The spirit of motoring

With the efforts of UN and the likes, we are enjoying perhaps the longest period of uninterrupted peace in the human history. But are we really at peace?

Environmentalists might disagree. Our air is getting polluted, the global temperature is on the rise, polar ice caps are melting, acid rain, decreasing forest cover, depleting natural resources, the list is virtually endless. So we are at war now, with the factors responsible for this, and this has taken up the center stage now.

Of course various culprits have been identified. And in every such lists, there is a common item: automobiles. Its not just an automobile but automobiles in plural. The contribution of a single car to environmental pollution is not substantial, but it is the sheer number of them that makes it a global phenomenon. As expected human beings are rising up to face this magnificently. Many protective measures are being suggested and the chief among them: electric motors to replace petrol engines. True, its pollution free, and saves the environment to an extent. I am writing this article to look at this from a different angle: Its effect on the very spirit of motoring.

Electric motors are better than petrol engines numerically. But sadly numbers don’t tell the entire story. Its too silent, to smooth, too sublime and certainly not thrilling.

Until recently one could argue that they are boring as well, but with a great pioneering effort, Tesla motors proved otherwise. Their all-electric sedans can accelerate to 100 kmph from a standstill in under 5 seconds. That’s sports car territory, and its achieved in a car where 5 can be accommodated comfortably, more boot space than a petrol sedan of a similar size can ever offer due to the small electric motors, absence of transmission and due to the absence of a prop shaft, no ridges in the middle. So in terms of practicality, electric cars really does check all the boxes and just batters the faithful old petrol’s bottom. My question is : is everything about practicality?

If we were so concerned about practicality, we wouldn’t have taken to automobiles in the first place. At the time they were conceived and 1st produced, they were highly problematic. One could often see an automobile, broken down by the side of the road while the horse drawn carriage just passed by. They were noisy, emitted lots of black smoke that almost certainly rendered its passenger’s and quite often the passersby’s clothes to a disgusting condition. They weren’t even reliable compared to the horses that people used until then. Why did humanity take to automobiles so splendidly in spite of this? Why did they pay more to buy a car, then paid even more to keep it running when most often they broke down in the middle of nowhere? Is it the sense of luxury that automobiles projected in those medieval times? Or was it the thrill that they got when they finally managed to get the thing running- the wind on the hair, the growling engine underneath, the excitement at the mechanical feat of all the parts working in harmony to give you more power, more torque, the screaming engine urging us to go faster.

At that time, people were accustomed to horse drawn carriages. Their entire life was centered around it. So when the petrol engined automobiles came along, their increased speed capabilities were actually more of a luxury than necessity. So the practical thing to do then was to work on improving the reliability of these engines, rather than their performance. Most of the effort in automobile development in those days was focused to address this issue. Yet, even in those times, there were pioneers who loved to explore the edge of limits of these fire breathing beahmouths. They kept making bigger engines, generating more power, sucking in more fuel which ultimately had a greater chance of breaking down — all of this so that we can squeeze out that tiny bit of extra juice from these monsters. Was this practicality? Hell No!!! It’s full blown octane bloodedness!! We’d rather go 50kms at 100kph and then suffer a break down, after repairing which, we go the rest of the 50kms at 100kph rather than go 100kms in one shot at 50kph.

So after all it turns out we are not 100% practical. We are all, to an extent, adventure seekers and automobiles gave us just that. Yet, a lot of us, are opting to leave our gasoline vehicles behind. Electric cars doesn’t harm the environment or exerts stress on diminishing oil reserves. In a way one could argue that electric motors are better than petrol engines to be used in an automobile.

On the point of environment friendly nature of electric motors, its worth noting that an electric motor is only as environment friendly as the source of electricity used to power these. If the electricity used to charge up the batteries of an electric car originated from a thermal power station, then there is nothing green about it. Then there’s the concern of manufacturing an electric car. It’s said that due to the Nickel in the batteries of a Toyota Prius, it actually creates a lot more pollution to manufacture it than the amount of pollution an average Prius saves.

In an electric motor, the torque is instant. Theoretically the maximum torque is available right from 0 RPM to the red line. Oh, and about the RPM, an electric motor can be made to run from 0 to a suitable red line, that corresponds to the vehicle’s maximum speed, eliminating the need of a transmission. The motor can be coupled directly to the wheels.

All this is excellent, in paper. Yet there is something missing when we reduce an automobile to a set of equations in paper. What we are missing and ultimately going to leave behind is the very spirit of motoring. Is it perfection? To me perfection is when something is just the way you want it to be and that might include certain defects or shortcomings. This gives it a humane nature. To me an automobile is just that. You have to have a complicated set of gears to transfer power to the wheels effectively. The engine has to be kept running continuously and due to that we are practically wasting fuel whenever we are not moving forward in a petrol engine. I personally don’t consider this to be a waste or even inefficient. When you start considering the sound, the heat and the vibrations of an automobile as ingredients required to generate the right feel and thrill, its not a waste.

We will lose all these as we continue down the current path. All these talks of self-driving electric cars, that solve the “inefficiency” in car ownership we face today — “cars are sitting idle 95% of the time now…in the future, it will be 5% with self-driving cars on the move continuously and people wanting to go somewhere can just hail one and be off”. These kind of talks clearly reflect the view point of someone who merely sees an automobile as a tool to get from point A to point B. The reality is that its much more than that. Driving an automobile is just part of the joys associated with its ownership. Cleaning it, washing it, making it shine again and even just gazing at it gives a true octane blooded person pleasure. All these will vanish.

Then there is the aspect of mod-ing or modifying or customizing cars. To people who do that, its an art, giving a personal touch to their automobiles, something they can relate to say “this is mine”. All these will vanish with a fleet of self-driving electric taxis roaming around. Ultimately we will reach a situation where private citizens wont be allowed to own cars let alone customize them. The whole drag racing culture and automotive gatherings associated with it will vanish. There wont be any talks of “I had a super charger installed in my car…what have you done to yours?”, instead it will be talks like “I got a red cab to the office today….what was the color of yours?” and for the occasional octane blooded person “it reminded me of the roaring V12 ferraris we used to have”.

I know that this is ultimately inevitable. We will soon reach a time when the roads are full of identical white or black square vehicles that roam around very often in packs of arrow shaped formation to attain an aerodynamic advantage. Then we will have reached a time when there are no more automotive enthusiasts or octane blooded people around. Everyone will be just users of self-driving cabs that focus on getting to their destination rather than the process of getting there.

All this will undoubtedly be green and quiet and noiseless and quite convenient. But we are going to miss an awesome and ecstatic era in human history and the machines that made it so.