Driving a new road

Jan 26, 2000 at 12:00 am

Viewed separately, neither of the two hats worn by journalist Jim Motavalli seem all that unusual. But when you join the often disparate realms of environmentalist and die-hard car enthusiast, you get a strange sort of resonance. For Motavalli, that mingling of specialties – he’s the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine as well as a regular contributor to the New York Times’ Cars section and author of a syndicated weekly auto review column – has resulted in his forthcoming book, Forward Drive: The Race to Build the Car of the Future.

Due in March, the book, published by Sierra Club Books / Random House, dissects the auto industry and concludes that we are on the verge of a new era every bit as revolutionary as the one that began when the automobile first became popular at the beginning of the 20th century.

Motavalli was in the Detroit area this week as a guest of the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor for a series of speaking engagements. Metro Times caught up with him by phone at the bed and breakfast where he was staying. We begin the conversation by discussing the certainty of the future he sees on the horizon.

Metro Times: In your book, you seem to be predicting that the demise of the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine is inevitable. Is that really the case?

Jim Motavalli: It is inevitable that the internal combustion engine is at the end of its road. We’re at a very interesting time in the auto industry, but it is sort of invisible. A lot of people don’t know what is going on. It’s hard for people looking at cheap gasoline and the public passion for sport utility vehicles to see that. But cars didn’t replace horses overnight. This change will be fairly gradual, but it is inevitable.

MT: Why is that?

Motavalli: We have to do it. One reason is the growing affluence in India and China. Car sales are going through the roof in India. And the situation is even more dramatic in China. If those countries have car ownership on a scale comparable to that in the United States, you would have a plume of pollution across the whole world that would make Mexico City look nice by comparison. The world can’t take it. We have to get out of our internal combustion fix.

Also, fossil fuels are limited. Most geologists and oil industry analysts predict that oil production will peak around 2007. After that, demand will exceed production and there will be a permanent oil shortage. In fact, we are already seeing an increase in gasoline and home heating oil prices.

MT: Is it too extreme to say that the race you describe is one to avert environmental catastrophe?

Motavalli: No, it’s not too extreme. That’s what it is.

MT: One thing you point out in your book is that a lot of the technology being explored now has been around for 100 years or more. Electric cars, fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity, even hybrid cars that use both gas engines and electric motors were all around at the turn of the century, but the internal combustion engine eventually pushed them all aside. When you look ahead, do you see a mix of different types of propulsion systems, or will one emerge as the new dominant force?

Motavalli: I think it will eventually be fuel cells that replace the internal combustion engine. It will be gradual, and take a long time, maybe 30 years. But I think it will happen. I see hybrid cars as the stepping stones to fuel cells. The major advantage of hybrids is that they can be fueled up at the gas station. To the consumer, there is no difference between the hybrid and the car they own now – except that they will have greatly extended range. And hybrids are already on the market.

MT: And how close are we to seeing fuel cell-powered cars, which have the potential to emit just water vapor as their only exhaust?

Motavalli: Daimler-Chrysler says it will have 100,000 fuel cell vehicles ready for 2004, and that they will sell for $18,000. I think by 2010 they will be a significant part of our lives. By then, maybe 10 percent of the cars will be hybrids, and 10 percent fuel cells. The advantage of fuel cells will become very clear, very quickly, and auto companies recognize this. They’ve invested billions and billions of dollars into fuel cell development, and that research is reaching a mature phase. It’s not speculating to say this is going to happen.

MT: We recently did a story that talked about how the auto industry is talking about the need for environmentally friendly cars, yet continues to protect the status quo. Do you see that as well?

Motavalli: The auto industry definitely has a two-track policy, and it will always operate that way. They will lobby behind the scenes against clean air standards, but at the same time, I think they recognize that stricter federal and state air pollution regulations are inevitable, and that fossil fuels are limited. At the auto show, you saw a mix of fuel cell and hybrid cars along with ridiculous sport-utility vehicles. But they make an incredible profit on SUVs, so as long as the public wants them, why wouldn’t they keep making them? Why wouldn’t they fight attempts to regulate them?

MT: Even with this new technology, we are still going to keep pumping billions of dollars into fixing old roads and building new ones that fill up almost as fast as they are constructed. Why isn’t more emphasis placed on creating an integrated, efficient mass transportation system?

Motavalli: These cars aren’t an answer to having too many vehicles on the road, to gridlock, to sprawl. We’ll still be required to devote space to them for parking lots, for roads, for creating more movement toward the suburbs. But I don’t think we are going to get away from the private vehicle. Public transportation trips amount to only 4 percent (of the miles traveled), and the number is decreasing. By cleaning up the car, we can make enormously more progress environmentally than if we were to double mass transit.

But in Europe, they are already making it harder for people to drive in cities. And in England, there is a huge and militant anti-road building movement.

I think my next book will be about living without a car.