2006 Hybrid Symposium: Boys, Toys, and a Planet in Peril

This column by HybridCars.com editor Bradley Berman was originally printed on BusinessWeek Online on March 1, 2006.

I recently urged a group of auto engineers to put away gas-guzzling engines and other childish things. They didn’t like it one bit

There are times when it makes sense to play along with the crowd. And then there are moments when you have to say exactly what’s on your mind. I had one of those moments at the recent Society of Automotive Engineers’ 2006 Hybrid Symposium in San Diego.

The symposium comes at a decisive moment in automotive history, when the big question is: Do we harness the growing interest in hybrid cars and push for breakthroughs in fuel-conserving technology, or disregard hybrids as a passing fad?

The first session was intended to set the context for the heavy engineering-technology presentations to follow over the next two days. The four-person panel included Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car & Driver, America’s most widely read auto magazine, and Scott Miller, the CEO of Synovate Motoresearch, a respected auto-industry market analyst. I nervously took copious notes because I was invited to moderate the question-and-answer session after the first four presentations.

Conspicuous Virtue
One of the first panelists, Tom Turrentine of University of California at Davis, posed a simple question to the 230 engineers, auto suppliers, and researchers in the audience: How many of you own a hybrid? Ten people raised their hands. How could so few people, in a group so heavily engaged in building the future of hybrid engineering, drive hybrids?

Scott Miller eloquently suggested that American values are changing, and that as long as car buyers don’t have to give up their lifestyle, then they would pay more to "save the world" and be proud of it. "Californians are driving around with a hybrid badge on their cars that says, ‘I love the world more than you because I paid an extra $5,000.’" The crowd of engineers, mostly from Michigan, let out a big laugh.

Miller contrasted attitudes toward cars and social ethics in and outside the U.S. He said, "In Europe and other places, there’s a different sense of society. In the U.S., we came here hundreds of years ago to pursue freedom and to pursue ourselves."

The Curse of Horsepower
I kept taking notes, but the themes — cars, technology, values, politics, and identity — became a blur. Then, Csere took the podium. He explained how he joined Car & Driver in 1980, after working as an engineer at Ford (F ). "That was right in the middle of the second fuel crisis, the one inspired by the Iranians."

Csere explained how Ford responded to the 1979 price shock. "Engines were calibrated so if you gave up one second of 0-to-60-performance and gained a half-mile-per-gallon in fuel economy, you would make that trade-off every day. Cars were just awful." Another big laugh from the crowd.

The return of lower gas prices, Csere explained, paved the way to the "wonderful period" of vehicles with hundreds of horsepower. It should be noted that this period gave birth to the sports utility vehicle.

Then it was my turn — and time for my "moment." Leaving my notes behind, I looked out over the crowd of engineers from the world’s top auto makers and struggled to describe how I — and perhaps hundreds of thousands of fellow hybrid drivers — feel about the direction of automotive engineering.

Speed Demon
Talking about technical hybrid configurations, electric components, and battery systems could wait. Oil prices are creeping back up to $70 a barrel, the war in Iraq rages on, Detroit is hemorrhaging tens of thousands of jobs, and the evidence of climate disruption continues to pile up. Hybrids could — and should — be part of the solution. This was a time to get real.

My thoughts turned to my 6-year-old son, Isaac, and the remote-control car I bought him for Christmas. His car goes forward and backward, and can even spin in fast circles. When its circle turns fast enough, the car beeps and buzzes, and lights up to become a glowing spinning swirl of yellow, red, and blue. Isaac loves his toy cars.

But not unlike Isaac’s toys, it seems that all the advances in automotive technology over the past 20 years have been put almost exclusively to giving cars more vroom.

Over the Edge
I explained that Isaac placed his brand new spinning car on the edge of our backyard deck, which has a four-foot drop to the concrete driveway. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he set his fingers on the remote control.

"Isaac," I barked, "don’t send the car over the edge. It’s going to break." He replied, "But Daddy, I want to." I warned him again. He said, "I know what I’m doing. It’s O.K." I gave him a final warning and said, "O.K., you’ll see what’ll happen."

He slammed the remote into fast forward and the plastic car vroomed off the edge and down to the concrete, shattering one of its plastic wheels. Despite a tube of super glue and a Dad’s best efforts, the car never ran again.

Pearls Before Swine
"You are just like my son," I told the crowd. "You just want your cars to go vroom vroom. Don’t you read the papers? Don’t you know about climate change? Aren’t you aware of the fragility of oil supplies with tensions in Iran, and China’s demand growing at an alarming rate? Behave yourself."

A few people applauded. Most squirmed in their seats. For the rest of the conference, more than a few — including a number of the panelists — avoided me as if I was a raving lunatic from California.

Maybe it was a little crazy, or at least presumptuous, to play a paternalistic role with these engineers. They certainly have the right to drive their fast cars — and their companies — up to the edge of the precipice. Warnings from me are as unlikely to sway their decision as my warnings to Isaac. Unfortunately, they’ll need more than super glue when it all comes apart.