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US/OT "Our Cars, Ourselves"

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  • Jason Meggs
    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
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 12, 2004
      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
      really are.

      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
      your hood.

      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,
      vanilla middle.

      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
      environmental crises.
    • Jym Dyer
      =v= San Francisco Critical Mass traditionally visits this auto show in November. Generally it coincides with Buy Nothing Day. SFCM originally rode the last
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 13, 2004
        =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.

        Thanksgiving Mini-Mass
        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.
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