CAR CRAZY

Why We Keep On Truckin'

The Tango T600 prototype, an electric car by Commuter Cars Corporation.
The Tango T600 prototype, an electric car by Commuter Cars Corporation. (Courtesy Of Commuter Cars Corporation - Courtesy Of Commuter Cars Corporation)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's been a rough stretch of road for the U.S. auto industry. Last Monday, we learned that Daimler had sold Chrysler for scrap metal. President Bush vowed to start regulating tailpipe emissions. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced new low-carbon fuel standards, a firm shove to the entire transportation sector. And gas prices hit an all-time high -- bad news for carmakers that keep cranking out gas guzzlers. But probably the worst moment came the week before last, on the reality TV show "Survivor," when Yau-Man gave the pickup truck to Dreamz.

Here's what happened: Yau-Man Chan, a 54-year-old computer engineer, had won one of the show's "reward challenges." The prize: a hulking, 350-horsepower Ford Super Duty F-350 pickup that looks like it's capable of towing your average volcano.

Yau-Man took one look and promptly gave it to a rival player, Andria "Dreamz" Herd, asking only for some strategic help at the next "tribal council." It was a shocking move by Yau-Man. But now we can report to the nation the real reason he didn't want the truck:

"I would disappear if I sat inside."

He's talking by phone from his home in Northern California.

"It's not my lifestyle," he says. And moreover: "I don't think it would fit in any parking spaces."

In fact, he needs an F-350 the way he needs his own personal oil tanker. Chan works on a college campus. At Berkeley. What, he's going to bomb around in something that looks like it eats Volkswagen Beetles for a snack? I doubt he could even sell it in Berkeley. The city council has no doubt banned oversized pickups, along with red meat and nuclear weapons.

And yet Detroit keeps disgorging monster trucks, souped-up sedans, overpowered SUVs and Hummers so brawny and masculine that merely sitting in the driver's seat makes hair sprout on your back.

Amazingly, people keep buying them. Never mind everything you've read about the fashionableness of hybrids and the new electric cars scooting along California highways. We still like big, fast, sexy, high-performance cars that allow us to make vroom-vroom noises as we rocket to the video store. Yau-Man Chan may well be the car buyer of the future -- a role model for us all -- but most of us are still burning gas like there's no tomorrow.

Here's what a lot of us in urban and suburban America actually need: a glorified golf cart. And such things are on the drawing board: "neighborhood cars" that are perfect for putt-putting around. Maybe they'd be communal property -- just grab one and go, like an umbrella by the office door.

But if you had to make an educated wager, you'd probably want to put your money on people continuing to drive pretty much the same vehicles they've been driving, at least for the near future. The automobile industry doesn't like revolutions. Detroit is conservative and runs on inertia. Big, fast, powerful vehicles yield higher profits. With Chrysler and all the other U.S. car companies struggling, they're not likely to go gangbusters for tiny, fuel-efficient cars. Technological advances have gone into performance, not fuel efficiency. Everyone today is driving cars that have the performance attributes of the sports cars of yesteryear. John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at MIT, says that if you extrapolate 20 years into the future, we'll all be driving the equivalent of today's Ferraris.

"Why don't we have fuel-efficient cars?" he asks. "It's because, at least in the past, fuel has been cheap. And why not? At many levels, they're more fun."


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