and Japanese examples of space utilization, some new cars -- I am thinking of the Mazda 5 -- can carry a serious number of people or quantity of stuff in a pretty small footprint. Even families with lots of kids do not need Suburbans to run to the school or supermarket. But look around, and you will see a lot of solo drivers struggling to fit their land yachts into normal-size parking spaces. It just doesn't make sense.

They remind me of an old New Yorker cartoon, in which a fat-cat lawyer type was behind the wheel of his huge convertible, trophy wife by his side, saying something like, "I'm rich enough to waste the Earth's natural resources."

We need to approach the problem of fuel efficiency, and the larger issue of conservation of natural resources, in two ways. First, Americans need to retool their thinking along the lines of simply driving less. My daughter lived without a car in Chicago for four years and managed nicely. She occasionally rented a Zip Car and plotted her use to make as many stops in one trip as possible. Paying by the hour concentrated her strategy, and there is no reason why most of us couldn't do the same.

The Triangle never will have population density to warrant light rail, but we still have bus systems that, while needing improvement, cover quite a bit of territory. And nothing special is required to walk, ride a bicycle or car pool with co-workers. Doing this even a couple of times a week instead of driving alone would be immensely helpful. I plan to have one day each week on which I do not drive, and it hasn't cramped my style.

The second thing we need to do is have more efficient vehicles, which is what the president is doing with the new mpg rules and emission standards. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, adopted by Congress a surprising 34 years ago, never had the hoped-for results, mainly because fuel prices dropped. But that was shortsighted, and the new rules must be used even if prices do not skyrocket. The point is not cutting the cost to individuals, but rather should be reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

As a lifelong car enthusiast, I am excited to see some of the new technologies and ideas going into vehicles. High-mileage hybrids are almost old hat now, but the pure electric cars have great promise, as long as battery technology continues to improve. President George W. Bush backed hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion, but that is likely a long way off.

Diesel-powered cars have remained somewhat in the background, but with the introduction of low-emission engines they, too, have real potential. Europeans have been driving such vehicles for a long time, and now they are showing up here, with smooth power and none of the clatter and smoke of a mid-'70s Peugeot. I just added a mid-sized turbodiesel car to the family fleet, and while it drives and handles for the autobahn, it also routinely gets over 40 mpg. I just made a drive to northeastern Pennsylvania -- close to 600 miles -- and got there from Raleigh on less than one tank of fuel.

There is no real deprivation in being fuel efficient, so I hope we can adjust our attitudes and do some good for the country and ourselves.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism and directs the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com

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