Is the automobile a bad thing or is it just the fuel? My answer to this question is "yes."
Environmentalists can give you a litany of issues brought on by the automobile from pristine land degradation to air polution to global warming. I'm not going to get into that debate here really, except to say that I do believe it has done a lot of damage as well as facilitated a lot of good. More importantly for the moment, it is unlikely the personal automobile is going to go away soon, and to repeat my personal situation, we aren't giving ours up any time soon.
Sure, we could have more public transportation, and that would probably be a good thing. But, the automobile is too convenient to just go away without a serious world change. Perhaps Peak Oil and all its problems will do it, but I don't think so. Personally, I think the automobile is here as long as humans are.
As I wrote in the last blog, even before the automobile, people of means had wagons or carriages, and some even had rail cars. The truly amazing thing is that in the USA, virtually everybody who wants a car can get one. That's empowerment if ever there was such a thing.
The more pressing problem, in my mind, is the fuel source for the auto, namely gasoline. And what are the problems with that? Well, ok there again is the environmental side which is an issue for another discussion. The bigger problem is where the fuel comes from, and that is not here.
The accompanying graph shows the amount of petroleum supplied since 1949 (light-blue line). These data from from the EIA site at DOE and were from the last Annual Energy Review.
Post WWII, the USA pumped most of its own oil (dark blue). However since the mid-to-late 1980s, our dependence on foreign sources has been steadily increasing (yellow line).
This graph tells many things. It shows the peak in the domestic USA oil production in 1970 (as predicted in the late 1950s by M.King Hubbert), and the peak in Alaskan oil in 1988 (purple line). It has been downhill for domestic production ever since, and despite what the news may tell you, the deepwater Gulf of Mexico oil won't get us back. It could replace Alaskan oil, maybe, but that appears to be about it. Exactly where this foreign oil is coming from and where it is expected to come in the future is an interesting story in itself, and I'll try to post that too.
Another interesting part of this graph are the peaks in consumption in 1973 (the Arab Oil Embargo), in 1978 (the Iranian crisis), and what may be another peak in 2004. The 2005 data are preliminary, but it looks like 2005 and 2006 have less usage than prior years. We can call this the Hurricane Katrina shortage, although that is a bit of a simplification.
A significant fraction of the decline in petroleum supplied post-1978 were demand destruction caused by the federally mandated fuel economy (CAFE) standards and also a significant reduction in the use of oil for electricity production. My take on that aspect is that yes, conservation worked, for it bought us some time, but it hasn't fixed the problem, and we are now more vulnerable to a foreign source disruption (or Peak-Oil for that matter) than ever before.
What we need is a new fuel source for personal transportation needs. There is a new book called Internal Combustion by Edwin Black, and I recommend it for anyone interested in how we got tied to gasoline. It is an interesting story.
In the meantime, I'm in the camp looking for a different fuel source, and I have become convinced that it resides in electricity or a plug-in hybrid. Ethanol has problems (in the USA), and hydrogen isn't here yet (if it ever gets here), but we could get plug-in hybrids today, for the technology exists and is available. By going that route, we would have a chance in becoming self-sufficient again and help the environment at the same time.
Unfortunately, no large automaker is building plug-in hybrids at the moment. Feeling we needed to do something, we bought Toyota Hybrids. My thoughts on those are coming up.