The high cost of driving

If America wanted to, America could corral the gas pump
If America wanted to, America could corral the gas pump
If America wanted to, America could corral the gas pump
If America wanted to, America could corral the gas pump

by Mario Salazar, special to Donne Tempo Magazine

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Maryland, April 13, 2011 — Last night while half-listening to the news, I caught something about how expensive it was to fuel big SUVs. In the interviews that were done in the report, several persons complained about the expense, but they also indicated how much they loved their gas guzzlers.

How did we get to this point, or better yet, why do we remain there?

Rising oil prices ring through to the pump price (Photo Associated Press)

Our love affair with the automobile has been shown in books and movies. I drive a small car, but even I still slobber at the site of a 67 Chevy or a 300 SL gull wing. There are cable shows dedicated to the reconstruction and hyper construction of cars from the 50s and 60s.

During those times, there was no question of miles per gallon when people purchased a car. Gas was so plentiful and inexpensive that it was not a consideration.

And then the “Oil Embargo” happened in the 1970s. The incredible lines at the gas stations and the (to that time) astronomical prices of the gasoline assaulted us in the nightly news. Fist fights between members of the impatient public waiting in line were sensationalized. Eventually, one could only purchase gas on certain days.

The public was not used to this mayhem and restriction.

President Carter was voted out of office. It didn’t’t seem to matter that he, as a technocrat, had mobilized the government into trying to find permanent solutions for our energy problems. He not only took personal actions, like having solar panels installed on the roof of the White House, but his administration supported a lot of research in finding new sources of energy. Geothermal energy and extraction of oil from tar sands are only a couple of the initiatives that were funded during Carter’s time in office.

For the election of 1980, the Republicans selected as their candidate Ronald Reagan; B movie idol, activist president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, Governor of California. His platform could have been summarized by the title of the popular song of the time “Don’t worry, be happy”. He convinced enough Americans that the real problem was pessimism, and won a landmark victory.

Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981. He immediately had the solar panels removed. This was seen by his proponents as a sign of optimism in the American economy – we were confident American technology could find gas and there would be enough to find. But that optimism was a rejection of energy conservation and alternate, renewable energy alternatives. During Reagan’s time in office, cars got bigger again. Muscle cars reappeared. For a while, it seemed like everyone purchased an SUV. In the following decade, people even bought actual desert assault vehicles that made any regular sedan look like a toy. The fact that they got less than 10 miles per gallon appeared irrelevant.

While the big three American automobile manufacturers were indulging the optimistic taste of many Americans, critical consumers started to look elsewhere for better built and more efficient cars. Over the course of time, the term “Made in Japan” went from being a symbol of mediocrity to one of quality and value.

When Clinton won the 1992 election, there was a plan that appeared to be a win/win proposition. Why not enter into a partnership and give research funds to our big three auto makers to build energy efficient cars, as this might reverse the tide of incoming Japanese-made cars? This resulted in the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV)” entered into by several agencies and departments of the Federal Government and the big three car manufacturers.

While it is difficult to assess the total cost of this effort, the auto manufacturers received over $1 billion of our taxpayer money directly. For this money they produced prototypes that could give close to 80 miles per gallon. Among these efforts, GM produced an electric car that appeared to be the answer – energy efficient cars of the future – in 1996.

For reasons that to any logical person appear to be irrational, GM then collected all these cars that had been leased to California fleets and by 2006 they had been completely destroyed. All attempts by the people that had used them to buy them from GM were futile.

There is an excellent documentary that chronicles the fight to keep these cars on the road titled “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

In summary, while the big three had in fact developed working prototypes of energy efficient vehicles, including hybrids, by 1999, they chose not to bring them to production. Corporate culture believed that the American public would never buy them. The technologies were passed on or sold to foreign car companies, notably Toyota, that developed the Prius. Toyota used that technology to produce a popular, marketable car.

Now we have experienced not another oil embargo, but a war that includes a country with major oil interests. It has left Iraq in shambles and too many of our youth dead. The war is also leaving us with a deficit that will probably be addressed on the backs of the poor and the middle class, for at least a generation to come. The cost of gas is all over the news again, due to the war and the recession, interrelated problems.

The good news is, we have seen a revival of interest in energy efficient cars. No more Hummers. GM proudly presented last year their new electric luxury sedan (around $40,000) and a number of hybrid cars that are its entry into the energy efficient market. Ford also has a couple of energy efficient/hybrid options. (For many of us, don’t expect to be able to afford any of these for a while.)

Now that it’s the spring of 2011, gasoline has increased in price significantly yet again, but is it only temporarily? Don’t hold your breath. Mr. Reagan must be turning in his grave wondering where his optimism went, and where it took us. It appears reasonable to speculate that his optimism and the reluctance of some following administrations to be aggressive in this area delayed efforts to make us energy independent, by at least 30 years.

So next time you stand next to the side of your car at the pump, and see the total reach over $50 dollars ($100 for the biggest SUVs), think about how we got to this point, and maybe consider supporting more efficient cars.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker and not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles – ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket in Donne Tempo Magazine.

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