Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I'm still in a mood

I don't generally have a lot of time for automaker CEOs, but Rick Wagoner has half a point here:
General Motors' product chief, Robert Lutz, vice chairman in charge of global product development, says he's been peppered with comments that the current sales and financial problems are no more than just deserts for the auto industry's lack of foresight.

Not so, says Lutz.

When today's models of big SUVs and pickups were being developed, Lutz says, "There wasn't a petroleum engineer in the world I know of who came remotely close to forecasting this (high oil and gasoline prices). Petroleum at the time was forecast to be $45 to $60 a barrel and pump prices around $2.15, $2.35.

"What were we supposed to do, just say, 'We don't beleive any of that,' and quit building profitable trucks?"
I had this discussion just yesterday, and I was in the bizarre position of defending automakers. Wagoner and his ilk weren't oblivious, but they were obviously operating on the wrong information. It's worth noting at this point that the SUV boom and the discussion of peak oil began within a short span of each other -- Colin Campbell wrote his article in Scientific American in 1998, only 2 years after GM began making the Expedition.

The problem for automakers is not, then, that the information was unavailable. Rather, the problem is that the information was dismissed and ignored. The petroleum industry, the relevant government agencies, and even international agencies like the IEA all of tried to find a number of reasons why peak oil production, observed and empirically verified time and time again, should for some reason not happen when it comes to the whole Earth. Unfortunately for GM, they largely succeeded in marginalizing peak oil.

And if you think that's incorrect, consider the reaction to our current predicament. The general political response among the world's largest consumers (us North Americans) has been limited to a) blaming speculators, and b) demanding lower gasoline taxes (when North American fuel taxes are among the lowest in the developed world.)

There are rational responses to the scarcity of oil, but the cheap ones take time, and the quick ones are expensive, and generally all involve (to varying degrees) lifestyle changes and rebuilding our spaces to de-emphasize driving and in fact make it more inconvenient, while emphasizing walking and biking. See most of the economies of Northern Europe for good examples.

And see, in particular, the experience of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany regarding bicycles. I just finished watching this 70-minute presentation on bike infrastructure in Europe, and it blew me away. Simple, simple changes that are often cheap to near-free, except for our attitudes.

North Americans generally have the same pathology about road spending that Americans specifically have about the military -- it doesn't count as "spending". We build roads and parking and more roads and more parking because, well, we don't know what else to do. It would never occur to us to do otherwise. I have an acquaintance who, enraged, yelled about how his employer charged him $10 a month for parking. It should be free, because that's how it ought to be.

So it doesn't matter if building a bike lane is cheaper, per person-mile, than paving a road. It doesn't matter if a bike is cheaper (and often faster) than mass transit or even car traffic. (Put me on a bike, and you in a car in moderate Toronto traffic, and I'll beat you. And I'm not even a fast cyclist.) We'll keep building roads and commuters will howl in rage at the slightest inconvenience or attempt at balance, and then they'll vote out the politicians who dare to rebalance our transit spending. And then they'll scream at the government that isn't doing enough to lower gasoline prices.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Your acquaintance should feel lucky that they don't work for a university. I pay about $90 a month for parking. At least at this university, they bother to patrol the lots -- at my last job, it was about $50 a month, I had to take a 15 minute shuttle bus ride to the lot, and my car was broken into about once a year.