NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">


Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Every afternoon, on my walk home from work, I pass a row of parked cars outside the Hart Senate Office Building. There are luxury sedans and behemoth sport utility vehicles, mostly. For fun, I guess which car belongs to which lawmaker. Does that black Subaru station wagon, with a Vermont license plate, belong to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)? Or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)? Does Sen. John Warner (R-VA), drive that dark-blue BMW 7 Series? Two weeks ago, I spotted Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-IN), smiling broadly, piloting a silver Toyota Prius. (He waited patiently as I crossed the street, I'll add). Lugar is one of several politicians Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, correspondents for The Economist magazine, praise in their new book, Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. They argue that politicians need to approach energy politics more realistically, and they point to Lugar as a realist par excellence. The Indiana senator proposed an oil tax and an end to tariffs on Brazilian imports. Carson and Vaitheeswaran will join us in the first hour, to talk about the car of the future. What will it look like? And when can we buy it?



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Cars, electric, gas or fuel cel, that's the problem, perhaps more people should follow the lead of the thousands of people in Portland Oregon and by a bicycle. It's a solution that's here, now, and proven.

Sent by Fred Greatorex | 2:21 PM | 10-3-2007

I drive a diesel on vegetable oil for long distance driving & electric for local use. I haven't spent a dollar on gasoline for two years. Electric driven since 1998. I also have solar panels on the roof. This is not rocket science.

Sent by Lawrence Rhodes | 2:27 PM | 10-3-2007

I would totally sacrifice performance and looks for a plug-in electric. It would have to be very affordable, though -- just a few thousand dollars. If I had more money, I would definitely pay more! Getting an electric car is my dream. I don't desire many products, but an electric car is the product I most highly desire. I've felt like this ever since I watched the documentary: "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

Sent by Irene | 2:29 PM | 10-3-2007

Can't people pay PG&E to supply green energy to their house instead of energy from coal power? By green energy, I mean renewable sources like wind power, hydroelectric, solar, etc. This way, they can plug-in their car to energy that emits almost no pollution. They can also put up solar panels at their own house, right?

Sent by Irene | 2:32 PM | 10-3-2007

I have been a gearhead for my entire life and love cars. This is in conflict with my environmental views. I do not believe in battery or battery-assisted vehicles. I applaud the public for trying to be more environmentally conscious, but how environmentally friendly are hybrid or electric vehicles? Batteries are not very "green". They need to be powered and charged from other source and they use heavy metals to be produced. What happens with these batteries once they are dosposed of?
I believe the best short-term answer for cleaning up our streets is a high-efficiency biodiesel powerplant. If need-be, a biodiesel-electric hybrid has been shown to get nearly 150 mpg. There is a vehicle in development in Germany (LoReMo) that uses a gallon of diesel fuel to return 156 miles. We need to first improve the efficiency of vehicles before we look at exotic powerplants.

Sent by Andreas May | 2:34 PM | 10-3-2007

In claiming that Americans "demand" big cars, don't leave out the effects of advertising which tends to show wealthy americans in big, expensive cars, and the jeans-wearers in smaller types. Big cars have names like Expedition and Explorer, while the little ones are Ions and Aspires. What? are they aspiring to be real cars?. Demand is created by advertising and subtle propoganda.

Sent by Robert Marcuson | 2:35 PM | 10-3-2007

I have 2 hybrids. An interesting thing that they have is an MPG indicator that tells the current and overall MPG. If these were included in all vehicles overall consumption would decrease. It becomes a personal game trying to get the best mileage possible. This causes driving habits to change since most people don't have a Real Time indicator to show them how their driving affects mileage.

Sent by Walter Yanicki | 2:40 PM | 10-3-2007

I am tired of the GM's and Fords of the world being painted as being the only polluters out there. Don't for one minute think that Toyota hasn't been profiting handsomely from their OWN SUV's and trucks in this country. In fact, as a brand, TOYOTA offers more SUV's than any other.

They just have a better publicist.

Sent by Bill | 2:41 PM | 10-3-2007

This segment did not discuss the effects of heavy metal mining in order to produce a hybrid vehicle's battery. Mining heavy metals is a very toxic process and ecologically destructive in its own right. Some studies have shown that driving a Hummer is less destructive on the environment over the course of it's life because on average a Hummer will drive many more miles over its life than a Prius, and the materials going into a Hummer are not as destructive to the environment in their production. Before we all hop on to the Hybrid bandwagon, maybe we should be conscious consumers, looking at the costs and benefits objectively. Buying a Prius does not exactly absolve someone from the ethics of driving.

Sent by Michael from PDX | 2:45 PM | 10-3-2007

I agree about walking, biking, and using public transportation as primary means of transportation. Using those means I have reduced my fuel consumption to about 300 gallons per year. I make my own WVO biodiesel and haven't purchased any fuel for my vehicle since sometime in 2005...about two years ago.

I would love to have a plug-in diesel-electric hybrid and power it from solar and my biodiesel. These vehicles already exist...GM displayed an Opel version in Europe a few weeks ago. It's built on the same basis as the Chevy Volt, which will not be offered in a diesel-electric version in the US.

When will we ever learn?

Sent by Maud | 2:45 PM | 10-3-2007

What ever happened to the "rebirth" of steam power? I recall seeing a segment on a science show several years ago featuring a steam powered sports car that could use several different fuels. I believe the engine was fabricated from Volkswagon components (the air-cooled flat 4), was totaly silent and could do 120mph.

Sent by Wayne | 2:46 PM | 10-3-2007

I'm all for greener vehicles (or going without vehicles as much as possible), and last year I bought a Toyota Yaris, because:
a) It gets almost 40mpg,
b) It costs half as much as a Prius, and
c) I thought Toyota deserved support for being a champion of green cars.

Turns out I was wrong -- in Tom Friedman's column today, he points out that Toyota is actually lobbying to scuttle higher fuel efficiency standards (that were passed in the Senate's version of its recent energy bill, but not by the House). This really ticks me off, coming from a supposed green company. I emailed Toyota to tell them so, and I hope others will do so as well.

Sent by James Stack | 2:47 PM | 10-3-2007

BTW...I drive a 1983 Mercedes diesel wagon. It gets nearly 30 mpg, has third-row seating, and can be run on vegetable oil, producing 90% less greenhouse gases than a typical gasoline-powered vehicle. I despise large S.U.V.s and the status associated with them. You can buy a Mercedes/Dodge/Freightliner Sprinter van that is much larger than even the largest S.U.V.s, yet returns nearly 30 m.p.g. on the highway. If you "need" a large car for your three kids and dog, don't buy a large S.U.V.! Go buy a Sprinter van and run it on biodiesel! The newest models actually look pretty cool as well. Marketing would do a lot to change the stygma of driving a "commercial" vehicle. Put in leather interior, dvd players, LCD tv screens, keep the Mercedes badging, give it sexy colors and market the vehicle to the typical Suburban/Tahoe/Expedition/Armada/Sequoia/Land Cruiser/ML/X5, etc., etc. crowd. Most S.U.V.s (probably 95%) never even see off-road use and do not need all-wheel drive. Another gripe is that a lot of the "green" crowd seem to drive Subaru Outbacks/Foresters. Why? They get horrible fuel mileage (but better than typical S.U.V.s). Buy a Volkswagen TDI wagon or an older Mercedes or Peugeot diesel wagon and run it on biodiesel. You'll actually do your part by actually being more "green", rather than just sticking a "Save Mother Earth" sticker on your Subaru.

Sent by Andreas | 2:56 PM | 10-3-2007

I need an electric car to be a good person, which is the highest goal that drives every serious decision I make, every moment of everyday. I tried riding my bike, but I couldn't get everywhere on time. I felt I was disrespecting people and disrupting situations by arriving late, so I wasn't able to be a good person by just riding my bike. Electric cars are an ethical and moral issue, reaching into deep areas of my heart that which drive my motivation to live and live well.

Sent by Irene | 3:01 PM | 10-3-2007

Plug-ins? They will only work if batteries can be discharged a couple of thousand times without wearing out. The lifetime vs. depth of discharge curve for the NiMH Prius battery is logarithmic so only about 20% of capacity is ever used because it costs thousands of dollars to replace. How good could the lifetime curves be for lithium batteries? What are the replacement costs going to be? Those are billion dollar questions. Why aren't these authors asking them?

Hydrogen? Discredited, long ago. See Joe Romm's book, The Hype about Hydrogen. It's environmentally and economically more expensive than alternatives, such as burning natural gas in a combustion engine. If you still want to make the case for hydrogen, you must get quantitative. (Last time I ran the calcs, a marginal case could be made if natural gas reforming waste heat was used. The problem: natural gas is also scarce and the setup would be expensive, complicated and require space in people's homes.)

Cars balancing out daily grid demand? Very undesirable. The batteries to do so would be heavy. Driving them around would be inefficient as hell. A much better solution would be to power the arterials from the grid so that cars don't have to carry around big fuel tanks, combustion engines, transmissions and exhaust. Direct electric is obviously the best long term solution because generating stations obtain the highest efficiency, transmission losses are relatively low and, in metro areas, vehicles then only need small batteries to travel the last mile.

How can such ultralight and ultra efficient cars travel in rural areas? How can they come into use before the arterials are electrified? One way would be to use other vehicles to tow them. This is being worked out at With luck, this type of vehicle - which would have a 2-3X efficiency advantage over non-train vehicles that can only operate independently - will be allowed in the Automotive X PRIZE.

Sent by Bruce McHenry | 3:08 PM | 10-3-2007

In a capitalist democracy, the products I choose to buy are the most effective votes I cast. I want an electric car! I understand from "Who Killed the Electric Car?" that batteries are not a big problem. Nature can grow, heal and adapt to a little waste -- just not a smothering overload.

Sent by Irene | 6:12 PM | 10-3-2007

As a long term alternate energy engineer (MSEE+, Solar Analyst, Nuclear, etc.) and Prius owner, I have been following this closely. I was disappointed that your guests did not mention Methanol fuel cells, the low energy content of pressurized hydrogen and how impractical liquid hydrogen is.

Sent by Gray Kinnie | 12:18 AM | 10-4-2007

I see that none of the posts address the doomer aspect of why we even talk about sustainable energy. And no, this is not just about global warming. We are seeing a sharp increase in the cost of liquid fuels while production stays flat. Could we fix this? Yes, but because we have not started the fix in earnest, in a timely fashion, it won't be pretty. At this point I would recommend the Hirsch Report. The trouble with grand visions of technological fixes is that our immediate condition gets glossed over. Africa is already feeling a powerful effect from what is called 'demand destruction'.

About the 'technological' fix that is often held up as a distraction. For instance, bio fuels. The total output of ethanol in the U.S. is a third of a quad/year. Taking the mean of all the ERoEI studies, (Farrel Report), the net is one tenth of a quad/year. The world demands 175 quads/year now. Demand, to keep economies from faulting, is expected to grow by another 75 quads/year in less than twenty years.

I won't get long winded here. I've been a student of the issue for years and what I always see is that the 'numbers' are never addressed.

Best, Dan.

Sent by Dan Bloomquist | 12:39 PM | 10-4-2007

This is what upsets me. We are pouring billions of dollars into programs researching how they can improve PERSONAL transportation. The focus needs to be on how we look at our community as a whole. Our society, for the most part, looks at public transportation as a solution for people of lower incomes, who can't afford to drive a car every day. Also improving our public school system might encourage parents to send their children to their public school instead of shuttling them to a private school every morning. On as side note...I get really of the people who act holier-than-thou because they traded their SUV for a Prius. First of all it takes more energy to manufacture a new Prius than it does to simply drive an older car. Second of all most people don't get it in themselves to crush their old SUV, instead they sell and all that means is that another person is ravaging our atmosphere with its CO2 fumes.

Sent by Harper | 1:48 AM | 10-8-2007