Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Car of the Future: So Many Options, So Little Time
We don’t have a love affair with cars—we’re obsessed with them. The automobile is that teenage crush that still haunts you, that illicit love affair from which no good could come, that harsh consort teasing you with promises of unbridled vitality and sex appeal—at a price, of course.

In my case, it was a ’75 Pontiac Firebird Esprit—black with a metallic sparkle underpainting and over the canopy silver and gold striping, powered by a tricked out 350 cubic inch V8 with a four-barrel carb. Its rumble spoke volumes about the nature of masculine power. Its exterior made it a chick magnet. It didn’t matter to me that I paid nearly $200 a month (in 1975) to attract all that attention. Even though I had a perfect driving record (mainly because I was never nabbed for racing), and my insurance rates rose as the car was reclassified as a sports car, I was happy in the knowledge that this was the closest I was ever going to get to the Batmobile.

But my beloved Firebird averaged only about 15 mpg, and it wasn’t even equipped with an afterburner. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing from the 49 cents a gallon I was used to—hovering at nearly a dollar a gallon-- and insurance costs weren’t decreasing, either. The ‘Bird and I reluctantly parted ways, but the memory of the times we shared still hold a special place in my heart.

Some thirty-odd years later, my passion for fast, cool cars hasn’t waned a whit. It’s tempered, though, with awareness that over 800 million fossil fuel-breathing dragons prowling this planet’s highways can’t go unchecked forever. NOVA: Car of the Future, airing on PBS beginning Earth Day, 22 April (check your local listings) looks at the challenges confronting the automotive industry, and consumers as a whole, in the quest for efficient alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Besides being vastly informative, it’s also hugely entertaining.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, hosts of NPR’s Car Talk series, frame the show as a quest to replace Tom’s beloved, but somewhat dilapidated, 1952 MG Roadster. Appropriately enough, a global road trip of sorts finds them exploring the future of the automobile, and more specifically, what will power it. Their journey moves from the traditional (the Detroit Auto Show) to the innovative (Iceland’s experiments with hydrogen-powered public transportation) to the explorative (the Tesla electric-powered sports car) and back again to the garage where it began. It’s sort of a magical mystery tour that explores the history of our love affair with the car while raising a brow or two about the consequences of that dalliance., John Lithgow

Hi-jinks alone do not a documentary make, of course, so Car of the Future balances out one-liner sarcasm, such as the ludicrousness of a 500+ horsepower Mustang, with somber narration delivered by John Lithgow, who points out that that the current number of cars on the road now would circle the Earth 1½ times, and that ratio is growing. That’s only a springboard, though. The show focuses more on alternatives than past mistakes. It’s interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields. David Greene, of Oak Ridge Laboratories, talks about the implications of the hydrocarbon footprint. Martin Eberhard demonstrates his Tesla prototype, an all- electric vehicle with a 250 mile range on a single charge, and capable of 0-60 in 4 seconds. Other experts, from diverse organizations ranging from environmental think tanks to General Motors, explore a multitude of options available as we wean ourselves from oil. They also delve into the problems those alternatives present.

In the end, Car of the Future poses more questions than answers. The future of the car is not uncertain—it’s only how it will change in a new environment. It’s an issue in which we all have a stake. To that end, PBS has a companion website to the show: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/car/production/ in which the public is invited to share their ideas about the automobile’s future.

There’s always going to be a place for Firebirds and MG’s. They’re just going to look a little different, and be a whole lot more efficient. We’ll all be driving Batmobiles someday.