Ode to Joy(rides)

Ford Mustang 1, graphite on paper. Artist: Marcus Junge

Ford Mustang 1, graphite on paper.
Artist: Marcus Junge

Every time I go to the Geneva International Motor Show, one of the world’s major automobile shows, I have the vague expectation that I will see something that will exceed expectations, break the rules, extend the boundaries.

So far, no luck. The 84th year of the show, which is closing today, is said to have boasted the most prototypes of any show this year. Still, there were no hovercars, and no cars that ran on water, banana peels or thorium. I also didn’t any listing for the once-touted International Advanced Mobility Forum (IAMF) that used to be held during the show to talk about other forms of transportation. So, what was there?

There’s the Tesla, which is a snazzy sedan at the cutting edge of personal vehicle battery powered transport. And at a base price of US$ 69,000, I guess the lit-up door handles are a nice perk.

Tesla door handle.

Tesla door handle.


There were a number of very nice electric cars from some of the best automakers, and a number of related products boasted their environmental friendliness.

Still, the vast majority of vehicles got very low efficiency ratings.


Yokohama BluEarth tire line.

In the case of this giant tire covered in an atlas of the Earth, I’m not sure I get the symbolism. Is it Earth-friendly, is it saying that all of  Earth is wrapped around a petroleum-based tire, or is it saying the tire is going to roll over the blue marble of Earth?

But mostly, as is to be expected, the car show is an orgy of attention on the biggest, baddest motors housed in the fastest, most luxurious, fantastic configurations of metal, leather and plastic one can imagine, an ode sung by hundreds of thousands to the culture of fossil-fuel powered vehicle.

Throngs watch a car turn on a pedestal.

Throngs watch a car turn on a pedestal.

I’m not saying the cars aren’t beautiful (some of them, anyway), or that I don’t still drive a standard-fuel powered vehicle myself.

It’s just that when I first went to the show, back in 1998, I thought by now we’d have gone a bit further down the road of harmonizing our abject adoration of cars with a few concessions to the future of sustainability.

And because it’s a glorious sunny Sunday here, I’m still going to put an an Ode to Joy in spite of this skeptical post.

83rd Geneva Motor Show – A Footprint

A small corner of the 2013 Geneva Motor ShowPhoto: PK Read

A small corner of the 2013 Geneva Motor Show
Photo: PK Read

Yesterday we visited the 83rd Geneva Motor Show (Salon International de l’Auto). For the first time, cars with ‘green’ technology are displayed alongside all the other cars powered by traditional oil fuels. Alongside the Car of the Year handed out every year, a new Green Car Award will be given to a car chosen by five experts in green technologies. And indeed, there were a lot of cars with an array of non-fossil-fuel based systems, mostly in hybrid form, a few pure electric and natural-gas vehicles. Many exhibitors displayed the Fuel Economy Label  for each model, an alphabetical rating of a vehicle’s emissions, efficiency and projected fuel cost, with A rated vehicles emitting under 100 g CO2/kilometer, and higher letters signifying much higher emissions . Several vehicles made it into the A category, although many of these are not in actual production.

I would never argue against the need for some means of motor-driven personal mobility. We live in a rural area, and even if we had a well-designed and reliable form of public transportation in our region, we would still need a means of getting from our little village to wherever that infrastructure began. Back when our village was self-sufficient, perhaps a generation or two ago, that wouldn’t have been necessary. Now, some form of transportation is vital.

What struck me at the car show, besides the sheer size of the crowds who pilgrim here every year, was the inevitability of a massive carbon footprint when we talk about moving the masses. It’s not the individual vehicles once they are surrounding a happy new car owner – in terms of emissions and efficiency, huge strides are being made. (Although as a side note I would comment that many of the manufacturers who still seem content with abysmal fuel economy ratings for several models were out in force at the show – I’m looking at you, American car companies but also, shockingly, Smart cars and Volvo.) No, what impressed me was the profound integration of resource consumption into the model of mobility we’ve developed over the last century.

What counts isn’t just what the cars use and emit once they’re on the roads. What counts is the tailpipe emissions plus the emissions (and other resource use, especially water) that it cost to build the car itself. Add to this the emissions it cost to extract, refine and deliver the fossil-based fuel to the pump station, as well as the emissions and resource use it cost to generate an alternative fuel (e.g. how was the the electricity that powers the plug-in car generated?). As for new fossil-fuel sources, a recent study shows that oil extraction from oil sands and coal costs 20% more in resource expenditure than other extraction methods. And then there’s the cost of vehicle disposal. I even wondered about the carbon footprint of the Car Show itself. Look at all that energy and resource expenditure, but look at the vast, international, complex economy it supports.

The Geneva Car Show is an extravaganza of impressive design, technological innovation, bright lights and aspirational longing. As we rode one of the many packed shuttle buses back to one of the many, many full parking lots set up around the city to park all the cars driven by all our fellow pilgrims, I overheard a conversation among a group of young Germans who had driven down for the show for the first time. They were talking about how overfull the Car Show had been, the surfeit of choice, the noise level, the long drive to get back home. “I don’t think we need to come back next year,” said one of them. “What, only one year and you’re already done with the Car Show,” I said. “We don’t need to come back next year,” one of them replied, “But only because we each plan on having one of those cars in our own garages by then.”

83rd Geneva Motor Show

2013 Green Cars to watch, and more

U.S. fuel economy standards

Manufacturing footprint vs. tailpipe emissions – article

Rand study – Unconventional Fossil-Based Fuels Economic and Environmental Trade-Offs, by M. Toman, A.E. Curtright, D.S. Ortiz, J. Darmstadter, B. Shannon