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Global Apocalypse!

Reason One: It’s all going to be okay…

The magnificently-named former OPEC leader Sheikh Yamani pointed out to his colleagues decades ago that the stone age didn’t end for lack of stone: his point was that mankind wouldn’t wait until we ran out of oil to find something better. And at the risk of sounding like an unreconstructed Thatcherite there’s a good chance the free market will sort this one out. Finding viable alternatives to fossil fuels isn’t just good for the environment: because we need to replace conventional cars and their infrastructure, the companies that crack this could end up as big as Toyota and BP combined. That’s quite some motivation.

This bloke says it's going to be alright. feel better?

Reason two: There are some big brains on the case…

The major car companies have tasked their smartest engineers with saving their bacon. More promisingly, a lot of the guys who made billions during the technology and dot-com booms are investing in ‘clean-tech’ firms, including electric car companies. People like 38 year-old Elon Musk, who made two dot-com fortunes by his early thirties and now, in addition to designing the rockets built by his own space-exploration firm, designs and builds electric cars at Tesla, where he is CEO and the largest shareholder.

Reason three: The Tesla Roadster

Speaking of Musk, his Tesla Roadster alone is a reason to be cheerful about the future, and proof that we won’t be condemned to driving glorified electric golf-carts. The Roadster is absurdly, shockingly fast; so much so that it’s hard not to drive it like a complete arse, booting it every time a gap opens in the traffic just to feel that bizarre silent-slingshot sensation again.

Silent running, zero emissions and instant torque. The Tesla makes us feel optimistic

The sensation of acceleration is increased by a factor of three; firstly by the fact that an electric motor makes all of its torque available instantly. Second, there’s that single-speed transmission, which makes the acceleration seamless and relentless. And lastly there’s the lack of noise. The worry most frequently expressed by car nuts over electric propulsion is the lack of an engine note, but you soon realize that silence is one of this car’s greatest assets, making the supernatural speed seem even weirder.

Reason four: smugness

Yes, the Tesla Roadster is eye-wateringly expensive at around £100,000 depending on spec. But you can’t put a value on the intense sense of smugness that comes from knowing that you’re driving the first electric supercar, that unlike every other car around it, its performance comes with no environmental penalty, and that the investment you’ve made will accelerate electric cars that everyone can afford. Frankly, the smugness alone justifies the price tag.

Reason five: they will get cheaper

The big mistake the big carmakers made with electric cars the last time around was to try to make them mass-market from day one. Doh. Tech doesn’t work that way, as guys like Elon Musk know all too well. Think back to the early days of television or mobile phones; they were expensive and frankly a bit crap, but bought by eager early-adopters desperate for the latest thing and unconcerned by price. Their money funded the development and economies of scale that gave us TVs and mobiles we could all afford. Electric cars are going the same way, so don’t be resentful at how much the Tesla costs.

Reason six: the Opel Ampera

Also known as the Chevy Volt or the Vauxhall Ampera, depending on where you buy it, this plug-in hybrid gives a range of at least 25 miles on electric power alone. Sounds pathetic, but it’s enough for the daily needs of around 80 per cent of drivers. By keeping the battery size down you keep the cost down too, and if you need to drive further there’s a petrol engine, so you can drive it like a ‘normal’ car. Smart? The big carmakers all seem to think so; expect plug-ins from Toyota, BMW and just about everyone else before long.

Electric powered Ampera: tons of oil still used in its manufacture

Reason seven: it works

I just got back from a few days driving a Tesla Roadster around LA. At first I was mildly terrified at the idea of running out of charge in the middle of gangland in a £100,000 bright orange sports car. It’s called ‘range anxiety’, and electric car makers know it’s one of the most important hurdles they have to overcome. But by opportunistically topping up wherever I stopped, I don’t think the batteries ever got below half-charge. It was easy, and as more electric cars appear on the roads, charge points will be even easier to find; electricity isn’t exactly in short supply.

Reason eight: never having to stop for gas again

So petrol prices are at an all-time high again. Drive an electric car and you just won’t care; you’ll cruise silently past the BP and Shell signs, oblivious to the ever-larger numbers they display, the whole garish edifice looking as outdated and redundant as the stone horse-watering troughs you still occasionally see by the side of the road. And why are we so attached to filling up with petrol anyway? It’s a staggeringly miserable experience: cold, greasy forecourts, stinky bogs, terrible food and attendants so bored they just can’t be bothered to make eye contact with their customers any more. That, or waking up to a fully-charged electric car every morning? Umm…

Reason nine: some things won’t change

Think green cars will liberate us from our dangerous dependence on natural resources buried deep underground in politically unstable or unfriendly states? Think again. As we become increasingly dependent on lithium-ion batteries – not just for mobiles and laptops but for car power too – demand for lithium will spike. Half of the world’s lithium is buried under the Salar de Ayuni salt-flats in Bolivia. Bolivia’s President is the hard-line socialist Evo Morales, and he’s not in any rush to start mining it; not until the West is good and desperate…

Reason ten: there’s always an alternative

Of course, if we’re wrong and the oil runs out before we have any viable new car-propulsion tech in place, there’s another option that’s free to run, never needs refuelling, is carbon-neutral, gets you fit, and correctly configured can carry you, your kids and your shopping. It’s called the bicycle. Buy now, while stocks last.

Ten Green Classics

1: The Honda Insight Mk1

Back when it was released in 1999 the first mass market electric hybrid it was otherworldly and strange. And  the cooler for it. A decade on it is retro progressive and quaint. Dig the clamp-busting rear wheels, too.

2: Land Rover Defender

The vast majority of all of these proper Landies are still on the road. Easy to maintain and fix with an adjustable spanner and a hammer. If something falls off, just bolt it back on. Utilitarian and future proof.

3 My Grandad's Granada MK1

Not only are the words ‘Granada’ and ‘Grandad’ (almost) an anagram of one another, but my Grandad's Gas Guzzling Granada outlived the old boy by a decade and officially ran for nearly 300,000 miles. Had he been that way inclined, he surely could have had it in the record books. And it was green.

4 Audi A1 Etron

Obviously taking design cues from the game changing Fiat 500, Audi's electro-hybrid city car looks as sweet and fun as the Italian Shetland stallion but comes with a leccy motor too.

5 Puch Magnum

The farty little moped with the butch moniker is popular amid the emerging craze of caffing up 50 cc buzzers. Eternally cheap to run, determined to live on in our backyards and as fun as candy floss to thrash. Respect.

6 Caterham 7

Taking the micro manufacturing ethos to its most accessible conclusion, the lightweight flexible flyer treads ever so lightly whilst giving maximum automotive pleasure. If this is your only car, your footprint is going to be tiny.

7 Hindustani Ambassador

Ubiquitous on the subcontinent and manufactured constantly there since 1958, the 'Amby' is an object lesson in life cycle extension.

8 Bristol Fighter

Taking small volume manufacturing to its most inaccessible conclusion, Mr Bristol will only sell you a car if he likes you. Bespoke motoring in extremis, this. Still made in England and reeking of leather and walnut. This may be the future.

9 Cinelli Gazzetta, 2010

There's no contradiction in drivers digging bikes. Dedicated road cyclists are after all intimates of the texture and camber of tarmac. Keep one in the back of your motor and there'll be no need to sit in a traffic jam those last couple of miles to work ever again.

10 Honda CRZ

Whether a brand new car calling itself green is a contradiction or not, we love the look of Honda's forthcoming 'sporty' hybrid.

Morgan: Love Your Car, Love Your Planet

If you love to drive, then it follows that you should love your car. It might seem obvious to some that falling in love with the car you drive is something to strive for: but think about it a little deeper and you can see that automotive infatuation just might help to save the planet.

And nowhere is the point more relevant when you look at how English sports car company Morgan's died-in-the-wool world view could soon be the model to which the bigger car corporations turn in the name of survival.

The retro styling of a Morgan's design isn't to everyone's taste - but the micro manufacturing way of doing things they employ has created arguably the most sustainable form of car industry as exists anywhere.

But it's not only the BMW 'Efficient Dynamics' motors in the newest Morgans that colour them green. It is the overall environmental impact on a product that most closely defines how 'green' a product can be rated. As Cardiff University's ground breaking Environmental Rating for Vehicles (ERV) study, the Morgan 4/4 rated a highly respectable score of 28 (the Bentley Arnage rated 2, and the Smart for 2 rated 60, though we personally wouldn't be seen dead in one of them).

So it is possible to create fun, dynamic cars that don't destroy the planet without resorting to new fangled fuels and drivetrains.

The open secret of Morgan's vision is that its business model is based upon low volume production, the long life cycle of their product range and that ptoduct's simplicity and durability. In other words, it is much more eco friendly to avoid built in obsolescence, high-impact, capital-heavy multiple product development and the use of componentry and materials that are less than vital for a car's primary purpose.

Morgan began using Ash wood sub frames because of the scarcity of steel in the post war years, but now the use of timber in their cars' construction is one of the mainstays of the Morgan philosophy. By using lightweight renewable materials such as steel, timber and leather rather than the energy-intense aluminium and other composites to keep weight down and you'll increase environmental as well as dynamic performance.

Simplicity of design, low volume of production of highly durable and emotionally appealing cars leads us to love our four wheeled companions. Not only is that what every passionate driver desires, but it also makes it much more likely that we'll care for and nurture our car through an extended life-cycle. This avoids the endless promotion of the new - the basis of course on which not only the car industry, but mass production itself has always relied upon.

And therein lies the rub. If car companies are to survive they need to move closer to the Morgan business model. This ultimately means that fewer cars will be produced and therefore fewer employees in the primary stage of manufacturing will be needed to produce them.
This sort of restructuring is logistically complex and politically sensitive. Cutbacks that these sort of innovations entail rolls down the structure of business and society in general.

If we're serious about changing the way we produce and consume cars, then livelihoods based on old style mass production will be harder and harder to sustain.

If however, manufacturing turned wholeheartedly to Morgan's 'Micro Factory Retailing' model, then we could reasonably expect that eventually service industries would spring up to support the nurtuing of this new generation of 'slow build' vehicles. These smaller scale cottage industries, dedicated to micro manufacturing spare parts and after-market mods and other products, would create jobs, wealth and commerce in its wake.

Crucially, it would be easier and more economically viable for this new wave of industry to introduce in turn their own cleaner, more sustainable processes.

Wether this is a misty eyed piece of wishful thinking or a quiet, wood and leather-wrought revolution only time will tell. Either way, these last few years we've begun to look at Morgan's world view altogether differently.

The Moped Army

Everyone now knows the Toyota Prius, despite the launch brouhaha and Hollywood celebrity endorsements, is about as green as napalm.

Sure, it doesn’t use a lot of fossil fuel when it’s rolling to and from Waitrose, but the rare elements mined to produce the admittedly clever technology pillage the earth like meth-fuelled Vikings. Simply considering how much fuel a vehicle burns while completing a journey is too simplistic when considering the environmental impact of the machines we love (or even a Prius). It’s all about cradle to grave, the overall environmental impact. That’s the real measure of a vehicle’s eco credentials.

So, with that incontrovertible truth on the table, it becomes obvious there are few machines greener than a 30-year-old moped. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the explosion in moped gang culture across metropolitan America in the last couple of years.

If we’re are considering how ‘eco’ a vehicle is, a Puch Maxi – the machine of choice for the burgeoning Moped Army – is as green as it is cabbage-looking. It didn’t require a lot of energy or raw material to make it in the first place. It is a motorised praying mantis, so slight that owners all over the world have taken to riding with their legs crossed at the ankles and their feet on the bike’s spine.

Secondly, because the machine was made decades ago it has more than done its duty in terms of raw material payback. The young American hipsters are recycling machines that have been left to rot for decades. They’re not buying new machines that have used more fresh kilojoules to produce. Anyone who takes the time to keep an old vehicle on the road, even if it uses a little more unleaded than a Prius, truly is an eco-warrior. Remind the ill-informed of that when you’re doing a burn-out in your V8 Trans-Am. And when the underground lakes of fossilised gloop we so crave do run dry the clever Mopedistas can still pedal their machines. Try that on your Fireblade.

But sustainability is only part of the story when it comes to the rise of the old moped. This is a bona fide cult. It’s completely divorced from mod and scooterboy Lambretta and Vespa scene that was exported from the UK. It’s also a backlash against the prevalent Harley culture of North America.

The infantry of the moped armies are predominantly university age and a bit older and it appears that the architects of the style looked at every aspect of the Harley culture: goatees, leather, bigger is better and brash is best, aspects of mainstream Harleydom and thought how they could be the complete opposite. The Moped Army is a legion of the middle middle class, where Harley culture is rooted in working class 20th century history.

Strange that. Even a cheap Harley  will cost you 20 times the amount commanded by an average used moped.

The Moped Army's uniform is skinny jean, plaid shirt, cheap pumps and bum-fluff moustache. And the scene is, like the uniform (sans moustache), is encouragingly unisex. Women moped gang members are riders, not pillions. This all takes the confrontational, ‘bad boy’, outlaw image Harley, and its riders, have been propagating for the last 20 years, and does the polar opposite. Another reason for the popularity of Moped is the fact that Americans don’t require a license or insurance to ride them. Don't forget, dear reader, that is not the case in these islands.

The moped culture hasn’t caught on in the UK yet, so Tomos, Puch and Piaggio Ciaos can still be found for nothing. Here comes the clarion call. Hoover them up on ebay while you still can!

And yes. The Moped Army knows they look a little silly buzzing on the highway like so many evening starlings. But know this: they don't care.

‘You can't take someone on a moped that seriously," moped rider Steve Acevedo told the LA Times. "And we don't take ourselves that seriously. That's the whole point -- it's all about having fun.’

The Greenwash Chronicles

Most of us realise that there is nothing remotely 'sustainable' or 'environmentally friendly' about the mass-market auto industry. Still, these global businesses are they're doing their utmost to convince consumers that they are doing there bit to save the planet. Some are brazenly faux pious, but others have a sense of humour (of sorts) Here are a few of our faves.

This Honda Civic hybrid ad from 2006 is a classic of the happy, hipster illustrated flowers genre

For a full forty seconds, this looks like an ad for God's creation...

Former Japanese F1 pilot Takuma Sato sends mixed messages in his Hybrid.

Ands this early Prius ad helps us recall that if you take the 'r' out of Prius you get something that sounds like 'pious'

Here the new Prius falls back on the car's design, less on the exploitation of the beauty of mountains and rivers. But the breathy female voice is still annoyingly reminiscent of a mother Mary from Midlothian...

But this controversial 'harmony' ad for Toyota is a little insulting to the intelligence. And to hippies.

One for the Tea Party Neocons here, shown during the Superbowl this year. Quite amusing, though.

But this Australian Smart ad takes the piety to another level. And uses children in the process.

Formula For (Environmental) Disaster?

When it comes to environmental issues Formula 1 is not exactly ‘on message.’ A Grand Prix car is a high-revving, incredibly noisy projectile and its sole purpose is to go quickly. Not, as yet, to go quickly economically. It’s a wholly anti-social animal if that’s the way you want to see it.

Life changes and with even Australians lamenting the ‘Nanny state’, is Formula 1 at risk of falling victim to an argument that, like boxing, it belongs to a bygone age? Is it harmful, socially unacceptable and ultimately heading for a ban?

As Frank Williams said recently, while discussing the reintroduction of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), “F1 needs a totem. KERS is a very meaningful thing for emissions control, it does save power. It’s expensive, it’s difficult technology and a big swallow, but sooner or later F1 is going to get aggro from one of these bodies that causes aggro...”

That is something that former FIA president Max Mosley concluded some time ago. He realised the need for F1 to be seen to be as green as possible, which is why he wanted to introduce KERS, reduce engine capacities and curb spending which, across F1’s manufacturers, had reached a billion dollars annually.

Suddenly, instead of being a global advertising platform irresistible to companies such as Honda, Toyota and Renault as well as premium brands like Ferrari, Mercedes and BMW, F1 found all the rats deserting a sinking ship. In quick succession, Honda, Toyota and BMW all left and Renault, you suspect, might have followed suit had it not been for its involvement in the Singapore ‘Crashgate’ saga. Instead, it sold 75% of the shareholding in its F1 operation.

The driving force behind this was not the environment itself, so much as the financial environment -- the credit crunch. With sales figures catastrophic and redundancies and reduced working weeks a reality, it became ever more politically difficult for manufacturers to justify money spent on an F1 programme. And it wasn’t just car manufacturers. Bookings for F1’s Paddock Club (where corporate guests are entertained lavishly at considerable expense) nosedived too. Suddenly it wasn’t very PC for the likes of RBS to be seen to be glad-handing lavishly while worldwide economies went bust.

But what the credit crunch has also done is accelerate a change in advertising emphasis. Look at car advertising now, even for the likes of BMW, and it’s not performance oriented anymore. It’s all about frugality and pleasant experiences. Drives in the country, things like that.

Look at the tyre manufacturers too. Bridgestone has used F1 to great effect as a brand building exercise but recently announced its withdrawal. Why? Not, whatever it might say, because of cost. It’s F1 spend relative to its profit is insignificant. It’s because the head honcho is behind a ‘green’ marketing strategy and has a problem squaring that with Formula 1.

Michelin has recently signalled interest in a return to the F1 arena it left in 2006. But, significantly, it wants to be able to demonstrate the energy efficiency of its tyres. Only recently, leading Autosport F1 journalist Mark Hughes has been writing about the possibility of linking a tyre’s rolling resistance with permitted fuel density. His suggestion is, the lower the rolling resistance of your tyres, the denser your fuel is allowed to be, allowing you to carry more fuel energy for less weight and go quicker. He advocates getting the tyre and fuel companies working hand-in-glove to improve efficiency across the board.

Thus far, F1 and eco-friendliness have been no more than nodding acquaintances. It was deeply ironic that having introduced KERS, F1 failed to make it compulsory. The likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Renault spent serious money developing KERS systems for 2009 (McLaren-Mercedes is reckoned to have spent £50 million) only to see Red Bull and Brawn decide that the effects of a KERS system on chassis bulk outweighed its advantages, and blow them into the weeds!

Frank Williams is probably right. Sooner or later F1 will flag up on someone’s radar and it’s ‘need to be green’ may have to be more than a token gesture.