National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Cars

Since the end of World War II, the private gasoline-powered automobile has become the center of life in America. Our suburbs, commerce, recreation, religion, indeed nearly every imaginable aspect of our lifestyles has been centered around the mobility the ubiquitous, affordable private car has brought us. The lure of the private automobile is not unique to America. There are few other cultures in the world today that are not trying to emulate America as soon as their economic circumstances permit – think China and Russia. There now are about 240 million cars, light trucks, and motorcycles in the U.S. (not to mention another 700 million or so elsewhere in the world). The number is increasing by nearly 4 million each year. Something has got to give.

That something is going to be the affordability and availability of gasoline and diesel for fuel. The problem will be on us within the next five to ten years. When shortages develop and rationing starts, fuel for the private car will be close to the bottom of the priority list along with fuel for lawn mowers, leaf blowers, recreational boats, and my personal favorite as the worst possible use for a precious resource — sky-diving.

So what is going to happen? When? Will we be able to keep our 240 million light vehicles running? If so, how much can we use them? Can we power our cars with something else? Hydrogen? Natural Gas? Electricity? Cow manure? Will we be able to afford the trillions it will take to replace our current fleet of private vehicles or will many of us be riding in carpools, buses and trains? The answer to these and similar questions will do much to determine what our lifestyles will be like 20, 30 and 50 years from now. For the next few weeks I would like to explore possible futures for personal transportation.

Many of the answers are, of course, unknowable for they depend on a complex series of interacting developments around the world. For the last few days we have seen our economic problems take a serious turn for the worse. While some talk of a minor economic correction, those who understand that the world’s energy supplies are starting to shrink know that our current economic troubles could easily develop into decades of very bad times.

The good news, however, is that technology related to energy production, storage and transportation seems to be evolving rapidly. Hardly a week goes by without some firm, university, or laboratory announcing a “breakthrough,” many of which sound like they could be an important part of an eventual replacement for liquid fuels. Naturally, many of these announcements will not pan out and many will be overtaken by something even better. The point is that in the last 20 years there has been a great flowering of technology as more and more minds, connected by the internet, are coming to bear on technical problems. There is hope for life after the oil age.

The end of cheap oil and growing food shortages will come as a real shock, but they also contain within them incentives to find solutions. It is sometimes easy to forget that nearly all our appliances, from the spear tip on, involve some kind of technology. Knowledge of this technology is not going away with our inability to produce increasing quantities of oil. All energy ultimately comes from the sun or the molten earth’s core. The technologies to convert this energy into other more useful forms are already well understood and require only sufficient economic incentive to come into common use. This transformation will be expensive, take decades, but is already well under way.

Timing will be critical to the coming transformation. As a society we in America failed to heed the warning signs of 30 years ago. The penalty for this failure is almost certain to be some very bad times that may be starting already. The great unknown is how fast all the key forces – economic recession, oil depletion, technological developments, and a myriad of geopolitical problems – will come into play and how they will interact over the next 5 to 10 years. But we are going to find out — soon!