Sunday, August 29, 2010

The End of the Road

Franz Marc, Red and Blue Horses, 1912. Cover picture of "The End of the Road: The Transition to Safe, Green Horsepower

“Our years of rational thought, our instinct to do good, the advantage of education, and a clear reading of history tell us that the internal combustion engine and the vehicle that it powers is killing us. We need to change behavior collectively and make some common sense decisions about life. We need to change the way we live and the way we move.

“This is the beginning of the end of the road.”
                                                                                      Joseph McKinney

Joseph McKinney is a fascinating business leader and an "out-of-the box" thinker.(1) He is CEO and president of Oregon Roads, Inc. headquartered here in Eugene. Oregon Roads specializes in auto fleet leasing but sells individual cars as well. Joseph is also a fierce advocate for change in his industry, specifically toward a greener, more sustainable future.

Joseph McKinney

I recently completed reading The End of the Road: The Transition to Safe, Green Horsepower, a book written by Joseph and his co-author, Amy Isler Gibson. Joseph and Amy argue that focusing on improving the technology of automobiles alone is shortsighted and will not adequately address the challenges posed by the realities of peak oil and global warming. They are ruthlessly critical of the automobile industry – its history, development, and current status – and of the politics that have sustained it. They contend that continued extravagant spending on improving and expanding roads to support a system based upon internal combustion powered vehicles is sheer folly.

Joseph and Amy believe that the infrastructure of American transportation and energy systems must be radically altered to accommodate new, healthier types of transportation and vehicle use. They propose solutions they deem to be achievable, imperative, and locally adaptable. Their vision is of communities with roads that are restructured to encourage and accommodate new, healthier types of transportation and vehicle use.

The key concepts associated with this vision are:
  • Reassessing what it is we truly need to get from Point A to Point B
  • Differentiating and distinguishing between appropriate transportation options
  • Developing “village vehicles:” small, lightweight, zero-emission cars as an interim step toward a car-free future
  • Transitioning to a transportation infrastructure that makes village vehicles safe to operate (including decommissioning of urban roads to become “greenways” limited to use by pedestrians, cyclists, and village vehicles)
In the book, Joseph describes how a shift to village vehicles and roads that can make them safe can reduce carbon emissions by 25% in the near future.

Of course, recognizing that we are at “the end of the road” and realizing Joseph’s and Amy’s vision will require a momentous shift in how we all regard our beloved automobiles. Joseph and Amy are optimistic that Eugene is exactly the kind of community that is amenable to and ripe for the changes that are necessary. I’m not so sure. As progressive as many would like to believe that Eugene is, I see plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Americans (and a majority of Eugeneans are no exception) have a love affair with their cars, the convenience they provide, and the freedom they afford. I’m afraid that only dramatic changes to our circumstances – such as crippling hikes in the price of gasoline or overwhelming, immediate evidence of destructive climate change – will wean us from our addiction to the overweight, over-powered, greenhouse gas-spewing transporters that monopolize the current automotive marketplace.

If village vehicles are to become accepted, they initially will have to be able to hold their own in the company of conventional automobiles, SUVs, and trucks because a comprehensive network of greenways will not appear overnight. The first village vehicles will also have to be as broadly appealing as possible to not appear too alien to our current sensibilities.

New, “mainstream” electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf (and certainly the Tesla Roadster) are not village vehicles. They’re too much in the mold of conventional automobiles: they’re heavy, expensive, can drive faster and are more powerful than necessary. Ideally, VVs will be small, lightweight, and locally manufactured.

The Arcimoto Pulse (photo from Arcimoto's website)

Eugene is fortunate to have a home-grown company that is poised to capitalize on the hoped-for demand for village vehicles. Arcimoto has designed the Pulse, a three-wheeled electric VV that may be appealing enough to gain a foothold in the automotive marketplace. As the Arcimoto website states, consumers may find the Pulse a more efficient and more enjoyable implementation of the way they already drive every day:

“Stand on any busy street corner and watch the cars go by. What you typically see is a single person driving upwards of 5,000 lbs. of steel. Ask those folks where they’re going and it’s usually a 5-mile trip to the store, or their 10-mile morning commute. Tack on fuel and maintenance costs for that vehicle, and the expense in wasted resources and energy adds up quick for an individual, let alone the multiplicative effect across the whole of society.

“Why haul around thousands of pounds of steel and many cubic feet of unneeded space for daily commutes, a trip to the grocery store, or visiting grandma across town? Drive something that fits.”

TV stars Nathan Fillion (at the wheel; Firefly, Castle) and Jon Huertas (Castle) taking the Arcimoto P4 prototype for a test drive in Eugene a couple of weekends ago. (Photo from Arcimoto's website)

I’m guardedly optimistic that cars like the Pulse will become the norm and that Arcimoto will be successful. Perhaps our society will recognize the need for change to a sustainable transportation model sooner than I imagine. Visionaries like Joseph McKinney and Amy Isler Gibson are doing what they can to hasten that change.

I found The End of the Road to be enjoyable for a couple of reasons: First, Joseph and Amy write from a local perspective, citing examples and projecting scenarios that are specific to a possible future for Eugene. Second, the book reads like a conversation between the co-authors, with Amy providing commentary (her text distinguished by being italicized), in the role of an educated, curious and at times challenging consumer. This adds a pleasantly breezy, informal tone to the book.

I highly recommend The End of the Road to all who have tried to imagine practical solutions to the problem of reconciling unsustainable growth with the need for convenient, practical transportation.

(1) Joseph and I are both members of the Emerald Executive Association, a Eugene-based business networking group. Joseph's wife, Lydia, is a planner for the City of Eugene.
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Ken M. said...

The book shows great insight into the world of the transportation and takes a fresh approach to the solutions needed for us to be able to live in a world threatened by climate change, overpopulation and peak oil. The combination of Joseph and Amy provided a way to pull complex issues into a way we can all understand. Everyone should read this book, especially the young, as they are the ones that will drive the change. Joseph states that it is the “end of the road”. Let’s hope, for all our sake, that he is right.

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious. A person who makes their living entirely on the conventional motor vehicle attempting to convince others that the conventional motor vehicle is going to kill us. Please. This is the height of hypocrisy and hubris.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Anonymous: There's no hypocrisy and hubris when it comes to Joseph. His beliefs are genuine. If anything there is irony, but this shouldn't preclude sincerity on Joseph's part to advocate for change in the industry that has been so good to him.