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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Topic: Science

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

A bit of environmental news:

Government Proposes New SUV Fuel Standards
Ken Thomas, Associated Press Writer - Tuesday, August 23, 2005 - (08-23) 16:59 PDT WASHINGTON (AP)

That goes like this:
With gas prices continuing to rise, the Bush administration on Tuesday proposed new rules to compel auto manufacturers to make pickup trucks, minivans and some sport utility vehicles more fuel-efficient. Environmentalists said the plan would do little to wean the nation from its dependence on foreign oil.

The proposal would require the auto industry to raise standards for most vehicles other than cars beginning in 2008. All automakers would have to comply with the new system by 2011.

"This is a plan that will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists without sacrificing safety," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.

Mineta, speaking at news conferences in Atlanta and Los Angeles, said the program was expected to save about 10 billion gallons of gasoline over the life of vehicles built from 2008 through 2011. The U.S. currently consumes about 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year, according to Energy Department statistics.

But the plan would not apply to the largest SUVs, such as the Hummer H2. Passenger cars, already required to maintain an average of 27.5 miles per gallon, also would not be covered by the changes. ...
So what good does this do?

AP quotes Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program - "At a time when Americans are paying record prices for gas, the Bush administration has sided with its cronies in the auto industry and rejected real solutions." John Kerry (yes, he's still alive and somewhere or other) calls this big news "backward looking" and "another lost opportunity to help our security, economy and environment."

The government claims the new plan will save more fuel than any previous rulemaking in the history of the light-truck CAFE program – the average mileage of manufacturers' entire fleet of light trucks - but that's a low standard. The new things here is we now would divide light trucks into six categories based on size. Smaller vehicles would have to get better gas mileage than larger trucks and so on, except for the Hummer, which is exempt from all that for some reason. But the manufacturers could earn credits for exceeding the minimum in certain categories and apply them to a category where they don't meet the standard. Whatever.

Still, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing nine automakers, said the "higher fuel economy standards will be a challenge, even with all of the new fuel-efficient technologies that are offered for sale today."

Why bother? Consider this:

How to Escape the Oil Trap
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are now awash in oil money, and no matter what the controls, some is surely getting to unsavory groups.
Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, Aug. 29 - Sept. 5, 2005 issue

The idea? The way to fix our foreign policy problems is to do something about our need for so much oil.
If I could change one thing about American foreign policy, what would it be? The answer is easy, but it's not something most of us think of as foreign policy. I would adopt a serious national program geared toward energy efficiency and independence. Reducing our dependence on oil would be the single greatest multiplier of American power in the world. I leave it to economists to sort out what expensive oil does to America's growth and inflation prospects. What is less often noticed is how crippling this situation is for American foreign policy. "Everything we're trying to do in the world is made much more difficult in the current environment of rising oil prices," says Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."
And he goes on to make a convincing argument that our energy efficiency may be the key to getting out of any number of problems with terrorism, with the difficulties with any number of pesky governments and all the rest - rising oil prices are helping to finance the terror masters in Tehran, Saudi Arabia and so on. It's our demand for oil that gets us all messed up.

But what catches one's attention is this:
Rising oil prices are the result of many different forces coming together. We have little control over some of them, like China's growth rate. But America remains the 800-pound gorilla of petroleum demand. In 2004, China consumed 6.5 million barrels of oil per day. The United States consumed 20.4 million barrels, and demand is rising. That is because of strong growth, but also because American cars - which guzzle the bulk of oil imports - are much less efficient than they used to be. This is the only area of the American economy in which we have become less energy-efficient than we were 20 years ago, and we are the only industrialized country to have slid backward in this way. There's one reason: SUVs. They made up 5 percent of the American fleet in 1990. They make up almost 54 percent today.
The man said fifty-four percent. What? Well, a drive down any street in America will bear that out.

How did THAT happen?

The last time that issue came up in these pages was January 11, 2004 in Automotive Psychology: If someone's going to die, let it be someone else. Is it possible to limit the damage an obsession does to others?

Malcolm Gladwell with his long piece in the New Yorker on those SUV things - these luxury, top-heavy, truck-based transport vehicles just about everyone drives - prompted the item. And at the that time my nephew's wife out in Barstow was urging her husband to trade their nearly new Ford Excursion - the largest and heaviest passenger vehicle manufactured in American - for a Hummer - a bit more brutal and it looks bigger and safer, or maybe more "invincible and impenetrable."

Gladwell explained how we got into this SUV obsession in an interview about his New Yorker piece - Road Killers.

Why the obsession?
One school of thought says that SUV buyers harbor a kind of outdoorsy fantasy. But I suspect that it's more basic than that: this is a vehicle that can flourish in the most extreme environment imaginable. If it can ford streams and climb over boulders, just think how safe and protected you'll be on the trip to Wal-Mart! Of course, the logic behind that argument is backward: the trip to Wal-Mart is a good deal more hazardous than fording a stream in the wilderness, and we ought to be buying cars optimized for the conditions we actually drive in.
Maybe so, but you don't tell people what they "ought" to buy. That just makes them angry.

There's a bit on how market research shows that SUVs tend to be purchased by people who are "insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills." No kidding.

Then there's the marketing:
There's a television commercial for an SUV in which a woman is driving the SUV and a rock rolls onto the road in front of her, and she swerves around it at the last minute. That ad claims that SUVs are nimble, and suggests that the key variable in avoiding the rock was the vehicle. That is an attempt, it seems to me, to play to the driver who lacks confidence in his or her skills. The most dominant image in SUV commercials and ads is still the SUV mastering some off-road obstacle: fording streams, cutting through snowbanks, racing across virgin wilderness. Obviously, almost no SUV driver is ever going to use his or her car in those environments (in large part, of course, because racing across virgin wilderness in an SUV is, for the most part, illegal). Another interesting thing about SUV advertisements, along these lines, is how rarely children appear in them. Keith Bradsher makes this point in his book, High and Mighty. Minivans are advertised in family-centric ways. The SUV, on the other hand, is supposed to allow the buyer to pretend that he or she doesn't have a family, that he or she is still a kind of rugged loner without suburban entrapments.
Of course Gladwell adds that "the most important other issue" is the question of fashion: certain kinds of SUVs (like the Cadillac Escalade) are simply considered cool, in the way that Corvettes were cool twenty-five years ago.

Them there's safety and its costs:
If every car on the road was a Mini, then the cost of an accident would be quite small: if you are in a Mini and you hit a Mini, you aren't going to be that bad off. So, in the old days, the premium on active safety wasn't so large. On the other hand, if every car on the road is an SUV, the cost of an accident grows substantially. When a Ford Explorer hits a Chevy TrailBlazer, both parties suffer enormously. And, if a Ford Explorer hits a Mini, the Mini driver is a dead man. ... As a non-SUV owner, I simply cannot afford to get into any accident at all these days.
The irony here is that my nephew's wife did get her Hummer, and I got a new Mini Cooper. Here they are side by side:

She feels safe. And oddly enough, I do too - the Mini is nimble enough to get out of the way of most trouble.

Of course, I am delusional and she is in the careful mainstream. They want these things, and that's not going to change. It's a bit of an obsession:
I don't think we can easily cure people of their desire to feel safe - even if that desire does not correlate with actual safety. But what we can do - and ought to do - is limit the damage that that obsession does to others.
But Gladwell was only talking about engineering changes. When Fareed Zakaria limiting the damage caused by our obsession with big SUV's he's talking about something else entirely.

Slightly off topic is this from June 13, 2004 - Hollywood and Paris, Back and Forth. From Paris, Reuters has just reported this:
Bulky four-by-fours could be banned from clogging up the chic streets of Paris after a top official in the capital's left-wing government described them as a polluting "caricature of a car" unsuited to city life.

An anti-sports utility vehicle (SUV) resolution passed by the city council could lead to a ban on the popular vehicles in about 18 months if it is included in an overall project to improve traffic flow in the city, Deputy Mayor Denis Baupin said Wednesday.

"You have to wonder why people want to drive around in SUVs," Baupin, a Greens party member, said on Europe 1 radio.

"We have no interest in having SUVs in the city. They're dangerous to others and take up too much space."
Click on the link and see what Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, had to say about that!

Back on topic - the topic of limiting the damage SUV's do - there's this from Andrew Sullivan, who lives in Provincetown, out at far end of Cape Cod. Reading this got me stared on this whole business:
Some kind of move toward greater energy efficiency is essential in the war on terror. But what I didn't realize is how the curse of the SUV is so damaging. Fareed writes that 54 percent of today's U.S. fleet of cars are made up by these ugly, behemoth tanks that guzzle gas, and make life miserable for everyone not in them.

My anti-SUV ire always goes up in the summer, when I see these vast, bloated symbols of excess bulldozing down the narrow streets of Provincetown, pushing every bicyclist, pedestrian or small child out of their way. My only solace is thinking of how many of these SUV owners are pouring money away to keep their mobile homes on the road. Pity that same money goes to finance Islamist terror. And please don't give me all this guff about how I don't have a car (hey, I'm not indirectly donating to al Qaeda), having to take kids here, there and everywhere, with all their stuff and the dogs and suburbs and soccer practices and on and on. All of this took place before SUVs; kids were just packed into back seats and trunks were stuffed full if necessary. Parents coped. Kids thrived.

If all else failed, people could even have less stuff. Imagine that: less stuff.

As readers know, I'd gladly put a dollar of extra tax on gas, insist on higher fuel standards for cars, make SUVs comply with the fuel standards of other cars and put a tax on SUVs on top of all that. We are in a war. As far as I'm concerned, those people driving SUVs are aiding and abetting the enemy, and helping to finance the terrorists that want to kill us all. I'm well aware that the notion that the Bush administration has any interest in energy independence or taxing gas or deterring SUVs is about as likely as their demanding subsidies for sex-changes, but I might as well vent. We can always stigmatize these SUV-terror-enablers. How about bumper-stickers for non-SUVs that simply say: MY CAR DOESN'T SUBSIDIZE SAUDI TERROR. Would that help?
Probably not. Somehow driving the largest possible SUV or truck has come to be seen as patriotic. "No Arabs are going change this guy's lifestyle." That sort of thing. Makes no sense - the bad guys with the oil just get richer and richer, and less likely to do anything we suggest - but that's the way it is. And shaming people about their latest hyper-expensive purchase? That never works. They will just assume that you're a powerless loser, with a tiny penis, who envies them.

Still Sullivan proposes a bumper sticker contest:
How's this for an idea: send me your best ideas for anti-SUV bumper stickers. One reader already suggested: "How Many Soldiers-Per-Gallon Does Your SUV Get?" Another offering: "Osama Loves Your SUV."

Got a better one?
No. And the irony here? The Hummer, below, proudly driven all over my nephew's wife, is what she drives while her husband, a Major in the Army, spends his days in Baghdad, in the Green Zone, doing what he does, which I ought not mention here. Is she making it harder for him, or keeping the kids safe on the road, or making a "no one changes my lifestyle" statement? Who knows?

Something Sullivan and Fareed Zakaria don't mention is another little problem with more than half the drivers here in the SUV things.

Arctic melt likely to worsen, scientists warn
No natural process seen to curb trend towards ice-free waters
The Associated Press - Updated: 3:50 p.m. ET Aug. 23, 2005
WASHINGTON - The rate of ice melting in the Arctic is increasing and a panel of researchers says it sees no natural process that is likely to change that trend.

Within a century the melting could lead to summertime ice-free ocean conditions not seen in the area in a million years, the group said Tuesday.

Melting of land-based glaciers could take much longer but could raise the sea levels, potentially affecting coastal regions worldwide. ...
The link has satellite photos - before and after.

Just another SUV thing - conditions not seen in a million years.

Posted by Alan at 19:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005 20:13 PDT home

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