Monday, March 5, 2007

EB and Me

According to the Revised Edition of EB White’s Letters (buy the book, kid- EB White is Leo Tolstoy (i.e. God)), changing the design of New York City taxicabs was a life-long crusade of the famed New Yorker Columnist. White believed the long and low models that we still see today “are simply slight modifications of pleasure cars- and a pleasure car is about the poorest object you could get, as a model” (Letters of EB White, p. 292). White’s particular beef (no reference to One Man’s Meat) was that long, low taxicabs present too small an entrance for full-grown passengers to negotiate. While I constitutionally admire all plucky campaigns to vanquish anything modern at the hands of anything quaint, and have underground plans to fashion personal plucky campaigns against a host of modern evils in White’s we-used-to-walk-four-miles-through-the-snow-to-school-and-we-liked-it! vibrato, I think updating White’s attack on taxicabs could bring the shot a little closer to the mark.

Did you know that you can run a Diesel engine on vegetable oil and there are effectively ZERO EMISSIONS? I bet you did. You know why I bet you did? Because the technology has been around since the 1900 world's fair and everyone knows about it. Including you (and if you didn’t before, you do now). Here’s a tougher question: If you can run your car on used vegetable oil (something fast food restaurants pay to dispose of) why do we continue to put the byproduct of a condensed sludge from decomposed trilobites and diatoms (gasoline) into our cars at enormous financial, environmental, and political cost? If anyone knows the answer to that one, they’re probably either an apologist, conspiracy-theorist, or minister of finance to an archaic Kingdom-State in the Middle East.

If you’ll permit me to be pragmatic, I’ll shelve the interesting historical explanations of why we don’t run our cars on more efficient fuel (for a survey of these explanations see Who Killed the Electric Car?), and boil it down: Either there’s something wrong with the technology, or there’s something wrong with us. Let’s consider the first option. Talk to anyone who runs their car on vegetable oil and they’ll tell you it’s the greatest thing ever. Or ask these guys- Greasecar; they manufacture and install the technology that converts a Diesel engine to run on used vegetable oil. Greasecar has done thousands of conversions (each one an enormous success) since they invented the technology in 1998. Or for a more academic answer, see Joshua Tickell's excellent study of used vegetable oil. Basically, if there is anything wrong with the technology, I can’t find it, and neither can anyone else.

If there’s nothing wrong with the technology, then I contend the only reason people don’t run their cars on vegetable oil is that we need a giant and collective kick in the pants. We are all too comfortable and too accustomed to driving our stupid old internal combustion engines, and we need to shake ourselves of that expensive habit. Sure, the government and the motor industry have been no help in righting our gasoline malaise, but the buck doesn’t stop there. It stops in your wallet (by the way, if you assume constant gas prices over the next decade, the average American driver would pay off the cost of a new BMW 3-series in gas savings within 10 years).

We need to get serious about converting to vegetable oil (for now, and other crops like algae in the future) and a great way to do it would be to transform a highly visible vehicular symbol into a poster child for efficient energy and show everyone in the world that you can run a car on used vegetable oil. EB had his campaign, and I have mine. I would like to see New York City taxicabs running on clean, efficient, and politically inexpensive fuel- used vegetable oil. And I suppose I’d like more leg room too, but mostly for old Elwyn Brooks.

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