Your car or your life

                                                                      

Jack Benny, the comedian, told the story about being accosted by an armed robber who growled ” Your money or your life” several times. Jack, who played well the role of a notorious cheapskate apparently responded slowly: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”.

Cars play an important role in our society today such that many people would have to think long and hard before letting go of their chosen car that is almost a member of the family. But it wasn’t that way in the beginning. A model T Ford sold for $265 in1925, which is like $3000 today – quite a bargain! A 20hp engine provided a top speed of 72 kilometers per hour and fuel efficiency of roughly 8 liters per 100 km. A trip to town by horse and carriage from the family farm could take all day traveling at a stately pace of 6 kilometers per hour so the Model T was a big hit with everyone.

The Model T provided very basic transportation. In contrast, today’s vehicles offer reliability, comfort, and features that are light-years better but the average car costs over $25,000. To sell us on this enormous expense, advertising is omnipresent with beautiful women draped over the hood of the vehicles, convincing us that we need 300 hp, the biggest payload or toughest truck on the planet. Only recently after $75 / barrel oil does mileage ratings start to seep into ads. Does Detroit know that world oil production is expected to decline as early as five years or perhaps in 15 years? The effect of not getting quite enough oil out of the ground to feed growing world demand is certain to push gas prices to uncomfortable levels.

Looking towards Europe may show us a glimpse of our future with high gas prices. Gas prices there are presently $1.75 a liter (artificially high as the result of taxes). That is $80 for a small 45-liter tank. Their government’s decision has created a demand for fuel-efficient cars. 50% of new car sales have diesel motors, which provide 40% better mileage ratings. These fuel-efficient cars produce roughly half of the CO2 of North American cars. I have driven a Ford Focus diesel in France and it performs well. But neither the Ford Focus nor Ranger truck diesel is available in Canada. I wonder why not?

The New Brunswick government has talked about energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gases so what will be the real story in the budget on March 13? Citizens have been requested to provide suggestions on priorities for the budget process by March 2nd.

Naturally, I have several suggestions that may be of interest:

Remove the HST on new cars that have excellent mileage, say less than 8 liters per 100 km (City rating). To pay for this we would have to reinstall the 3.8 cents per liter gas tax that was recently removed. This tax put $55 million per year into provincial coffers annually. There are roughly 33,000 vehicles sold in New Brunswick each year at an average $25,000. If 45% decide to buy a fuel-efficient vehicle, then the cost would be $52 million. Change the system of vehicle registration.  An alternative way to encourage good choices for the environment is the setting of registration fees for new vehicles based on their mileage rating. High fuel rating would mean a high annual registration cost. Low fuel rating cars would get an annual rebate at registration. No car or truck is prohibited, just encouraged or discouraged by the use of incentives. To be fair, this system would only affect new vehicles. Some would like to see the manufacturers slowly increase their fuel ratings on vehicles. Frankly, we don’t have the time to wait.

Reducing the highway speed limit.  This measure would reduce fuel consumption by 10% for highway driving. If highway mileage is assumed to be 50% of all miles driven, then the actual saving is 5% of transportation fuel. A secondary benefit is reduced accidents and accident severity.

Stop spending major capital dollars on highways such as twinning route 1 or 7. The era of the private automobile is coming to an end within twenty years and perhaps less. It makes no sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on roads that will be of little use in 20 years. We will need efficient means of public transport between the centers of the province. Rail can serve that purpose.If you ask 10 people whether gas and diesel fuel prices will become unaffordable within 10 years, most will refuse to believe it. Fuel-efficient cars are a short-term fix to ease the pain. Increased public transport is required but will not help everyone. By the time that everyone sees the problem it will be too late.As world oil production declines, prices will rise. Cars will become more efficient. Less fuel will be refined. Renewable energy will replace oil and natural gas electricity generation. Electric cars will be developed. Will we succeed in making the change from an oil-based economy? It seems unlikely at the pace of change now being proposed. 

There is a large disconnect between the “business as usual”  crowd who constantly need more development to keep the economy revving and those who see an end to our resources and want to adjust for a changing world. There are industrialists who talk about sustainable development and the environment but refuse to discuss CO2 emission reduction and think there is no end to world oil resources. How long shall we continue to travel on the economic yellow brick road? Perhaps the political breaking point will be when the majority of us can’t afford to drive our cars and we really ask ourselves how we got into this mess.

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