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Road Ahead: Change Your Mind

The Writing Is on the Wall for a Reason: So We’ll Read It.

By John Zimmermann

John Zimmermann _ The Writing is on the wall for a reason.
John Zimmermann is a veteran automotive journalist and author with three decades of experience in the motorsports publishing industry.

Welcome to the new reality. The America you, we, all of us, grew up in, is not the same America in which we are living today. Further, that comforting vision of a homeland we knew and loved may not even be remembered in the America of tomorrow.

This is a concept we need to understand. It does not mean we have to abandon the American ideal, for many would say that just such an abandonment is what got us into these straits in the first place. The fabled American spirit is precisely what we need to get us out of this mess, and we cannot begin applying it too soon. Before we do, however, there are certain fundamental changes of perception that we must embrace, and while some of us already do, the imperative for all is inescapable. The remedies are neither simple nor easy.

First, we need to understand is that petroleum is a finite resource. That means, of course, it will not last forever. One of these days — maybe not in our lifetimes but probably not long afterward – the big underground reservoirs will all run dry. All the dinosaurs will then be well and truly gone – save for the skeletons in museums. The question facing us then will be: What are we going to do now?

We might not want to think about that at all, let alone at this precise moment, but if we don’t look ahead, see it coming and prepare for its impact, today will look like a picnic in comparison. So, if we’re smart — and I remain confident that, essentially, we are — we need to encourage the development of alternative energies, renewable resources like wind and cellulosic ethanol, hydroelectric power generation, hydrogen, and some, perhaps, as yet undiscovered. Dilithium crystals, anyone?

The bad news is that the recent decline in oil prices and, consequently, the price of a gallon of gasoline, could tempt both manufacturers and consumers to think everything is fine and that the low price will last. Be sure of one thing: It Will Not. The risk is that we as a society will abandon our efforts to make cleaner-running, more efficient vehicles, opting instead for more of the same Stupid Useless Vehicles. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into this trap. It’s just like a pusher giving a reforming junkie free heroin just to keep him addicted. We have to be smarter than that.

The good news is that the pursuit of more efficient vehicles has already begun, but these initial explorations are just the first steps. We must remain as vigilant as we have ever been about anything to ensure that it continues and expands. It is our only hope to escape an energy-free fate.

The automobile has been fingered as the most visible culprit in our struggles, but what we also need is to understand that these times demand the same level of ingenuity, innovation and creativity that produced the internal combustion engine and the extraction process to derive gasoline from crude petroleum to power it in the first place. All of this happened pretty much at the same time a century and a bit ago, and we need to find the 21st century equivalents of Gottfried Daimler, Karl Benz and Otto Diesel. As much as we may want one, however, it’s unlikely we’ll discover an instant solution, but then again we might.

If we do, great, but more likely this process will go forth in measured steps, and we must ensure that whatever we do decide to do is the most efficient way, and not just an interim feel-good measure that takes us and our beloved automobiles down a dead-end road.

All present indicators are that Ethanol is just such and interim measure, and we must resist the temptation to think it’s the final solution, especially when it’s made from food sources like corn rather than other non-food sources like switchgrass and biological waste. Many of us already know this, but many others seem unready, or unwilling, to grasp it.

Surely Ethanol is a good first step, and cellulosic ethanol may just be one of the lasting solutions, but we have to grasp that it is just a change of direction on our road toward an alternatively fueled reality. Ethanol’s true value is that it can encourage us to change our minds, our way of thinking, the first time. Once our brains have been limbered up and grown unafraid of change, then we can begin to make real progress.

Of course, a lot of this change is already upon us, and thankfully so, but we cannot rest. This quest for energy independence needs to be given the same priority that the USA and the Soviet Union gave to the space race, only this time we should understand that the best way to do it is for us all to work together.

Of course capitalists will say that whoever discovers or invents the solution should be rewarded, and that they should then be able to sell the technology to the rest of the world. In many ways they are right, credit where due, but to be globally applicable the solution must be universal, suitable for use everywhere by everyone, or we’ll just end up back where we are now. We can’t afford to waste time and, pardon the expression, energy pursuing slightly divergent courses, we must decide on the most effective solution and dedicate ourselves to developing it. Decide, dedicate and develop. Of course, consensus is always difficult to achieve, especially on the global scale, but doing so is now more imperative than it has ever been. And, if the world can work together to solve its energy problems, who knows what else might be possible?

The key, I believe, lies our capability to generate electricity, for what modern convenience is not powered by the force of nature we have harnessed and called current? These days that miracle commodity is produced in a variety of ways, and it probably will continue to be, but all of these methods must be refined to be as efficient, and therefore as clean, as possible. This means finding unlimited or naturally renewable sources for generating this power – like windmills and water turbines.

We need to continue restricting and reducing hydrocarbon emissions from factories and power plants as well as our vehicles, and while there is much discussion of nuclear power, it’s never going to be viable on the large scale until we figure out how to dispose of its lethal radioactive waste. One thought I’ve had is, as long as we are apparently moving ahead with plans to return to the moon, why not set aside certain sections of the lunar landscape for storing that nuclear waste? No neighbors to offend, and surely the stuff could be packaged safely enough for the several-day journey up there. Just a thought.

Coincidentally, back on earth, we need to continue cleaning up our transportation devices, looking into the future and trying to imagine what the cars and trucks, trains and planes of tomorrow will look like. While I probably don’t have an answer for the present problem, I do believe I can see the logical destination, at least where the automobile is concerned. The others should then be able to find ways to follow.

As I see it, the green automobile of the future will be electric. It will employ the latest technology in battery storage units for electrical charge (be that Lithium-ion or whatever the next breakthrough is), meaning it can regularly be recharged from a modernized grid powered by wind (hopefully ubiquitous farms), water (hydro) and solar.

Consequently, we should be investing in windmills, rechargeable battery research— America needs to establish industries in this area or we will only have swapped foreign batteries for foreign oil—and more efficient electric motors, where the emphasis would be on devices that could provide performance comparable to current gasoline and diesel engine standards. These cars would be recharged by plugging them into a grid replenished by the clean, renewable sources noted above, and they could also have bodies made at least partially of solar panels so that the batteries would constantly be recharged with energy captured directly from the sun whenever atmospheric conditions permitted. The infrastructure to make this electricity widely available must also be modernized and upgraded.

Another option, of course, is Hydrogen. In service, it is the cleanest fuel possible, leaving only water vapor as a post-combustion emission. Much research is already under way here, but two potential problems loom. First we must ensure that the process to produce Hydrogen in sufficient quantities to fuel our vehicles is as clean and green as the Hydrogen itself. Secondly, there’s the problem of the necessary infrastructure. If we are going to use Hydrogen to fuel our vehicles, it must be readily available everywhere, which at present it is not. Not even close. Those are the challenges.

As for the big trucks and busses that carry heavy commerce over long hauls on our Interstate highway network, perhaps the best answer would be to convert them to run on compressed natural gas. Natural gas is a plentiful resource within our national boundaries, is already in wide usage as a vehicular fuel and its legendary blue flame burns quite cleanly.

One problem with humankind, however, is its overt susceptibility to instant gratification. Women have long endured this problem when it came to their men, and everything from Polaroid cameras to fast food has pandered to and encouraged this impatient impulse. While I agree that the best case scenario is getting what we want now, such a stance ignores not only the very real possibility that all things may not be instantly achievable, but also that patience is, as they say, a virtue, and that all good things come to those who wait. But we can’t tarry too long, because time waits for no one.

Now that I’ve exhausted my cache of clichés, let me ask what better arena is there for the advance of automotive technology than racing? Motorsports has always been the natural research laboratory for the automobile industry, and it is therefore only logical that the racing industry should shoulder the responsibilities of its position and lead the way to the future. In some places the process has already begun.

In its early days, auto racing was all about pushing the developmental envelope and finding new technologies that would advance the cause of building better, faster, safer automobiles. Endemic to this quest was the reality that every aspect of the game became more efficient, to the point that the cars eventually got too fast for the tracks they were racing on, and in recent times the focus of the sport’s governing authorities has not been on running ever faster and ever farther, but on restraining the very technological advances that made the sport what it was.

The result of this quest for mandated mediocrity is that this once groundbreaking rolling laboratory has been trivialized to the point of being only “entertainment.” Organizers claim that no one cares about the technology, that all fans want is to see close competition, but this is another reason we find ourselves where we are. One organization, however, has taken a different stance and turned the developmental proficiency inherent to the sport in a different direction, a fresh green direction.

I refer to the American Le Mans Series, which manages a schedule of sports car races with events as short as two and a half hours and as long as 24, featuring regulations for four distinct classes that allow engines powered by gasoline, both standard and biologically derived clean diesel fuels, and both corn-based and cellulosic ethanol, while offering a place for hybrids as well.

There are those who would argue that the apparent fascination of the ALMS with green technology – including its Green Racing Challenge — is nothing more than a marketing ploy meant to make the series look good in a time of crisis, but even if that is true somebody needs to initiate this process of altering our perceptions, and no one else is doing it, so credit where due. Again, it’s a case of changing minds.

The continuing quest for greater efficiency has always made sense, and what’s required now is simply a redirection of these experiments – which is all that racing really represents – toward a different goal. In the process, the intellectual might of the industry would be turned toward serving the greater good. It’s been kind of doing that all along, but now the challenge is not just to improve the corporate earnings statement, but to permit basic survival as well.

The trick is not in striving to give the consumer what they want to live their chosen lifestyle, but in educating them to change that lifestyle for the good with products that enable cleaner, safer, less-consumptive living, giving them instead what they need. As antithetical as those concepts may seem to American life, they are, and must be, the way of the future and to the future; otherwise there might not be much of a future to worry about.

We need to wake up and begin paying attention, to realize we can’t continue like we have, living the complacent and conspicuously consumptive lifestyle that too many have come to regard as an American birthright. It is just not sustainable, and that, sustainability, is the key to the future, to moving our civilization forward instead of backward. The first step, however, is that we need to Change Our Minds.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Anne Proffit

    As usual, a well thought diatribe by a student of the business. Zimmermann tells it like it is, always has and, hopefully, will ever have a place such as this to freely voice his opinions. Thanks for the commentary!

  2. Barry Rosenblum

    This will do well as a “State Of The Union” speech for energy and transportation. I would add the geopolitcal and national security aspects of fossil fuel dependence to your list of reasons for new fuels and energy sources. It seems to me that few have any romantic devotion to gasoline, save we few gear-heads, but the technology has not caught up with the rhetoric. It’s going to take more than cum-bayas to change what we drive, ride and fly. Your last two paragraphs are too touchy-feely for me. Some will buy what they need, but most buy what they want. New vehicles will need to be more than socially responsible. They will need to be desirable, too. Commuter trains and Priuses are so..well..depressing.

  3. Mike Harris

    Amen, brother. Handwriting on the wall, indeed. It’s more like big, block capital letters engraved on the side of a skyscraper. Keep up the good work – and good words – John.

  4. Joe Barbieri


    It’s always good to hear from you and to get your views on pertinent subjects. I agree with your findings however I do not look forward to driving vehicles that don’t have 300+ HP and that need a “charge” every 50-100 miles. I know I’m one that needs to “Change my mind” and I’m working on it!

    Thanks for sending this along!

  5. David Phillips

    Thoughtful and eloquent — I would have expected nothing less.

    I am especially taken by your take on ethanol, i.e. that its significance lies not in the fact/fiction that ethanol is THE silver bullet for all our energy woes but in its role as a catalyst for getting people to at least think about different kinds of fuel. Changing our calcified mindsets is the biggest obstacle of all; the science of finding alternatives is the easy part (relatively).

    One other observation. In discussing “big trucks and busses that carry heavy commerce over long hauls,” I would remind everyone that significant investment in our railroad system (both freight- and passenger-wise) has the potential to reap vast rewards over the, er, long haul.

  6. kurt antonius

    Nice work, John. Good perspective. Weaning ourselves off the black gold is a priority for all of us and that’s why Honda continues to pursue the Hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle and other products that leave as low of a carbon footprint as possible and yet keeps the racing spirit!

    1. Ron Grable

      I see you’re developing good reading habits. Send me an email.

      1. Erika

        Hi Ron,
        I am researching for the photographer Linda Weldon drivers from the 60’s, and 70’s for a book she printed of her photographs, which she included you in. If you could provide me with your DOB, Years Raced, Nationality and Major Accomplishments, I would love to include it on the book website.

        Thank you!


  7. Clyde

    This article just seems to me to be “more of the same”. nothing we don’t already know.
    Only mention of nuclear is fission technology with it’s ugly waste products–not one word of fusion technology! This is probably the only thing that will save our planet & give us cheap, abundant clean electricity.
    And make no mistake electricity is our only long term option to petroleum.
    I agree we need to move FAST. Because if we wait until there is only one barrel of oil left in the world, electricity will save our auto/ground transportation problem, but most people do not know or understand that petroleum is the main raw material for plastics, tires, and all types of synthetics. Electricity will not solve that problem.
    Also the allusion that racing is the lab for improvements in the auto world
    is also barking up the wrong tree. All racing does is try to figure out how to go from point A to point B faster. Sorry it does nothing to look for future new alternative methods of propulsion. Clyde

  8. Clay Filson

    John, You continue to push the automotive literary envelope again! Well said. It is again time to stir the pot regarding the productive opportunities that racing can provide the world in response to the development of new technology.
    I agree wholeheartedly in your assesment of motorsports today and how it has lost its role as a place to spearhead new technology. With the increasingly restrictive regulations placed on existing technology and the increase in spec type programs why don’t they open up the arena into advancing automotive technology on a level that will ultimately benefit the consumer? In the past there were classes at LeMans that rewarded effiiciency based on displacement and performance – why not now?
    The reality is that mankind would have never gotten to the moon if a hard date for the endeavor was not put on the calendar and resources allocated accordingly. It is time to set a date and present a challenge to the industry.

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