The Trouble with Conservation

Again, energy issues capture the headlines and again we see a call for fuel conservation. Isn’t it amazing how often we return round about back to where we’ve started–with no real change or action to be seen?

During the past year–as we were hit by $3 a gallon at the pumps–I noticed a strange phenomenon. Despite casualties and mayhem in the Mideast, as I drove around town, it seemed that traffic was not easing up. People didn’t slow down, in fact, I think drivers got testier. Racing to the next red light is still an American past-time. Maybe it’s the continual stream of bad news in the tabloid media. Maybe we’re all just collectively burned out. Who can tell anymore? What I experienced are angrier, speedier drivers. So as the price of oil rose, people didn’t slow down.

I have to admit, I feel guilty. So, I drive less–try to work from home one day a week and better schedule my meets. Yet as I accelerated a little slower and tried to go just the speed limit, only more irritable drivers seemed to be in my wake. Does national crankiness effect gas consumption?

Auto industry news seems to bear out the realities of lackluster gas mileage. Toyota up, GM down. Honda sales brisk, Ford tanking. CalCars.org is pushing the Plug-In Hybrid and tons of news stream from the auto shows about new technology, but can you make people buy things that are better for them? Are McDonald’s and Wendy’s sales up or down on their fruity new menus? Can voluntary conservation every gain any real ground?

Starting to see actual progress, as the market starts to respond and demand more efficient product from Detroit and Aichi (Japan), will anything really change this time around? Can a desire to consume less petrol really take root–or is it just another cycle we’re going through?

As prices at the pump drop back down to $2.19 will we forget the reasons why we started considering buying that Corolla or will we buy one–and be grumpy about it? Can a spirit of conservation ever really take root or are we just spinning our wheels again? I’d love to see a real alternative.

How far is your commute? Mine is a twenty minute stop and go, race to the next red light ordeal through ever busier suburbia and strip mall heaven that is Central Florida. I put about 7,000 miles a year on my Honda with speed limits from 30-45mph. Granted, I’m probably not the average commuter, but ZennCars, focused on urban markets with tight city streets and way too many people, might just have a much wider market with people like me. We still have the minivan for Scout meets and soccer practice, but my use sure doesn’t require a Ford F150 to get to work.

I think most people buy a new car for emotional reasons. As we shopped for a Kia Soul, the finance guy, wanting to upsell me, said that the car I drive is connected to my image. I replied that if I wanted to feel good about myself, I’d go buy a golden retriever.

I bought a car based on its utility. I wanted, not needed, something newer, because I didn’t wanted to be spending my time with auto mechanics or on rockauto.com. My twenty year old Honda was at the end of it’s life cycle.

But I bet most buyers agree with the image issue. Too bad I can’t afford the Audi R8 that I imagine fits my self-image. All in all, a new car is a horrible financial decision for most. Lucky for the auto industry that we still buy into advertising and marketing. The Kia guy was not amused with my response, by the way.

Maybe we really are seeing a point in history where we can conserve and get our world off oil addiction. An electric car might just be in all of our futures, but we will see.


Visit calcars.org for info on Plug-In hybrids, cars that use gas, but plug-in and recharge, getting the first 20-40 miles all battery-powered.

Post facto: Wow, Cal-Cars still has a website, though I’m not sure it’s changed since I wrote this article in January of 2007. Hybrids have proven to be more viable and I see them on the road all the time. Tesla is very popular, though I’d bet ego was the driver for most of their purchases.

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