Monday, March 19, 2007

Toyota Says Use Public Transit, Agrees in Effect With Don Fitz, Green Critic of Hybrid Car Hype

Here's an interesting counter-point to my earlier blog entry about electric cars: Green writer Don Fitz has criticized the hype around hybrid cars and bio-fuels. I must admit that if you replace "hybrid" with "electric car", much of his argument retains its force: any type of car uses up land on roads and parking, supports urban sprawl, and continues to isolate us socially from each-other -- by displacing public transit.

Mr. Fitz is described as "editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA". Unfortunately, this might qualify his writings as a fringe opinion in the Land of the SUV. If you asked me, "would a major car company, the world's largest hybrid-car maker, agree with some of his main points," I would have answered, "sure, when Hell freezes over".

Well, it's the warmest winter on record, but Hell has managed to freeze over. Toyota has told the U.S. Congress that they support mandatory increases in fuel-efficiency -- plus more public transit and better land-use planning! In testimony before a U.S. Congress Committee on March 14, 2007 [PDF], James E. Press, President of Toyota Motor North America, Inc. said,
Toyota supports the use of national performance-based regulatory programs, so long as the program is fair, technologically feasible, cost effective and does not discourage early compliance, technological innovation and safety improvement. In this context, we support increasing both the passenger car and light-duty truck fuel economy standards, and giving NHTSA the authority to reform the passenger car standard. [Emphasis in the original.]
Green Car Congress comments:

"The emphasis on 'national” in the remarks was likely a reference to Toyota’s opposition to the California LEV CO2 limits."

Sigh. But at least he was not opposing mandatory efficiency increases in principle, like many of the other car industry speakers (summarized here).

Toyota is exceeding fuel efficiency targets now, and sounds confident that it can prosper under tougher standards, too. But here's where my jaw dropped:
"In addition to vehicle technology improvements... smarter land use planning, increased reliance on mass transit and greater use of so-called “intelligent transportation systems” can all reduce traffic congestion and energy consumption." [Page 4 of the official text (PDF). Emphasis added.]
You've read it right. Toyota, the world's second-largest car company, is saying, in effect, that we should drive less. To say that it's "an unusual tact for an automaker" (source) would be an understatement.

So in effect, Toyota, the largest-volume hybrid-car maker in the U.S., is agreeing that hybrid car technology alone is not the answer -- we also need to plan our cities better and use more public transit! Has someone replaced their Hybrid Synergy Drive with an Infinite Improbability Drive?

Humour aside, could electric cars (the logical outcome of the hybrid -> plug-in hybrid evolution) be made to help public transit after all? That's the thinking of
"...a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. With backing from General Motors Corp., they are building a prototype of a lightweight electric vehicle that can be cheaply mass-produced, rented by commuters under a shared-use business model, and folded and stacked like grocery carts at subway stations or other central sites."
The folding frame would save parking space. The ability to "rent" an electric car at any transit stop would remove an excuse for not using transit, by providing a door-to-door experience, just like a private car. See this article, and the interactive slide show.

It's a fascinating time, and getting more interesting by the day.