National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future Of Our Cars

Within the next ten years the size, shape, efficiency, fuel and numbers of private automobiles is going to undergo a radical change. The nine million barrells of gasoline we currently use in the U.S. each day simply will not be available in the quantities desired at any price. If a transition to a more abundant fuel source than gasoline and diesel does not take place on a widespread basis before the shortages begin, there will be troubles. It is virtually certain that at some point the government will have to impose rationing that will keep functions vital to our society such as food, water, utilities and public safety functioning. The rest of us are going to have to find alternative means of transportation.

The solution to this problem is likely to be a much more diverse set of vehicles and modes of transportation than we have become accustomed to in the last 100 years of the automobile age. Despite their terribly low efficiency, the automobiles we now enjoy are incredibly flexible machines that can take us comfortably and inexpensively down the block or across the country in nearly all kinds of weather. In some forms the personal car could not only carry us, and a goodly number of friends or relatives, but also an incredible amount of stuff. As gasoline has nearly always been cheap and plentiful few gave a second thought to using a 4000 pound vehicle to transport a 150 pound person many miles to buy a pack of cigarettes at who-cares-how-few miles per gallon.

Our options for personal transport in the nearer-than-we-think future are going to be highly dependent on the timing of a number of situations currently developing. For example, if some man-made or natural catastrophe takes away a large portion of our gasoline supply overnight, there would, by definition, be no choice than to cut way back on driving, form car pools and use whatever public transit is available. While it may be a shock to our sensibilities and accustomed lifestyles, loading four to 15 people in a car, SUV or van can provide a lot of passenger-miles for a fraction of the fuel we use today.

It would take a lot of organization and an undreamed amount of inconvenience, but I suspect that gasoline consumption in the U.S. could be cut in half rather quickly if necessary. There are, of course, many uses for gasoline and diesel that would be much more difficult to reduce such as that used to deliver food, support utility maintenance and provide for public safety. When the troubles come, the burden of doing without will fall on our cars and light trucks.

Other scenarios would have our gasoline supply gradually slipping away over a period of years or simply becoming too expensive to allow virtually unlimited use of cars as we do today. If this is the way things turn out, then there will be a race for new power sources and probably shapes for personal cars. For the foreseeable future, the only alternative sources of power for private cars are electricity and compressed natural gas.

There are other candidates to power vehicles, such as hydrogen, compressed air and solar panels and there is no reason why one or more of these might not become viable someday. However, given the current technology, it is likely to be decades before they could come into widespread use. Our remaining candidates require little in the way of technological improvements.

Except for buses, natural gas vehicles are virtually unknown in the U.S. although there are about 7 million of them in operation worldwide. In some South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan, the natural gas powered vehicles make up about 25 percent of the cars on the road. Tehran which must import nearly half of its gasoline recently declared that from here on out cars are to be powered by natural gas in order to reduce reliance on imported gasoline. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

The main reason natural gas hasn’t caught on in the U.S. is that it needs to be stored under pressure in big bottles that take up a lot more space than gasoline for a given range. As long as gasoline was cheap, few were willing to give up a 300+ mile range for 150 miles and trouble finding a place to refuel. Unless you were a really dedicated tree-hugger who felt better driving a car with near zero emissions, then you weren’t about to go to the expense or hassle of owning one.

So what are the prospects for a massive switch to natural gas vehicles? Given the option of natural gas with a few minor drawbacks, or walking, the answer to that is a no-brainer. Where do I buy one? Actually, you can, for Honda recently started selling the natural gas version of its Civic to the general public rather than just to fleets. Don’t run out and order one, however, until you fully understand the limits on the availability of natural gas and how you plan to use it.

As the price of imported gasoline goes off the scale, there is no reason why American Industry can’t start cranking out large quantities of natural gas powered cars, kits to convert existing cars, and natural gas compressing pumps to create fuel either at home or filling stations.

The big show stopper is whether we will have enough natural gas supply to heat our homes and water, make our fertilizer and generate enough electricity for our air conditioners, much less power some fraction of our 230 million cars. The answer is a resounding NO! U.S. natural gas production has been flat for years and the only way we can keep it that way is by drilling more and more gas wells each year. Our friends in Canada just announced that their natural gas production, read exports to the U.S., is about to start declining. While it sounds like a great idea, we are not going to have enough natural gas and can clearly find better uses for that which remains.