Somebody's Webpage on Twitter Somebody's Webpage on Facebook Somebody's Webpage on Patreon
Serious Stuff

Hybrid-Car Tech Runs Out of Gas

July 30, 2011 by Somebody Else

In case you haven't yet noticed, a big change in public opinion is now well under way with regard to our consumption of petroleum, and in relation to the oil industry in general. Until relatively recently, when most people thought about gas for cars and trucks, they didn't think all that much. Oh, sure, there had been a gas crisis in the 1970s with long lines at filling stations for an extended period of time, but that had eventually passed, and things got back to normal again, or at least seemed to. And yes, there had been gasoline rationing during WWII, but that only lasted a while. And of course, some time before that, the United States government had seen fit to bust up Standard Oil, an action that was supposed to increase competition and lower prices for the general public.

But, generally speaking, from the 1980s to around 2005 or so, in the United States, most of us weren't focusing all that much upon our desperate addiction to oil. Gas wasn't particularly cheap during that period in comparison to average wages, but in any case, we had gotten used to it and had made the necessary adjustments to the expense. In fact, American society began to orient itself ever more increasingly around the personal automobile as the most essential tool for making our national lifestyle workable and possible.

During those 25 years, an endless number of passenger train routes were either shut down or service on them was slashed. Funding for all forms of public transportation saw a steady decline in government support in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. Bus companies went out of business left and right, for the most part leaving only Greyhound, some private charter companies, and a fresh influx of Mexican-based bus lines primarily dedicated to serving American Hispanic communities.

The unspoken message to the American public was clear -- If you don't live in New York City where you can take the subway everywhere, you'd better buy a car and drive it, or you won't make it in this country.

And to drive the point home even further, cookie-cutter subdivisions sprung up like mushrooms after a hard rain, all around the perimeters of major American cities. As a consequence, the suburb-to-city rush-hour commute became the bane of existence for millions upon millions of additional Americans, like it or not.

But again, in those days, we didn't really think all that much about gas. We joked around -- black humor -- about the excessive amounts of driving essential for just earning a living and doing everyday things. We grumbled about the large quantity of time we spent sitting in our cars, stuck in traffic, thinking, well, this is my life, and countless hours of it are being spent trapped inside a metal shell with wheels, listening to the same crappy songs and commercials on the radio, endlessly repeated. But what could we do? We had to earn a living, and we wanted to own a house. Our job was in the city, the house we wanted was in the suburbs. There was an hour's commute between them, each way. What other options were there? Maybe ride a horse back and forth to work?

As complacency about our automobile-driven lifestyle deepened, we figured, what the hell, let's go for broke. The car companies rolled out massive he-man trucks and gargantuan SUVs, chief among which was the infamous Hummer, loosely based upon the US military's Humvee vehicle. We thought to ourselves, if we've got to drive, let's make our cars as big as possible. You only live so long, might as well roll around in a huge automobile or truck that will give you lots of room so that you can be somewhat more comfortable while you're stuck in traffic driving to and from the suburbs.

And, at least in theory, all of that really might have gone on practically forever. Who knows, a worthy competitor to the Hummer might have been in the works, perhaps the Lincoln Gangsta, a production-line stretch limo with a gold-plated Jacuzzi tub inside, or maybe the Chevy Caterpillar, based on an actual strip-mining land mover, but on a somewhat smaller scale -- it might come with a huge shovel scoop that you could use to remove other cars from parking spaces so that you could park there instead.

Farewell to the stretch Hummer

But, alas, that golden age of automotive excess pretty much ended in the summer of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, an event that jeopardized petroleum distribution in that region for a few months, and which led speculators, oil companies and countless independently owned gas stations to take advantage of the hysteria, ignorance, and general worry of the American public by jacking gas prices through the roof.

Actually, the disillusionment with our gasoline addiction did not begin with Hurricane Katrina, which, if anything, was the straw that broke the camel's back and finally turned the balance of public opinion against the oil companies. No, the gas honeymoon officially came to an end when the George W. Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Keener observers would have realized that we had -- and unquestionably still have -- an axe to grind in that particular affair, since it had a lot more to do with protecting our strategic reserves of oil than with ferreting out supposed weapons of mass destruction, even assuming that such claims had been perfectly true.

So, as the post-Katrina reality sunk in, and disgust with and anger towards the oil industry became more widespread, an increasing number of people decided, forget this, I'm looking for a fuel-efficient car. Practically overnight, and despite drastic price slashing, car dealerships couldn't get rid of the gargantuan, gas-guzzling, four-wheeled behemoths that had been flying off their lots only months before. Suddenly, everyone wanted a gas-sipping automobile. Low gas mileage became all the rage. Before, you bragged about how big your car was. Now, you toot your horn about how little gas it uses.

But here's the thing -- we could have asked for more, we could have demanded a more fundamental, radical change to the status quo. In terms of its public image, the oil industry was on the ropes. We, the people, spurred on by our outrage and a fresh impulse to question previously unspoken assumptions about the extraction, processing, distribution, and sale of the non-renewable petroleum that fuels the personal-vehicle based lifestyle that we are practically ordered to lead by our corporate masters -- we could have taken advantage of that sudden, powerful momentum by changing laws, by getting government to provide funds for critical development, by reigning in corporate excess, by funneling massive investments into renewable energy resources, etc. Basically, we could have turned the tide for good by overturning an old, tired paradigm once and for all.

But that's not what we did. No, most of us simply said, "I've got to get a car that doesn't use so much gas, because it's gotten to be too damned expensive." It wasn't a sentiment that mobilized people to act collectively and make significant, primary changes to our common lifestyle.

In effect, we were saying, well, alright, things are getting tough, no doubt about it, but hey, what can you do, we've still got to drive, there's no public transportation where I live, I've still got to do the daily commute, our political leaders at the local, state, and federal levels say that nothing can be done right now, the economy is bad, no time to rock the boat, no time to take big risks with dangerous and unproven ideas, and by the way, I just saw a whole bevy of statistical information showing that there is no way we can wean ourselves off of petroleum for at least the next ten billion years, and yes, I know that study was funded by the oil companies themselves, and yeah, you really can't trust them, but then again, if they don't know the real facts about oil, who does, since -- after all -- they are the experts.

So, with propaganda shoveled into our heads by gas industry leaders, betrayed and abandoned by our corrupt and spineless political representatives, we thought, well, at least I can buy an electric car. That sounds ecological and, most importantly, economical.

But the only electric cars available were still "under development," cost about a trillion dollars each, had top speeds of 35 miles per hour, and featured a per-charge range of 50 miles. Okay, maybe some of them were, and are, a bit better than that, but not by much -- so much for the electric car idea. Also, to charge up our electric cars, we would have had to plug them up to our homes, thereby using electricity that is currently produced in large measure by coal-burning plants that belch filth into the air we breathe, and the coal for generating this electricity tends to come from strip mines that destroy vast stretches of previously unspoiled wilderness.

What to do? It seemed that there was no way for us to satisfy our deep longing for personal empowerment in the face of a seemingly insurmountable gas crisis. Car companies realized this, and wondered how they could tap into and exploit that general feeling of malaise. Then, the "eureka" moment arrived, and not a moment too soon -- design, develop, market, and sell hybrid cars!

Many of us figured, ah, this is great -- I'll get insanely awesome gas mileage from a car that occasionally runs on electricity generated by the braking process! I'll be so ecological! So, anyway, energy crisis problem solved! Well, too bad that this hybrid car is so freaking expensive, but hey, if you want to save money on gas, you've got to be willing to pay, am I right?

It sounded pretty lame, and deep in our hearts we knew it was so, but again, we figured, what else can you do?

Again -- fundamental, radical changes are needed to adequately address the root causes of this energy crisis, and hybrid cars are nothing more than a symbolic gesture as far as that goes. In the long term, they do nothing whatsoever to put an end to the destructive, short-sighted, and misguided non-renewable-energy based paradigm, whose days are numbered.

In my next article, entitled "Beyond Hybrid-Car Tech," I'll lay out my vision of a planet finally freed from its suicidal addiction to non-renewable energy resources.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...