Fooling With the Future

The DoubleThink is really piling up fast.   In last Friday’s New York Times, the illustrious Fareed Zakaria, star of a corporate news show with “GPS” in its title, published “How Will We Fuel the Future?”, a review of The Quest, the new tome by oil-industry front-man Daniel Yergin.  Yergin, of course, minimizes the nearness and severity of Peak Oil and takes it as an axiom that capitalists are soon going to be selling the automobiles that transcend it.  How?  Yergin doesn’t say — because he can’t say — because it is a physical impossibility.  Profitable as it has been to capitalists, relying on intricate 3,000-pound machines as the primary means of everyday locomotion for significant segments of the human population is inherently and radically unsustainable, given the physical properties of planet Earth.

So, how does Mr. GPS review Yergin’s book?  While lecturing about “the need for lucid thinking” on all sides, here is Zakaria’s conclusion:

The steam engine, the automobile, the computer, the Internet are all miracles.  We need something on that order in energy — and fast.

Might the reign of the automobile, despite the miracle talk, be incompatible with any kind of decent human future?  That possibility, despite the screamingly basic facts of the matter, remains literally unmentionable in the mainstream media.  Some miracles are just way too important to the sponsoring class.

Of Asymptotes and Asininity

prius-in-the-sky Led by Stepin Fetchit Obama, the overclass has just concluded another round of MPG charades. This time, they have reached a “deal” purportedly “requiring” car capitalists’ new-vehicle fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Given Big Money’s de facto ownership of politics in the United States, this is essentially an act of self-policing, so, of course, this “deal” is next to meaningless. As Automotive News reports, there already are two yawning loopholes.


The Detroit 3 won a major exemption for their highly profitable full-sized pickups. The administration’s corporate average fuel economy proposal, details of which still must be worked out, would exempt full-sized pickups from any fuel economy increases from the 2017 model year through the 2019 model year, automotive representatives said.


Even for regular passenger cars, “the plan for 5 percent annual increases could be changed if a midcourse review, planned to begin in 2018, determines that it would adversely affect industry costs and vehicles sales.”

The main point of the whole endeavor, in the opinion of DbC, is actually not any kind of serious public control over miles-per-gallon. MPG is going to increase with or without any such “deals,” given the realities of Peak Oil. The real point of this kabuki is perpetuating a key mis-perception of reality: the notion that the energy efficiency of automobiles is merely a matter of human intentions and political checks-and-balances. Could MPG ever be 100, 200, 300, 500, 1,000? “Sure, if only the conservatives would wake up and smell the coffee, yes.” That’s the intended message for greens and liberals.

Of course, as DbC has always maintained, like everything else in the known universe, automobiles are subject to the laws of physics. As such, 3,000-pound metal boxes carrying humans at highway speeds can only ever get so efficient. Indeed, after a century of intensive corporate R&D and lavish public subsidy, it is DbC‘s position that existing cars are much closer to the asymptote of maximum efficiency than capitalists and liberal greens acknowledge.

If you doubt this claim, take a look at this excellent post by the extremely helpful analyst Tom Murphy. Murphy’s estimate of the actual top limit of highway MPG for cars that are usable under the cars-first conditions that prevail in the USA? 56 MPG.

Do you think the type of basic-physics analysis done by Murphy is unknown to the powers-that-be? That it’s a mere coincidence Murphy’s estmimate is almost exactly the promised ultimate MPG figure?

If so, I can still get you that excellent deal on the Brooklyn Bridge…

Suicide by Overkill

pickups In a story that provides more evidence that, as the late Marvin Harris argued and virtually all modern “culture” theorists and most would-be car critics ignore, ideas tend to follow rather than lead infrastructural circumstances, it seems that Peak Oil has begun to kill the Old West/redneck marketing appeal of the pickup truck in the United States. Seems that GM has so over-produced pickups that its dealers are now in possession of enough stock to last them through year’s end.

The reason for this overstock, of course, was GM’s hope that reality would continue on as always. “We thought that this year would bring back the kind of economic activity that would translate into us selling more trucks,” a GM dealer tells Automotive News.

Why that particular hope? Because, vis-a-vis the question of transportation efficiency, pickup trucks and SUVs are double-overkill, and hence much more profitable to capitalists than small, more rational automobiles. Because they pile on even more unnecessary equipment and material than do passenger cars, “Pickups generate more profit per vehicle than passenger cars, analysts say.”

Of course, this is hardly a landslide yet. As Automotive News reports, “Full-size pickups are still the two top-selling vehicles in the U.S. Ford sold 264,079 F-Series in the year’s first half, a 9.9 percent increase, while customers bought 182,785 of GM’s Silverado, a gain of 9.6 percent. The volumes are much lower than before the recession and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler Group LLC.”

And why do I say pickup equipment is unnecessary?

Percent of pickup owners who never haul items in the truck bed: 27
Additional percent who do so less than monthly: 30

[Note: The above statistics are from the 2005 “Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey” done by R.L. Polk for the Environmental Defense Fund.  For some reason, this piece of research seems to have been disappeared from the whole internet, including the EDF’s website.]

Physics and Capitalist Fantasy

rube_tube Having everybody in the United States use automobiles to accomplish daily travel has always been a capitalist pipe dream. That is thanks to the laws of physics and the geology of our planet. It will simply never be remotely economical, sustainable, or sane to deploy 3,000 pound objects that sit idle 95 percent of the time to accomplish what walking, cycling, and public transit could just as easily (and much more safely and healthfully) facilitate. On a planet that was fated to reach Peak Oil, awakening from this pipe dream, one way or another, was also always inevitable.

A major side note to this story is the open secret that the basic physics of automobile travel are also far more fixed than present promises from above would have you believe. Just as an acceptable level of safety in a sprawling, cars-first society like the United States will always require cars to weigh something like 2,500 pounds, so it is that moving 2,500-pound cars will only get so energy-efficient.

Evidence of this physical fact was recently helpfully analyzed by Rick Kranz of Automotive News:

On the basis of vehicle weight, how dramatic has the increase in fuel economy been over the past 45 years?

This week I was running through some old news articles, seeking information for several stories I’m writing for Automotive News‘ special issue devoted to Chevrolet’s centennial. The issue will be published Oct. 31.

I decided to compare those cars to two 2012 cars with similar vehicle weight to see the differences in fuel economy, 45 years later. Obviously, the length, width and height of the 2012 models are somewhat reduced compared with cars in the ’60s. The new models have far better aerodynamics than the Chevy and Rambler. Additionally, the 2012s compared here have four-cylinder engines.

The 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne weighed 3,294 pounds and averaged 21.04 mpg. I used a base 2012 Ford Fusion sedan with automatic transmission for the comparison. The Ford weighs 48 pounds more than the Chevy and gets 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 26 mpg overall, according to the EPA.

The 1966 Rambler averaged 23.80 mpg, coast-to-coast. For a weight comparison, I used a base 2012 Honda Civic with an automatic transmission. The Civic weighs 2,608 pounds, and is rated at 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 32 mpg overall.

Using the EPA’s overall miles per gallon numbers, the Fusion was 5 mpg better than the Biscayne and the Civic was about 8 mpg better than the American.

Was there a dramatic difference in fuel economy 45 years later on the basis of vehicle weight?

Those numbers work out to about a 25% mpg gain for the heavier car and a 33% one for the lighter vehicle. So, despite three major oil shocks and the recent quasi-official acknowledgement of Peak Oil, automotive mpg has improved by substantially less than one percent per year since the days when everybody assumed Earth’s resources were infinite and mpg ratings were not posted on sales stickers or anywhere else.

Something to keep in mind the next time you hear some Democrat or other “green car” moron bloviating about 62 mpg.

As the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote, every human endeavor is subject to “right walls,” or outer limits of improvement. Here at DbC, one of our core theses is this: The automobile is already much closer to its own right wall than anybody will admit.

Cave You Can Believe In

Nobody denies that domestic U.S. petroleum production passed its peak 40 years ago and has zero chance of ever regaining it. That, of course, has no impact on mainstream reporting and politics, where everybody plays the game of implying that some secret stash will be unlocked and return the United States to carefree cars-first living.

In the least surprising news of the month, Zerobama, the most fraudulent of all modern U.S. Presidents (a major competition, I know, but one he easily wins), is now officially piling onto this remarkably dishonest game, having just announced, in his unchanging didactic techno-smarm, that he’s caving in to demands to further deregulate domestic oil and natural gas drilling.

The only effect of this latest item of complete conventionality will be to raise the level of ecological destruction that accompanies the ruling institutions’ perpetuation of the nation’s massively unsustainable transportation infrastructure.

Green Naivete

zero Remember this? “President Obama is expected to deliver a speech on oil and energy issues on April 20, the anniversary of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill,” so let’s petition him to mention Peak Oil!

What’d we get?

Peak Oil was certainly not mentioned, and neither was the anniversary of the oil rig explosion — because there was no speech!

There were, however, these 3 powerful and impassioned paragraphs in a press release.

Ford Knows

heedless-horsepower Here at DbC, our view is that strategic top executives know full well that world petroleum supplies have peaked, and are simply planning to keep riding the cars-first arrangement until it dies of its own internal contradictions. There is, you see, still a huge amount of profit to be reaped in the downward spiral, and one can always shift one’s money back into CDOs and LBOs and etc. as the game tightens over time.

Some powerful evidence in this direction emerged recently, from none other than Henry Ford’s great-grandson:

“We do believe at Ford that the price of gasoline is going to march upward over time,” Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford said on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show. “And we’ve built our whole entire strategy around that.”

The alternative, the course anybody who actually gave a genuine damn about either the public or the so-called country would obviously take? Stopping the production lines and issuing a call for the radical reconstruction of our towns and cities toward sustainable living.

Instead, Ford Motor Company, like its peers and the overclass it serves, will plow ahead, business as usual.

As Fredrick Douglass and Dr. King always said, power concedes nothing without a demand, and ending the capitalists’ cars-first cliff-drive is one hell of a demand.  If we are to save ourselves, we will have to pull our heads out, fully and soon.

The MPG Hoax

donkey-car I often lambaste “electric” cars in this space. My aim in doing that, however, is not to lend aid and comfort to petro cars, which are, in their actually existing form, even worse than “electrics” and hybrids, from an energy-use perspective. I am against “electric” cars because they are halo-ware, a carefully planned distraction from the only kind of reform that stands a chance of bringing transportation systems into line with the requirements of energy and ecological sustainability. Converting to “electric” cars is something that directly competes with radical reconstruction of towns and cities to favor walking, bicycling, and public transit.

Yet, as a kind email commenter on my recent re-post at CounterPunch pointed out to me, it certainly isn’t enough to observe that the energy efficiency of “electric” cars is vastly exaggerated. The same is also increasingly true for petro cars.

The reason for that is the same as the reason I discussed yesterday in relation to “electric” cars: Assessing vehicle efficiency from the point of charging or filling excludes the huge energy expenditures it takes to deliver the charge or the fuel to the plug or the tank.

In the case of the “electric” car, the amount of energy (in the form of coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind turbines, or solar panels) it takes to produce an electrical charge for the car’s engine is significantly larger than the energy embodied in the delivered charge.

But just as (contrary to the childish suggestions of corporate marketing on the topic) electricity is not magic, neither is petroleum. Just as it costs energy to get electricity for “electric” cars, so does it costs energy to discover, drill, process, store, and deliver every gallon of gas pumped into an automotive tank.

In the past, the EROEI for petroleum was extremely high. Over time, as the easy and obvious reserves have declined, it has taken much more energy to discover and drill for petroleum. As a result, oil’s EROEI has plummeted and will undoubtedly continue to decline into the future.

As this happens, it becomes increasingly misleading to use MPG as the basis for evaluating the efficiency of petro-powered cars.

If we had an actual (rather than merely a nominal) green movement in this country, it would be pushing for a universal dust-to-dust standard for comparing the energy-use rate of various form of transportation machinery, including all cars, whatever their engine type.

That, of course, would be purest anathema to the corporate capitalist overclass, which is institutionally and psychologically addicted to perpetuating cars-first transportation right up and into Carmageddon’s awful dawn. Ergo, it is squarely off-the-table, even among the greens. They prefer gestures and pathetic photo-ops and going along to feel like they’re getting along.

Natural Resources Waste Council

lehner The Natural Resources Defense Council, the woefully mis-named Big Green group, thinks cars-first transportation is compatible with a decent human future. While noting the preciousness of petroleum, NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner peddles the notion that getting to work and fetching groceries using 1.5-ton steel, plastic, and lithium boxes is somehow something that doesn’t scream NATURAL RESOURCES WASTE.