The balance between the individual desire and the collective benefit

As Joel Achenbah's lede in this article so aptly points out, these are rough times for the American car industry. His proof? Daimler just sold Chrysler for a fraction of the original purchase price, President Bush wants to regulate tailpipe emissions, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced new low-carbon fuel standard and gas prices don't stop rising.
All the while, Detroit continues producing trucks, SUVs and large sedans. In spite of the cool aspect of owning a hybrid or an electric car, Americans love keeping their fast, sexy, high-performance cars that are synonymous with suburban sprawl. There are, of course, initiatives set to downsize vehicles and make them more efficient but whether they'll be effective isn't all that clear, Achenbah says.

Big cars mean higher profits. American car companies are not likely to potentiate tiny, fuel-efficient cars. It looks like all investment has gone into performance and not fuel efficienly. "The transportation sector has been the least creative sector in our society," says Dan Sperling, a professor at the University of California at Davis who helped write California's new fuel standards.

[Source: Joel Achenbah from the Washington Post]

Everybody now is trying to figure how to combine the need for greener cars while keeping profits and "consumer choice". In one hand, we can think about biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and new materials. In the other hand, it seems that maket alone won't keep us away from oil addiction (and reduce tailpipe emissions). Maybe politicians should intervene with regulation but that's a difficult balance between what's desirable and atainable. The real story, therefore, is how to deal with the tension between private desires and the public interest.

The thing is that "we're not going to see huge changes in 10 or 15 years," says Marc Ross, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Michigan. "You can't really change the fuel in that kind of time span. It takes time. It takes huge investments. We have almost 200,000 gas stations. The only fuel you could change in a time like 10 or 15 years is to add ethanol, to adopt a mixture that can be served from the same gas pumps. But if you want to do something different, like hydrogen - hydrogen is very difficult to handle - that's going to take a great deal of time."

It has calculated that every time gas prices jump 10 percent, the demand drops, at most, only 1 percent. The policy implication: Gas taxes won't help curb demand as much as you may think, and Europe is an example: european cars are also bigger and SUVs sell there quite well (albeit with diesel engines).

This debate about the Car of the Future means also a debate on the health of our planet. "By 2050, the number of vehicles in the world is expected to go up by a factor of three," says John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at MIT. "That should scare you. It scares me."

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