The Coming Storm

The week of Detroit’s annual Dream Cruise is one of increasing energy.

The week of Detroit’s annual Dream Cruise is one of increasing energy. The number of out-of-state plates increases. More cars are cruising Woodward Avenue each night. An increasing number of people line the streets in lawn chairs and in parking lots to watch the cars go by. Everything from a BMW Isetta with a Chevy V8 hanging out the back to pristine Ford Mavericks and Pinto to hand-built hot rods to Depression-era and earlier cars to high-end sports cars roam the road. And so it was Thursday night.

I was in the middle of the scrum with my girlfriend. No, we didn’t have the 1969 Lotus Elan or the 1969 Ford Cortina. (Both are off the road.) We had a smart car. An incongruous vehicle, I’ll admit, in a sea of muscle cars. Coming back down Woodward on our first loop, we were surprised to hear the air-raid sirens going off. To a person in the Midwest, that can only mean one thing: Tornado. The local radio stations were talking about a line of severe thunderstorms heading our way, and the skies behind us had turned a dark blue-black. Time to leave.

Crawling along with traffic, we grabbed the first major side street we could find, and headed for home. And the smart’s three-cylinder engine and automated manual transmission chugged us along in a quick but choppy fashion. That’s when the thought that had been rattling around in my head since hitting Woodward popped into view.

At the start of the month, the CEO of Hyundai’s American operations, John Krafcik, had announced that his company was going to make a “moon shot” and build vehicles that would have a fleet average of 50 mpg by 2025. This publicity stunt got a lot of attention, and probably seemed like a good idea, since no one expected the federal government to raise CAFE standards above 45 mpg. At 50 mpg, Hyundai looked like exemplary corporate citizens, ignoring the fact that the Korean car maker is far from a full-line automaker, and it could bask in the green glow of sycophantic media adulation. Only 45 mpg isn’t that far above 35 mpg to a bureaucrat.

Then came word that Washington is looking to raise fleet fuel economy to 60 mpg by 2025. A figure even the diminutive smart I was driving can’t come close to reaching. That would mean forcing automakers to adopt mass electrification of the fleet, forcing hundreds of thousands of pure electrics onto the market each year. Prices would rise. Costs would skyrocket. Trucks would all but disappear. More than a few automakers would be in grave danger of collapsing under the strain. And for what?

As the dark clouds moved closer, I thought of the futility of this Soviet-style top-down regulation. It takes at least 15 years to turn over the fleet. That means it would be 2040 at the earliest before anyone would even begin to see the fruits of the new standards, if their implementation didn’t slow down new cars sales. In less time than it takes to write the new mileage standards, and all of the loopholes that will be necessary to make it possible to reach the magic 60 mpg average, the energy question could be solved by getting the government out of the way. Diesel could drastically cut energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (if you believe that global warming isn’t a gigantic Ponzi scheme and farce), but at the cost of increased particulate emissions that might kill 162,000 people over 70 years. I’ve written about this before, but doubt that sanity will enter a political equation that revolves around exercising and keeping power.

Still, as the weather reports became more numerous, I couldn’t help but think that, in some Blade Runner future, I might have to depend on a fuel cell or battery or highly stressed combustion engine to get me and my loved ones to safety. I don’t doubt the ability of engineers to figure out ways to make things work. I do, however, doubt the ability of some power-obsessed, do-gooder bureaucrat who lives in one of the most insular cities on the planet to decide what form my future transportation will take. It’s my life, my future, my determination.

The storm passed our area without harm (others were not so lucky), and we parked the smart in my driveway and went in to watch the storm coverage on TV. Ticking and popping as it cooled down after a brisk drive, the smart sat tired but content. It’s the right choice for someone, but not necessarily for me. If forced to, I could live with it, but that’s a decision I’d prefer to make on my own so that my future Dream Cruises don’t become a nightmare born of publicity stunts and bureaucratic overreach.