US/OT "Our Cars, Ourselves"
- Sorry if this seems off-topic. I think watching how the public changes
its relationship to the car is critical to the long-term goal of replacing
them with the ever more preferable Noncar (coming as a city near you...).
Our Cars, Ourselves
Gregory Dicum, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, December 8, 2004
Just before Thanksgiving, I went down to the San Francisco Auto Show,
giving up a gorgeous and sunny Sunday afternoon to wander around the
cavernous bowels of the Moscone Center. The air was close with that
new-car smell, and the hundreds of shiny, shiny cars gleamed as though in
some kind of virtual-reality spaceport -- like the future was there
somewhere, struggling to emerge.
Cars are more than just products. They are fundamental to our nature as
Americans: 400,000 people paid eight bucks a pop to browse this gargantuan
showroom, making it by far the largest show of any kind in Northern
California. Courtney Caldwell, founder and editor in chief of Road and
Travel magazine, explains, "A car is quite often an extension of
somebody's personality. If you're the type of person who wants to feel
sexy and wants to have people see you as sexy, you might want to own a
sports car. If you want someone to see you as rugged and athletic, you
might want to drive a pickup truck."
"We road-test new vehicles every week," Caldwell adds, "and I feel
different in every one."
This mood-altering magic was plain to see in the faces of people sitting
in cars they would never own -- in the gleeful eyes of guys who slipped
behind the wheel of the silver Mercedes SLK 350 and in the grins of people
who had managed to struggle into the crow's-nest seats of the Hummers.
This is the dream, after all. The reality is quite different: it's the
grubbier, more down-to-earth parking lot next door that shows us who we
And it's not a pretty sight. We have 4.5 million cars here in the Bay
Area, each of which burns up enough fuel to fill an average of 11 bathtubs
a year. And it's hardly news where the exhaust from all that stuff goes:
straight into the atmosphere, where it plagues us locally as smog and
threatens us globally with climate change. If all this fuel were dumped
into the Bay instead of the air, the lake of gas would be half an inch
deep from San Jose clear up to Vallejo. That's the karmic burden of every
driver, and the sign of a massive dissonance between how we see ourselves
and how we conduct ourselves.
The vast majority of Americans consistently report that they consider
themselves environmentalists, but the cars we're driving don't reflect
this self-image. Part of the problem might be that the less-is-more ethic
inherent in fuel efficiency has long been the very antithesis of American
car culture. As a result, automakers are a bit mystified about how to
approach this new market segment. "They care about the trees," as Caldwell
puts it, "which is wonderful, because we need people like that."
We need people like Robert Cooley, who produces his own electricity from
solar panels on the roof of his home in Pleasanton. "I put about a third
more into the grid than I use," he says, "so I'd like to have an electric
vehicle I can recharge using the energy I create." I met Cooley at the
S.F. Auto Show, where he was perusing a Zap electric car -- a cute little
thing that looks like a street-legal version of the brightly colored
Playskool car you've seen in every family's backyard.
(But don't even think of laughing when you see one on the road: last
month, Santa Rosa-based Zap announced not only that the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency approved its Zap Smart car for sale in the United States
but also that CostCo is going to distribute part of Zap's line -- a double
whammy that sent Zap's stock price shooting up more than 200 percent.)
As fun as it is to sit in an odd little car such as the Zap and fantasize
about how smug we'll feel parking that itty-bitty thing in the most
improbable spots, however, most of us will never buy a car like that.
Other concerns -- feeling sexy, for example -- trump something as abstract
as carbon emissions. As a result, here in the Bay Area, one of the most
environmentally conscious parts of the country, we drive around feeling
sexy and sporty all right, but also a little guilty.
But there are some signs that our suffering might be over sooner than we
think. In fact, you may already be driving your last gas hog.
At the S.F. Auto Show, a dozen or so alternative vehicles were sprinkled
throughout the showrooms. Though they accounted for just 1 percent of the
vehicles on display, these cars consistently attracted a lot of attention.
Although all-electric cars such as the Zap, or General Motors'
hydrogen-powered Hummer prototype, promise to free us completely from
petroleum, hybrid cars have emerged as the alternative vehicle of this
transitional moment. These vehicles combine a gasoline engine and an
electric motor and can be filled up at any gas station. They work with
what we've got now, but they can reduce emissions by 90 percent and boost
gas mileage into the 50- to 60-mpg range.
As gas prices soar, petroleum wars rage and the negative environmental
effects of burning fossil fuels continue to be doubted by only a few
flat-Earthers (who also happen to be in charge of the federal government),
car buyers are taking a close look at hybrids. And manufacturers have been
taken by surprise.
Automakers -- particularly American ones -- have had to be dragged kicking
and screaming (and suing) into producing alternative vehicles. By far the
biggest impetus comes from the drastically reduced emissions California's
clean-air initiatives mandate for the coming years. Ford is a case in
point. While Ford was introducing its only hybrid vehicle this year -- the
Escape -- it was at the same time part of an industry group threatening to
sue to prevent California's Air Resources Board from establishing rules
for greenhouse-gas emissions, and it sought to block a state Assembly bill
allowing hybrids with single drivers to travel in car-pool lanes.
In that light, it's no surprise the rollout has been sluggish. Rather than
actually satisfying customer demand, American manufacturers have been
acting as if these cars are little more than very expensive marketing
props. "Ford has one hybrid for sale in dealerships," says Jason Mark, the
intense and wiry organizer of Global Exchange's Clean Car campaign. "At
this point, it's just greenwashing. It's a fine vehicle, but they only
plan to sell 20,000 in 2005 -- just one-half of 1 percent of their
lineup." But you would never guess that from Ford's aggressive "Greening
the Blue Oval" ad campaign, aimed at bringing liberal and progressive
customers into their showrooms.
Even companies such as Toyota and Honda, which have made much more
substantial commitments -- their hybrids are in their third iterations,
compared to American manufacturers' first-generation offerings -- have
been blindsided by consumer demand: most hybrids have waiting periods of
three to six months, and, for many models, tens of thousands of people are
on lists to buy them, even though the cars aren't even available yet. More
than the price premium on these cars (basically erased by government
incentives and savings at the pump or, if you happen to work for Santa
Clara-based Hyperion, by your employer), the wait is the largest deterrent
for would-be hybrid buyers.
Meanwhile, the United States consumes 20 million barrels of oil each day.
Passenger vehicles burn up three quarters of the total, and SUVs alone
burn half the total for all passenger cars -- more petroleum than America
produces each year. Our dependence on foreign oil is right there under
It's hard to face the reality that the rolling extension of your being is
destroying the country and the planet; it feels like a personal attack.
But it's even worse when you know, deep down, that the attack is
justified. Nobody wants to destroy the planet -- that's the fundamental
strength of the environmental argument -- and smart automakers that can
make that feeling go away without sacrificing the other reasons people buy
cars are poised to ride the next big trend in the automotive world.
The most popular car in America, the Toyota Camry, "appeals to a very
practical-minded person," says Road and Travel's Courtney Caldwell,
"someone who doesn't want a lot of attention." Indeed, one-fourth of the
cars on the road are plain old midsize sedans, and Toyota sold 30,000
Camrys last month alone its best month ever. Even the SUVs we buy the most
-- Ford's Explorer is the best selling -- are relatively nondescript and
functional. We may love to dream about cars that scream for attention, but
the vehicles we actually drive are pretty dull.
Environmental responsibility is not another market segment; it's an
underlying way of being, potentially for all of us. There's no reason you
can't be sexy and environmentally aware, or sporty and concerned about
what comes out of your tailpipe, or even, like California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger (who pledged to convert one of his several Hummers to
hydrogen but was let off the hook when GM made one for him), aggressive
and obnoxious but cowed by the reality of the coughing, wheezing planet,
which, in the end, is bigger and badder than all of us.
That's why the most exciting cars at the S.F. Auto Show were some of the
most boring. Honda's hybrid Accord and Civic look just like Accords and
Civics. There's no need to explain: you're just driving a sensible car --
only, now, it's more sensible than ever. Meanwhile, Chevy's new hybrid
Silverado pickup lets you proclaim your manly, sporty side, but in a
sensitive, New Age way. Next up is a generation of hybrid SUVs and luxury
cars that should be hitting the streets about a year from now. Once a
choice like that is actually available in showrooms, not just on waiting
lists, hybrids will be in a position to rocket to the fore the way SUVs
did in the 1990s.
The signs are encouraging: if the industry -- either giants such as Toyota
or upstarts like Zap -- can provide drivers with vehicles that express who
we really are more completely, cars that marry our care for the planet
with our other needs, then we might start to find a way out of our
oil-soaked conundrum. The focus has been on the extremes -- the belching
Hummer versus the quirky Zap -- but the future will be won in the plain,
Gregory Dicum, author of Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air,
writes about the natural world from San Francisco. A forester by training,
Gregory has worked at the front lines of some of the world's most urgent
- =v= San Francisco Critical Mass traditionally visits this auto
show in November. Generally it coincides with Buy Nothing Day.
SFCM originally rode "the last working Friday of the month,"
which caused some confusion and led to the first auto show ride
being the first "mini-mass." I have an account of this below.
by Katherine Roberts
On Friday, Nov. 26th, a group of about 20 cyclists gathered
at 5:30 at Justin Herman Plaza for the "Thanksgiving
Mini-Mass". Ostensibly, our reason for being there was to
tell whoever showed up that the real Critical Mass had
happened as planned on Friday, Nov. 19th. We were worried
that alot of people might have gotten confused about the
Mass being held on the 3rd, rather than last, Friday of the
month. Actually, Critical Mass always happens on the last
working Friday; it's just that most of the time, that's also
the last Friday. But because of the holidays, things ware
switched around. So, in anticipation of hundreds of
confused wanna-be Massers flocking to the Embarcadero in
search of a Mass that didn't exist, we appointed ourselves
as the ad hoc rescue committee to guide their souls in the
right direction and, who knows, maybe create a little Mass
of our own. As it turned out, our concerns were completely
unfounded, and aside from a group of three people who rode
up wondering where all the other bicyclists were, the ad hoc
committee were pretty much the only people on the ride. But
we still had a wonderful time, just on a smaller scale.
In fact, "small" became a kind of theme of the ride. The
idea was to go down to the huge auto show at Moscone Center
and pass out small plastic cars to all the people who were
drooling over all the latest pieces of machinery there. A
far more practical and satisfying choice than spending all
that money on new wheels, we figured. But Chris Carlsson
went down to Toys 'R Us earlier that afternoon and found
their toy car selection to be, well, small. So there we
were, wondering what the next plan would be, when another
cyclist, Glenn Bachmann, rode up with a big bag filled with
really fancy metal toy race cars and hot rods in all
different colors. We all grabbed a handful and rode off to
Moscone Center. When we got there, we rode around out in
front for a while, then started handing out toy cars to
people and telling them, now you don't need to buy a new
car. It was great street theatre, and some interesting
conversations ensued. I was talking to one man who was
worried about what's going to happen when the oil reserves
run out, and what kind of world we are leaving for our
children, when I looked up and noticed that all the other
bicyclists had left without me! But I knew that the plan
was to meet at Zeitgeist, so I went there and waited for
everybody. They had gone to the traffic turnaround at 9th
and Townsend, to ride around in a few circles before heading
to the bar. After more spirited discussion in Zeitgeist's
"bike-friendly" outdoor garden, the group split up.
The next night I went to see the Noam Chomsky movie,
"Manufacturing Consent," at the Red Vic Movie House. The
film was about how the media try to shape our perceptions of
the world, and how small groups of dissidents refuse to go
along with the prevailing notions of truth. Chomsky said
that these populist, grass-roots movements, which have gone
on all through history, are the only way real change occurs
in a society. and that, although the media love to focus
on individuals, no one really acts alone. He said, of
course Martin Luther King was important, but he could not
have done what he did without thousands of people behind
him. Strong leadership is not nearly as essential as people
coming together to make their visions known and their voices
heard. The message was clear: never underestimate the power
of a groundswell. I was struck by how closely the bike
movement fit his definition of a classic grass-roots
movement: we have an unusual stance, a formidable opponent,
and lots of spontaneous, anarchistic qualities. And we are
gathering momentum as we go along. The film affirmed my
belief that groups of like-minded individuals can effect
changes in the dominant point of view, and that big things
often start small.
Boycott Compulsory Consumption:
Ignore the ads below, for starters.