Transitioning automotive culture & freedom

Its time we got serious.

We love our cars, trucks, we love things that move and make our lives easier, for some its bikes and buses, for some its trains and aircraft. All of these things to a varying degree are going to change drastically in the next 15 years, transportation usage then will look substantially different from today, as it did 60-70 years ago.

Personal forms of transport that rely on liquid hydrocarbons are to increasingly become luxuries, air travel will suffer a similar, likely more pronounced effect. Peddle power and mass transit are likely to surge in popularity where a transition to them is easy, in between, certain electric vehicles & alternative fuel vehicles will fill gaps.

The backdrop

There is a window of time where all these things make sense, are achievable and can make a difference in how much easier they will make our lives. I fear it’s closing, it’s closure leads towards upheaval and sudden change. We’re no stranger to sudden change. The Arab Spring in many middle eastern countries is a real time visualization of what happens to countries who’s growing populations strain dwindling life sustaining resources such as water and energy. Societies that run into local limitations of their environment see political uprisings, coups and revolutions.

For us across the pond the effect is twofold. It has a direct effect on global energy market stability, given the interwoven energy infrastructure between middle eastern nations that supports much of the cheap energy the world needs, but also it is a message.

Don’t think it wont happen here. As we head into yet another misguided humanitarian mission in another strategically important country, don’t think for a moment that notions of maintaining regional stability have anything to do with safety of local populations or even ourselves, by threat of terrorists and extremists bringing Sarin gas to Times Square. (Oh that just tripped an NSA flag for sure.)

Maintaining stability mostly means the ability to keep energy flowing through routes that are A. Useful to regional allies (S. Arabia, Qatar) B. Not so useful to non-allies (Russia, China, Iran)

History is approaching a point were it’s going to be harder and harder to ignore the energy component of even minor international military scuffles. This is a key part of the message: we’re building a world where our interests, chiefly for securing cheap energy for the developed world, take precedence because we want to avoid, or mitigate, Arab Spring type events wherever possible. (this involves exporting war and oppression to those countries) So we stave off our “Spring” as long as possible.

This has been a goal for decades, recently, Gulf War 2 illustrated how much closer we are to the final global public awakening to “humanitarian crisis+/threat of terrorism+/ally of enemy” really equals “resource conflict” in the “Long War”.  The aims are always different, the spoils are the same and as long as the market benefits, the victor doesn’t matter.

For all the whooping over domestic energy resurgence, it’s only to amount to a small buffer against world volatility and will last perhaps 15-20 years optimistically, as it becomes obviously more and more expensive. This aids our transition window mildly, but it doesn’t negate a transition.

Bringing this back home, into your garage.

No, as peak oil becomes more apparent and is exacerbated by export peaks and middle eastern instability you won’t be forced into riding a horse and trap, much to the chagrin of alfalfa farmers. (perhaps if you have the means and equine fancy you might though..)

You are going to have to get creative though. As I look down my street at this moment from the window of my office; SUVs and Trucks make up 90% of the vehicles (no really, I counted 9 vs 1 1998 Ford Tempo wagon, a thing of beauty)

Creative will likely mean smaller. That street view might look pretty different, for starters, I live ~28mi from where I work. For people with larger vehicles that commute that distance, either relocation or a different vehicle will be in order (or using the infrequent, small bus service that comes out this far).

The hollowing out of suburbs and the flight to the city hubs is not a new phenomenon, its just about as old as the “drive til you qualify” phenomenon that landed me in this suburb.

What will people give up before they say goodbye to the truck or SUV ? There have been sections of the country that endured the $5/gal syndrome that saw lots stuffed with large vehicles at give-away deals. We’re likely to encounter all sorts of odd behavior that allows people to continually cling to the misconceptions of the SUV golden age, but I have faith that automotive consumers en masse are a little smarter.

As a gauge, as of Sept. 4th 2013, small car sales are up 13% from 2012, but “crossovers” are up almost 15%  and trucks 16% (

Hybrids are gaining market share, but the proliferation of the idea that you can simply stuff a hybrid drive train into any existing vehicle makes this seem a bit irrelevant. Hybrid Escalade anyone ? Christ.

Eelectric vehicles are gaining ground and expected to represent between 4-5% of total vehicles in the US by 2017 (

Are we transitioning fast enough ? Will we be caught with a glut of cheaper vehicles with terrible MPG ? You get to decide this. If the bottom falls out of the SUV and truck market in 10 years because gasoline now routinely bounces between $5-8/gal you don’t want to be left depending on one.

The transition is deeper, what does it mean for automotive culture ?

Of course more is going to change than personal (or mass) transportation. Almost everything we know about modern life will change slowly. How far your food travels, how much meat you eat, the turnover of your household distractions and their cost.

How we work and organize our work will change drastically as transportation and material costs change. Types of work will change, manufacturing may become more local and with respect to automotive transition this is a very good thing. Imagine for a moment how many local machine shops there are within a 10-20 mile radius of your residence ?

Right now I can think of one, it’s about 5 miles from my house, I used them when making a motor mount for a go-kart. That’s a small scale example of something I believe will grow. I doubt there is a shortage of talented people who know a thing or two about designing and building many forms of transportation locally, literally a stones throw from your house.

Jump on this bandwagon. This is what I mean by getting serious. The future brings decreased global inputs, hyper-locality will beat out anything else on cost, this will be a problem for many raw materials which is why efficiency and substitution will be key for maintaining a usable transportation base for a community.

Radical ideas need to be researched & norms inverted, for too long we’ve relied on national or global manufacturers making large inefficient vehicles which represent overcapacity and status more effectively than ensuring that the paradigm can last for generations.

Whether it’s converting old cars, likely as they represent existing, easy candidates for prolonged use, to run on anything from farm methane to electricity,  or melting them down in-situ with new forms of concentrated solar metal recycling plants to provide local manufacturing materials.

Perhaps a resurgence in hemp or guayule plants will help with a need for plastics and rubber manufacture locally. Hurdles to global and national supply chains of industrial manufacturing feestock can be overcome locally, we just have to think about what we have right around us as the thing we have right next door is usually the most sustainable option.

Fertilizer and water management are sure to be problems to transitional solutions which are not extractive based, but based upon organic solutions, especially given inefficiencies of growing manufacturing feedstock and also changing weather patterns given climate change and the receding likely hood of continuing groundwater pumping.

Its a tough future we’re in for, but we can put our heads together and  build a life we want out of things we have, either left over from industrial civilization, or grown from its ruins.


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