I was walking through the local high school parking lot recently and was struck by the boring vehicles students drive these days: Cars and trucks that are indistinguishable from their parents own rides. In the 1950s, any self-respecting high school lot would have been full of wildly personalized, chopped and channeled customs, plus a healthy number of ground-up hot rods built over a lot of long nights from clapped-out 32 Ford coupes. Can you imagine the kids in American Graffiti driving stock SUVs and Toyota Corollas?
The key was user-serviceability. Any kid who made it through shop class could at least attempt to rebuild the engine on his 55 Chevy. His lab partner was busy mounting dummy spotlights and fender skirts on his 49 Packard woody. Authors such as Henry Gregor Felsen were kept busy writing cautionary tales like Crash Club and Hot Rod to keep car-crazed young scholars in school and out of the garage.
Todays high-tech, fuel-injected cars, with packed engine bays you cant get a screwdriver into, have no easy entry point for teenagers. Theyre not even user-friendly for the local shade-tree mechanic, whos going to send you to the dealer as soon as the check engine light comes on.
My point here is that perhaps alternative fuel vehicles -- from Mercedes diesels that run on restaurant fryer oil and homemade battery electrics to hybrids converted by their owner-operators to plug into the grid -- represent the new frontier for the kids from todays shop classes. There are already healthy grassroots movements for all these technologies, and its younger people who are the spark plugs.
After all, my 13-year-old daughter already knows more than I do about programming cell phones and trouble-shoots Windows Vista problems that send me straight to the help menu. By the time shes in high school shell be souping up the computer chips in her 2010 Honda Civic. Ive spent a lot of time with college students as they compete in government-sponsored clean car competitions, and they have a blast making them run cleaner. Sure, they get their hands black with grease, but they also hunker down over laptop keyboards, adjusting the power band.
Getting a bit more power out of a 95 Taurus isnt much of a challenge to a young mind, but designing the car of the future is. Right now, the auto industry is at an incredible crossroads, comparable to 1900, when gasoline, electric and steam vehicles were in competition for the mass market.
By 2030, most of the cars on the road could be powered by hydrogen. Or not. Maybe theyll be electrics running on advanced batteries that some kid who hasnt even shaved yet will invent. Maybe theyll be powered by a biofuel made from a fast-growing hybrid plant some young botanist hybridizes. I cant wait to see what they come up with. In 2007, its time for kids to get under the hood again.
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