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The Road Ahead

Can wise policy -- and high fuel prices -- curb our love affair with the automobile?

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better

Christopher Steiner

Grand Central Publishing, 288 pp., $24.99

Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability

Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon

Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $24.95

In July 1964, when I was 5, my parents, two siblings, and I piled into my dad's beloved Ford Galaxie 500 and drove 1,200 miles from our home in Des Moines, Iowa, to New York City to attend the World's Fair. I remember IBM's spectacular rising movie theater, the tire-shaped Ferris wheel emblazoned with "U S Royal Tires," the almost frighteningly lifelike Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. Best of all, to my 5-year-old's eyes, was General Motors' Futurama exhibit -- a slow ride through a series of giant dioramas showing what life would be like in the future. There were scenes of busy astronauts plying the moon in lunar rovers, an undersea world where trains of submarines ferried people to a glass-walled hotel on the ocean floor, and rugged mountains crisscrossed by wide ribbons of superhighway. The grand finale was a vast, sparkling City of Tomorrow, where Jetson-like pod buildings, impossibly tall skyscrapers, and what seemed to me like hundred-lane freeways commingled in an urban utopia teeming with vehicles -- the majority, no doubt, made by GM.

In the mid-1960s, as for most of the twentieth century, GM was the largest company in the world's premier industry. Today, almost half a century later, its future is uncertain as it struggles to survive after emerging from bankruptcy. Two new books, $20 Per Gallon by Christopher Steiner and Two Billion Cars by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, offer portraits of a post-GM Futurama. What will life be like when gasoline prices rise to roughly seven times their present level, or when the planet's vehicle population doubles? Both scenarios will inevitably come to pass, the authors assert. And yet they spin starkly different, even mutually exclusive, versions of the future. One book is jauntily optimistic, striking a tone of utopian triumphalism. The other describes, in dense detail, a daunting uphill battle that must be waged if the world is to avoid vehicular suicide. Which version of the future will prove more accurate over the coming decades?

It's tempting to choose $20 Per Gallon. In it, Steiner (a writer for Forbes magazine with degrees in civil engineering and journalism) performs "a thought experiment on the what-ifs of high gas prices." Taking peak oil -- the notion that world oil production is at or near its all-time high -- as a given, he offers what he calls "the next step in the conversation." The book's eight chapters buck the convention of sequential numbering. Instead, they are labeled with gas-price levels and their projected consequences, such as "Chapter $6: Society Change and the Dead SUV," "Chapter $8: The Skies Will Empty," and so on at $2 intervals, up to "Chapter $20: The Future of Energy."

The implications of rising gasoline prices pervade every aspect of our lives, Steiner notes. Just about everything will cost more, but that's actually a good thing, he says. In fact, there's almost no environmental or political ill that escalating gas prices won't solve. The era of the SUV, which roared to life in the 1990s when gas prices dipped below $1 a gallon, skidded to a crawl at $4 and will end for good at $6. Higher gas prices means that motorists will drive fewer miles, leading to lower highway fatality rates. A price increase from $4 per gallon to $6 would save 4,000 American lives a year, he calculates. Air pollution would decrease, saving more lives, and the obesity rate would decline, since people tend to walk and bicycle more when they drive less.

Steiner occasionally offers predictions so specific that they strain credulity. He goes so far as to list the order in which the major airlines will go out of business when gas prices hit $8 a gallon (first US Airways, then United, then Delta/Northwest) and which Las Vegas resorts will close as a result of declining long-distance tourism (Good-bye, Circus Circus! Farewell, Flamingo!).

He makes up for his hyperventilated prose with vivid episodes of on-scene reporting. Near the beginning of "Chapter $10: The Car Diminished but Reborn," he describes the day he spent wearing a brown uniform and riding along with United Parcel Service driver Rene Lindain as he completed his daily delivery route in downtown Manhattan. Lindain's truck looks like any other UPS van, but it's completely battery powered -- one of two plug-in electric vehicles the company has been testing in New York City for more than four years.

Steiner gives little attention to the hardships that higher prices for food, heat, transportation, and just about everything else will impose on the segment of the population that benefits most from the "always low prices" at Wal-Mart. (The retail giant will die, he predicts, when its petroleum-dependent business model collapses as gas prices reach $14 per gallon.) A deeper problem with his neatly structured argument is that it's based on the assumption that oil prices will ratchet upward in an orderly, stepwise climb. The reality is likely to be far messier, if the recent past is any indicator. The price per gallon of regular gasoline jumped from less than $3 in early 2008 to more than $4 in June, then plummeted below $2 in November. By mid-2009, it was rising toward the $3 mark again. This kind of volatility puts the brakes on investments in greener alternatives, like mass transit or electric vehicles. Without the consistent threat of high energy prices coupled with strong policy interventions, visions like Steiner's -- of a world that's been peacefully weaned of oil before irreparable environmental damage has been done -- are science fiction.

That's the sobering message of Two Billion Cars, which is to $20 Per Gallon what An Inconvenient Truth is to Lost Horizon. Far from heading toward a green Shangri-la of abandoned superhighways, civilization is hurtling toward a disastrous doubling of its motorized vehicle count by 2020, Sperling and Gordon argue. Can the planet sustain this many cars, trucks, buses, scooters, and motorcycles? The authors answer with an unequivocal no -- at least not if the second billion employ the same technologies and follow the same growth patterns that produced the first billion.

The book's co-authors have impeccable policy-wonk credentials. Sperling is a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis; he heads the university's Institute of Transportation Studies and serves on the California Air Resources Board. Gordon once worked as a chemical engineer at Chevron; more recently, she has served as a policy consultant for the National Commission on Energy Policy and the California Energy Commission. Their collaboration has produced a formidably dense, detailed survey of motor-vehicle technologies and fuels, past and future.

In the process, Sperling and Gordon deliver a withering indictment of corn ethanol and the powerful lobby that has assured it a prominent place in U.S. energy policy. Corn ethanol, they contend, "is expensive and provides little or no environmental benefit. The only societal benefit is a small reduction in oil imports but gained at a huge cost." That cost includes billions of dollars' worth of annual subsidies (more than $5 billion in 2006 alone, and growing). If a subsidy of this magnitude were made available more broadly, they write, lower-carbon alternative fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, as well as hydrogen fuel cells and batteries for plug-in hybrids, would actually be competitive with gasoline.

Given the harsh scrutiny they devote to corn ethanol, Sperling and Gordon are surprisingly upbeat about the prospects of a hydrogen-based transportation economy. Even the cheapest way to make hydrogen today is to extract it from natural gas, an inefficient and expensive process and one that relies on a fossil fuel. (That's one reason why the Obama administration drastically cut funding for hydrogen fuel-cell research from the Department of Energy budget.) It seems strange, too, that Sperling and Gordon barely mention alternatives like mass transit or high-speed rail. They seem intent on finding ways to reinvent vehicles so that two billion of them would not impose an unsustainable burden on the earth, rather than, say, rendering those vehicles both undesirable and unnecessary.

They devote a chapter to California's efforts to create a low-carbon energy and transportation system. Another chapter focuses on the need to spark innovation in China, which, if it follows the American car-centric model of development, could "by itself add another billion cars in the twenty-first century." China's sheer size and economic weight ensure that it will have enormous sway over global environmental and energy dynamics in the decades to come. Will it seize the opportunity to exercise heroic leadership, or succumb to forces leading it in the opposite direction?

The same could be asked of the rest of the developed world. The United States, as much as China, must reverse the momentum of past indiscretions and move in a fundamentally new direction. "Must" is easy to say, though. What are the stepping-stones? Two Billion Cars ends with a laundry list of policy prescriptions that the authors believe could nudge the United States toward their imagined version of Futurama, one that depicts a world of sustainable transportation options in 2050.

It's clear from their analysis that a blind faith in the salutary effects of higher oil prices won't get us there. Energy markets are too convoluted and irrational, and the technology of extracting more oil from existing fields is advancing too rapidly, to rely on the invisible hand of peak oil to reverse the forces causing climate change. One policy recommendation Sperling and Gordon make is to set a price floor for gasoline and diesel fuel. Doing so would "send clear price signals to consumers and industry, stimulate additional investment and innovations," and, as a side benefit, generate revenue that could be used for clean-energy R&D and investments in new mobility options.

Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's oil minister for more than two decades, is reputed to have said in the 1970s, "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil." Books like $20 Per Gallon and Two Billion Cars offer some hope that Sheikh Yamani's prediction might turn out to be right.

image of Craig Canine
OnEarth contributing editor Craig Canine lives in Washington State.  He enjoys riding the Amtrak Cascades (but wishes it were a tad faster).