When will the oil run out? Nobody knows, but oil companies are finally admitting that their black gold is a finite commodity. After all, it comes from the decomposition of plant and animal materials at extreme pressures over millions of years. And while there were plenty of plants and animals eons ago, over the past century we have been pumping their remains out of the ground at a fantastic rate. Our beloved automobiles have slurped up most of the oil in the form of gasoline, producing the mobility that has changed the world.
I love cars. In my garage, eight of them share space with more than a half dozen motorcycles. I've owned more than 130 (I've tried to count them, but keep losing my place): gas-sucking sports cars, sport utilities, and others that, while often bizarre, were more fuel efficient. I love the arcane shapes and engineering intricacy of cars and trucks and find relaxation in tearing an engine apart or rebuilding a set of drum brakes. I love the freedom of travel and adventure afforded by a vehicle with a full tank of gas. I love what cars have done for us. But I am becoming more and more aware that I don't love what they are doing to us.
Cars used to be rich men's toys. They were noisy, cantankerous and unreliable, but on a good day were faster and more exciting than any horse. Gradually, they became more accessible. More efficient modes of transportation (trains and buses) were left for those who couldn't afford one. A burgeoning used car market pushed ownership deeper into the socio-economic strata and with a bit of clever financing, almost every man had a car. World War II caused a minor dip in sales, but returning GIs bought new wheels in record numbers. They also bought houses in newly created suburbs and started to commute. The interstate highway system came in 1956 and provided the opportunity to see America through the windshield of the family sedan or station wagon. Nobody worried much about oil. We had all we needed, even if we used more than anyone else. It didn't seem like it would ever change.
By the 1970s, the air was polluted, roads were overcrowded and the first of several oil crises hit American wallets. A few left-wing wackos began talking about fuel conservation and running out of oil, but no one paid much attention. New oil fields were being opened every day. Surely there'd be enough of the stuff to keep cars going for centuries to come?
During the '80s, it wasn't just the wackos who were worried. Prices had gone up and fuel efficiency became a matter of government regulation, not just personal preference. The air was getting cleaner, thanks to pollution controls. By the end of the decade, concepts for alternative energy sources were being kicked around, but American drivers couldn't be pried from their big gas-guzzlers. The SUV became all the rage and was exempt from fuel economy regulations. More oil kept coming out of the ground, but fewer new sources were being found. Meanwhile, the population continued to grow, roads were busier, courteous drivers became almost extinct.
It might have worked out fine if US citizens could have just continued consuming 70 percent of the world's energy, but a couple of new players emerged. India and China have begun to demand their share. Each country is rich in labor and more than willing to negotiate with anyone who can sell them oil that, in other times, might have come to America. As less oil is available, it's obvious the remainder will be more expensive.
Most auto enthusiasts would rather stick their heads in the sand and ignore the negative impact cars are having. The reality is that many of our current ills-congested roads, poor air quality, high energy costs and uncertainty over our global security-can be attributed directly to the automobile.
One thing is certain. Whatever is going to be done had better happen soon. Instead of wasting precious oil building 500-hp SUVs and 220-mph supercars, perhaps we should use what resources we have finding an answer to how we are going to keep things running when the oil is gone. Why do certain cars and 'light' trucks weigh more than 5000 pounds and deliver less than 16 mpg? Why do we need so much 'stuff' in our vehicles? Lighter is better, less is more and there is virtue in simplicity. Somehow, engineers and product planners have forgotten these basic truths.
I'd sooner have decisions about our future made by people whose opinions I value-enthusiasts like you, rather than politicians, know-nothing do-gooders, or those with self-serving interests. Without doubt our world is going to change. Those of us who love cars need to become more involved in finding viable solutions, instead of contributing to the problem.