The automobile is an invention that has greatly changed our lives in just one century. It has also become an integral part of modern-day society. We are deeply entrenched in the automobile culture as living standard gradually rises across the world. Are we master or slave of the automobile? We are definitely slave because of our heavy dependence on it. However, we can be master again if we can liberate ourselves from oil that fuels the auto. The critical factor of oil has two components: price and pollution. The former is purely economic that changes consumption habits quickly. The latter has subtle but broad consequences that take time to make people change.
Although the era of cheap oil officially ended in 1973 when OPEC began raising prices, the automobile culture lives on due to three main reasons: First, the private car is a convenient door-to-door transport. Second, the private car provides a sense of individual freedom for traveling over long distances. Third, an infrastructure of roads, suburbs, shopping centers, and various industries have developed in response to the private car. These three factors are now inextricably linked.
The industrialized countries were the first beneficiaries of cheap oil, especially America which took pride in being the biggest producer and consumer of automobiles until recently. While I was in college when gasoline cost 25 cents a gallon in 1970, most students with a part-time job could afford a second-hand big and heavy car. We drove 30 miles to buy a pack of Coke just for the fun of it. Things have changed a lot since then. Nowadays, gasoline costs around $4 a gallon and rising. America could no longer afford to waste oil. China has overtaken the US as the largest auto market. The big and heavy cars have disappeared, being replaced mostly by fuel-efficient imports from Japan, Europe and lately South Korea. America’s auto industry has gone through tremendous upheavals with loss of jobs in the millions. But the auto culture lives on, only in a miserly fashion regarding gasoline consumption.
The auto culture has changed in many ways as influenced by the price of gasoline. Nevertheless, one fact still remains. The number of cars in the world continues to increase to over one billion today, mainly due to rising living standards in populous countries like China and India. As a result, global oil consumption increases despite cars burn less fuel individually. Therefore, fuel efficiency can only take us so far. We need new technologies to free us from the bondage of oil and the slavery of the auto.
Some people advocate employing drastic measures such as high taxes or banning private cars. These are effective methods that can kill the auto culture. However, no politician has the guts to even talk about it except a dictator. Despite rising prices, people still want to own a private car for the three reasons I’ve described earlier. It’s more than a car culture that has taken roots. It’s a love affair with the automobile. What can be done?
Since we have alternative energy already available, why not stimulate its development faster? In this way, the world can move on to a new era of transport full of fresh opportunities rather than being slave-stuck to the present oil economy. Electrification of the private car is the key to the future of transportation because cars consume most of the oil produced. Electrification has produced impressive results in railroads as proven by the bullet train. Electricity is opening a new era where fuel is generated by renewable sources to replace the burning of oil.
The hybrid Prius was the first attempt by Toyota to bring in the electric motor to supplement a smaller gasoline engine, thereby reducing oil consumption by more than half. The plug-in hybrid was later introduced for longer electrical driving range, and to take advantage of solar electricity generated in private homes. During the first quarter of 2013, the Prius has finally captured the title of the bestselling car in trend-setting California. Its popularity has encouraged a wave of different hybrid models produced by other car companies.
Fully electric cars are also well received by consumers despite the limited driving range of around 100 miles. Nissan was the first to introduce the medium-price Leaf while Tesla Motors in California produces the Model S for wealthier buyers. Although the electric car market looks hopeful, there is a long way to go until the battery industry comes up with a lighter and less expensive product that provides a longer driving range comparable to the gasoline car.
The new technology will no doubt take us where we want to go. The question is how fast. It depends on how powerful is the oil industry that is doing its best to prevent oil from phasing out. This explains why electrification of the private car is facing strong headwind, especially in America. The road to alternative energy is littered with failed companies unable to overcome various obstacles and handicaps. In view of the strong opposition by the private oil industry, what can be done to overcome this hurdle? It comes down to the government, which has the power to break the barrier unless it is corrupted by private oil money as is the case in the United States.
The world is now watching the actions of the Chinese government. Being majority owner of all major industries, the Chinese government is able to exert heavy influence on their developments. Furthermore, as a latecomer to the industrialized world, China’s oil industry is less entrenched relatively speaking. Therefore it has insufficient power to obstruct renewable energy that may replace it someday. Since all major industries compete on equal footing for public support, the Chinese government is able to formulate industrial policies in an objective manner for a better future.
In the current Chinese economic plan (2011-15), seven strategic industries are singled out as national priority. They include: information technology, environmental protection, new energy, biology, high-end equipment manufacturing, new materials, and last but not least, new-energy cars specifically. Despite the private nature of the auto market, the Chinese communist government has seized the initiative to develop new energy cars. They have chosen not to clamp down on the capitalistic automobile culture, but to steer it away from dependence on oil. Because China is now the top auto market in the world, what the government does regarding cars will have tremendous impacts across the globe. Already, the government has boosted its solar and wind industries to the status of top world producers. They are pursuing the same goal for electric cars and batteries. Although this may not guarantee success, at least the Chinese government has made a national priority to steer the car culture away from gasoline.