What do you call a politician who supports incentives to buy and drive fuel-efficient vehicles, even if they happen to be made in Japan? One can easily imagine Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California curling his lips and referring to such a goody-goody colleague as, well, a girlie man. Schwarzenegger, it will come as no surprise, prefers the gas-guzzling behemoths known as Hummers, which are based on an armor-clad vehicle designed to carry soldiers into battle.
But as it happens, the politician who is trying to encourage fuel efficiency is, in fact, manly man Arnold Schwarzenegger. Can it be? Is it possible that with the good governor’s blessing, automobile buyers may now consider little things like fuel efficiency and not be dismissed as politically correct, cheese-eating, French-speaking liberals?
Apparently it is. With the governor’s support, the California legislature recently passed a bill that would allow owners of hybrid automobiles to use the state’s car pool lanes, even if they are driving alone. California has more than 1,000 miles of car pool lanes, and plans to add another 1,000 in the near future. For many motorists, access to those fast-moving lanes is something just short of a dream come true.
So when California’s legislators and its governor decided to bestow car pool lane privileges on the owners of hybrid vehicles, it was a sure sign that the power brokers in Sacramento want to encourage the use of these cleaner, greener people-moving machines.
Guess which American city despises California’s good intentions? That’s right - Detroit, the home of the American automobile industry, or what’s left of it. Once the Japanese and other foreign competitors began providing consumers with alternatives to such memorable products as the Pinto, the Gremlin and the Falcon in the 1970’s, Detroit just hasn’t been the same.
American car companies see the California bill as a threat because, wouldn’t you know, the top makers of hybrid vehicles are, yes, Toyota and Honda. The California bill specifies that hybrids, which run on gasoline and electricity generated by a battery, must get at least 45 miles per gallon to gain coveted access to the car pool lanes. Only Toyota and Honda make such vehicles.
The Ford Motor Company protested that its new hybrid, a sport utility vehicle that will get 31 miles per gallon, will be excluded, and that the bill therefore favors Japanese cars at the expense of American-made hybrids. The problem, of course, is obvious: Ford is building an S.U.V., and the Japanese companies are building cars. If Ford wants to compete with the Toyota Prius or the Honda Civic Hybrid (which I’ve driven and intend to make my next car), then it should build a car and not another S.U.V.
The California bill will require permission from the federal Department of Transportation, and it would be sound fiscal policy not to bet the mortgage that such permission will be granted, especially if the Bush administration and its oilmen remain in place. Four years into this administration, and a quarter-century since the last gas crisis, Washington has just about given up on the idea of fuel efficiency. The proliferation of S.U.V.’s that get a dozen miles to a gallon demonstrates that Americans simply do not care about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
You’d have thought that drivers of a certain age would remember with some bitterness the era of odd and even days for gas purchases and long lines at the pump. You’d think even the young would understand that our dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf places us in an untenable position, and that the more oil we consume, the more we are liable to be held hostage by oil-producing regimes. Surely we have not forgotten who has attacked us, and whence they came.
As I write this, a radio announcer is telling me that the cost of a barrel of oil has hit $50 and price hikes at the pump are inevitable. Equally inevitable, as the presidential election nears its climax, will be the screams of rage from the S.U.V.-buying public as they discover the cost of their indulgence.
Perhaps the public outcry, however unjustifieddo we as a nation really have a right to complain about high gasoline prices if half our vehicles are S.U.V.’s?will prompt an actual debate over energy policy. Thus far, I’ve not heard much, if anything, from the two candidates about how they would protect our national security by reducing our dependence on oil.
Addressing that issue, however, requires the telling of unpleasant truths. It means telling us that we have been on an immoral binge over the last dozen years, a binge that was aided and abetted by American car makers and members of Congress who exempted S.U.V.’s from fuel efficiency standards.
Telling the truth about the real price of oil would require a candidate to bring up unpleasant topics like this nation’s dubious relationship with Saudi Arabia, homehave we forgotten?to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.
The buyers of Explorers, Navigators, Suburbans and Hummers need to be reminded that they cannot evade responsibility for their actions. Their choices have consequences: they make us more dependent on a politically unstable and decidedly unfriendly part of the world; they contribute to pollution; and they are a danger to drivers who have made, yes, more intelligent decisions.
Why do I think neither candidate will say anything remotely like this? Then again, if they do, at least they don’t have to worry about a certain governor calling them girlie men.