In 1974, motivated by the first oil crisis, my father bought a Chevy Vega. Among the first small American cars, it had some problems, like a flawed engine design that gave it a ravenous appetite for oil. By the time I owned the car in college, I kept cases of oil in the trunk to feed the beast. But my father and I loved the Vega for its then astounding fuel economy—34 miles per gallon.
In the ´80s my girlfriend and I owned another small car—a Ford Escort wagon, that got, well, 34 miles per gallon. Now I drive a Suzuki SX4 that gets, you guessed it, 34 miles per gallon. On a good day.
So over the last 36 years, the fuel economy of your plain vanilla small car has stayed pretty much the same. Gas mileage stayed stuck even as automotive technology leapt ahead—think air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, electronic tire pressure monitors, variable valve technology, etc.
Now plenty of people have bought a Prius, or an Insight, thereby doing about 30-40% better than my small cars, and several times better than many SUVs. And a small number of people have rigged their VW Jetta to run on biodiesel or bought a Civic that runs on natural gas. And an even smaller number of people rented GM’s short lived EV-1 electric car or sold their home so they could afford to buy a Tesla. (They now really help the environment because they’re not heating or cooling their house anymore. Though living in a Tesla sounds unappealing.)
But the true revolution in car technology that could help save our climate and starve terrorist groups fed by Middle Eastern oil revenues has not appeared. Until now!
This year both Nissan and Chevy have introduced electric cars. Plug them into your off-the-grid solar house and you have a zero carbon vehicle! If you’re not off the grid, then the carbon impact depends on how your utility generates electricity, but the cars are likely still better for the climate than anything else on the road.
The Chevy Volt has the added benefit of being able to use gasoline to generate electricity if you need to drive farther than its battery will take it, making it pretty much as flexible and useful as any other car. Earlier this week Motor Trend and Automobile magazines both named it their Car of the Year. Today it won the Green Car of the Year award. Next month it should reach the showroom. The times they are a-changin’.
Post by Frank Lowenstein, climate change adaptation strategy leader, The Nature Conservancy
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