Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.24.08

Sucking On the Pump
Mammals at the feet of dinosaurs
by Mark Murphy

In case you haven’t noticed, we have entered an age of transition. Looming over us are profound changes that will forever change the way we live on this planet. If we survive we may thrive, but in a culture nothing like the one we grew up in. One of the obvious clues is the rising cost of energy. This situation comes as a nasty surprise to the naive, now stubbornly bankrupting themselves to fill the tank of their shiny new guzzler.

We really can’t blame them for sucking on the gas pump, for more than 50 years we have become conditioned to live our life around the car. Cheap gas allowed us to travel excessively, spontaneously and up until recently, without apparent consequence. Today, the comparatively modest cost of fuel is driving a growing panic that threatens our economy and lifestye. Many will see this as a loss, a retreat from a higher standard of living and the “good old days.” They will resist and resent the price they pay to retain their V-8, and imagine insidious conspiracies rather than blame their own indulgence. They have simply not been paying attention. What will they do when gas doubles again in a few more years? More often than not, a large vehicle is a rationalization, rather than a true need. How many vehicles do you see filled to capacity? 

The big SUV represents pride, achievement and entitlement to their owners. Their status symbol is quickly tarnishing. What was once a conspicuous display of prestige is now a social liability. MPG is the new HP. Eco is replacing ego.

It is time we realized the so called “arms race” on the street is over. The game has become too expensive and inappropriate to continue. Like the big muscle cars and tailfin monoliths of the last century, the SUV and “full size” trucks and cars are obsolete and irresponsible. We long admired them for their macho attitude and excess capabilities, but “the times, they are a changing” as the song goes. The next generation of vehicles will be efficient not out of choice, but of necessity, but will inevitably include the next generation of hot rods with motors rather than engines.

The sinking value of the guzzlers is hitting dealers and owners alike. Many vehicles on the road or sales lot today will be junked long before they wear out simply because they will have become too expensive to drive. The utilitarian survivors will last forever, however, since they will finally be only “mission driven,” used appropriately as tools of the trade rather than as oversize toys.

This changing mix places an increasing responsibility on those still clinging to their large clumsy machines. It never was the small cars that were dangerous — people are small vehicles, too. It is the big heavy “urban assault” vehicles that pose the real threat to everyone, including themselves, causing more kinetic damage in a collision, to the environment and our social conscience. Owning a large machine is fear based, egotistical and selfish. A rationalization that ignores the obvious ethical question of choosing personal safety over the increased danger this imposes upon others. The only penalty for such indulgence is higher liability costs, much higher fuel costs and maintenance: a price subsidized by society.

Today we have too many bad choices of transportation, we need smarter, better choices including cost-effective mass transit, efficient commuters and city cars. A new generation of hybrids, electrics and other smaller but more expensive vehicles are on the horizon that will replace today’s automotive endomorphs the way small mammals replaced dinosaurs eons ago. Thousands of thrashing, spinning components and internal combustion will be replaced with solid state electrochemical reactions and electric motors with one moving part. 

The end result of this transition will be an urban traffic environment of smaller, lighter vehicles that are much more compatible with pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation. The windfall of free social benefits will include less congestion and more parking, a cleaner environment, with fewer potholes and road damage. The downside of rising energy costs will be offset by the upside of a more human-scaled urban community. Crisis creates incentives for change; our greatest asset is our ability to see the opportunities that lie within.

Mark Murphy of Creswell is an industrial designer and inventor of electric vehicles such as the Gizmo and BugE. See