Americans like their cars. Better said, they love their cars. From the moment that Henry Ford produced the first Tin Lizzie (pick any color as long as it was black), cars have never been just about transportation, meaning getting oneself, passengers, and gear from point A to point B. Cars are deeply embedded in our cultural grid, enmeshed in our collective psyche, and kept warm and dry in a separate room in the house.




And if there was ever any doubt that cars should play a central role in the lives of Americans, auto manufacturers, in league with major advertising companies, set about explaining to said consumer, yearly, that that collection of shiny metal, rubber, glass and moving parts was not just a necessity but a gotta have. It was and continues to be the ad coup of all time. The geniuses of Madison Avenue &

Vance Packard called them the "Hidden Persuaders" &

managed to link the automobile to our well researched need for ... well, make a list: status, prestige, personal power, freedom, sexual attractiveness, mobility (we feel the need for speed), privacy, and not to forget that seductive eau de cologne, the new car smell. Buying a car became a rush, life changing (or so they promised) and an emotional surge. Sit behind that wheel. Listen to the guttural purr of that engine. Transportation? Take the bus.




In other words, cars rule.




Why else would we pave over an area equal to all the arable land in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania for roads and highways and then spend some $200 million annually maintaining them? Why else would we, as Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins point out, in their remarkable book, "Natural Capitalism," reshape American communities and lives so as to restrict the mobility of most citizens who do not choose or are not able to own a car. Or accept without question that 250 million people have been maimed or injured by cars, and that the car has killed more Americans than have died in all the wars in the country's history. And not to forget that cars contribute one-fourth of all U.S. greenhouse gases and have been linked to increases in asthma, emphysema, heart disease and bronchial infections. And there's the 8 billion barrels of oil combusted every day and the 7 billion pounds of unrecycled scrap and waste created annually.




Despite what has proven to be a huge downside, so good were the persuaders at making cars attractive that the industry could rest on its unimaginative, self-satisfied laurels and cruise for close to 30 years, devoting little serious effort to the research and development of new materials (lighter) and more efficient engines (alternative, cleaner power sources).




But things are about to change, and our homegrown car industry, now in serious trouble, will be playing catch up for years to come. The American automotive industry is poised to either profoundly transform itself or be relegated to small niches in a market that is already dominated by the far more agile Japanese.




The problem, according to Hawken and Lovins/Lovins, is that Detroit has been content to design and build seductive models of incredible inefficiency, the last remnants of what we think of as the Iron Age. These cars, still rolling out of today's showroom, are instantly anachronistic, no matter their bling, strange beasts in an era where size, weight and the type of engine are being redefined.




The challenge is, of course, not to change what the consumer perceives to be "a car," rather, confine all the revolutionary engineering to under the hood and the materials used to construct an aerodynamic body: think airplanes, not high tonnage SUV's.




The future is the ultralight hybrid &

Hawkens, et. al. call them "hypercars" &

made of advanced-composite materials, not unlike the Indy 500 carbon-fiber cars (carbon fibers are black, shiny, stiff filaments finer than human hair, and one-fourth as dense as steel but stronger), leaving far behind the vehicle that is 20 times heavier than the driver with an engine that is ten times larger than average driving requires. Hybrid engines (electric-gas), using today's state of the art technology, could get 80 to 200 miles per gallon with a 600-800 mile range, with emissions reduced to a fraction of what they are now.




Cars will ever be with us, of course. People will continue to make extraordinary commutes, have bottles of Turtle Wax on garage shelves, and add square footage to their homes for car storage. This will be a quiet revolution, propelled by gas heading to $4 plus per gallon, oil becoming increasingly harder to find, and our foreign policy clearly hijacked by oil producing countries who are not our friends. The car industry is heading back to the future. Detroit just has to decide if it wants to go along for the ride.