Sustainable Students car show features eco-friendly autos

Chili Palmer, the protagonist of this spring?s Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, said of his Honda Insight rental: ?It?s the Cadillac of hybrids.?
Character Martin Weir responded, ?But what about speed??
?If you?re important,? said Palmer, ?people will wait.?
Last Thursday afternoon, a small crowd waited in the Merson courtyard for a silent invasion of cars. A joint effort by CMU?s Sustainable Students and the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution brought the owners of several different hybrid and biodiesel vehicles to campus.
The car show attracted quite a crowd, as potential owners tried out the controls of the ridiculously high-tech 2005 Toyota Prius or drooled over the new biodiesel VW Beetle with impressive gas mileage.
Jose Mieres, the Beetle?s owner, spoke about his trip to Niagara Falls and back without refueling: a total of 680 miles on one tank of gas. ?You get spoiled by the fuel efficiency of these cars. You will stop at service stations more to get snacks for yourself than to fill up your car?s tank.?
Later, the show?s organizers moved things inside, as Isaac Porche of the RAND Corporation spoke about the future of cars in America. His computer was broken, and his presentation missing, but Porche still managed to give an engaging talk to, as he put it, ?one heck of a large audience.?
Ever since the environmental movement of the ?60s, people have been worried about the effects of their cars on the environment. Considering all steps in gasoline?s life, from production and refining to distribution and final use, the fuel used by the average new vehicle results in 10 tons of smog-forming emissions every year.
Industry has yielded two solutions to the gas-guzzling problem: Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius rely on the combination of an electric motor and a gasoline engine, while alternative-fuel cars like the VW Beetle can use non-gasoline-based fuels such as biodiesel or ethanol.
Although sales of hybrid cars have been steadily increasing, Porche cautioned that ?things really aren?t as rosy as they seem.? Every decade or so, a new wave of environmentally friendly cars appears, but they can never quite catch on.
?Fuel efficiency and energy independence are not purely scientific issues; they are political and economic issues,? Mieres said. ?Engineers alone will not be able to do much.?
The fact is, Americans like big, powerful cars. Porche said that GMC engineers once considered putting a CD player in their new electric cars to replicate the sound of a big engine. He emphasized that unless environmentally friendly cars become trendy (if expensive) status symbols ? as cell phones did 10 years ago ? we will not see real reductions in nationwide emissions. Even super-low-emissions cars like the Honda Insight still produce over three tons of gaseous emissions per year. ?This is not your enviro-friendly father?s car,? Porche said.
However, even if hybrid cars don?t become the norm, there?s no doubt that emissions standards are improving. ?If you?re thinking about killing yourself, don?t get a new car,? Porche jokingly advised. A much bigger problem is large diesel vehicles, such as school buses, he said: ?There are more emissions from the five-second acceleration of a bus than all day from a new car.? The average school bus discharges over 1000 tons of polluting nitrous oxides emissions per year.
Improvements are small. Last year, the Allegheny County Council barred diesel power buses from idling for more than five minutes. A key theme in the literature from this year?s car show was that idling your engine for 30 seconds uses more gas than turning your engine off and back on.
Some have proposed that the government force car companies to sell hybrid vehicles. But Porche disagrees. ?I think it?s unfair for the green side to say, ?You can do this no problem.? ? Unfortunately, government mandates scare companies into avoiding the generally unprofitable hybrid market altogether. Porche said 0that he could not believe that Toyota was making money with the Prius. He explained that government mandates can actually increase pollution, because hybrids are more expensive, so people who would normally buy a new car to replace their clunker won?t because they can?t afford it.
Many are hoping that all our environmental problems will be solved when the last oil wells run dry. Mike Griffin, Executive Director of CMU?s Green Design Institute and a former oil industry consultant, discounted the idea, arguing that every year the oil industry has found more oil than had been consumed the previous year.
Mieres agreed: ?The Stone Age didn?t end [because] we ran out of stones.? He explained that our best hope for transition to a new era of zero-pollution vehicles is to make environmentalism lucrative to the car companies.
Simply put, the green car initiative is facing a double challenge. It must do more than invent cars that are environmentally friendly; they must also be economically profitable. The hybrid car very well could be the answer. Its super-low emissions are met with incredible gas mileage and smooth performance. All that?s missing is a speaker system making loud engine sounds.