Sunday, May 30, 2010

Deepwater Wake Up Call

I've been following the news on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a lot of interest. The whole mess is like watching a bad disaster film from the 1970s. But instead of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen battling to put out a blaze in a high rise, you have a bunch of petroleum executives running around, pointing fingers while trying anything with a 50-50 chance for success.

Now entering its second month, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil spill is no longer front page news. It's been eclipsed by the latest Lindsey Lohan drama, the deaths of Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper, and various political infighting the Obama Administration.

Further muddying the message like a failed "junk shot" are the talking heads that call this crisis a "black swan" event. They cite examples of how the safety and technology of today's oil industry makes drilling safe. They claim this disaster was a one in a million shot. A rare event that isn't that bad, since it's only spilling "5,000 barrels of oil a day." I'm sure we'll eventually learn that the disaster was entirely preventable if the correct procedures had been followed, just as we've learned that the well is spilling more than the original 5,000 barrel a day estimate.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, it's that our nation's oil strategy needs to change. I don't know what the solution is, but in the short term we can drive more efficient cars and drive fewer miles. Long term there are a lot of promising technologies--fuel cells, bio-fuels, and improvements in batteries and electric motors mean we could have any number of choices in the next twenty five years.

Rather than government mandates and more half-measure public policy, I hope we see the birth of a new Silicon Valley for alternative energy. Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google were started by kids with ideas that led to personal computers and the internet revolution. I'd like to see what a new generation of kids could do for the auto industry, when given a similar opportunity.

Friday, May 7, 2010

V8 Lullabies

At the end of Thomas Harris’ book, The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling falls asleep leaning against a washing machine. Harris writes that the washing machine comforted Clarice because its sound was the closest thing to what we hear in the womb.

In my own experience as a father, I’ve learned that repetitive songs and sounds at bedtime have a soothing affect and help lull children to sleep. Those sounds carry with us into adulthood, and years later, have the same effect. To this day, the sound of a slow idling V8 engine is a lullaby for me.

In my youth, my dad had a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass. It carried me home from the hospital after I was born. Years later it was my car in high school. It was a dilapidated old beast by the time I was sixteen, rusty, musty, and worn. It wasn't a 442 or Hurst like the one in the picture, just a common coupe with the 350 Rocket motor. But I didn't care. The beating of that V8 heart was magic to me and I'd drive around for hours, just listening to it.

As I write this, gas prices are creeping skyward towards three dollars a gallon. Car companies, including Ford and BMW, are building automobiles like the Mustang and M Series with smaller V6 engines. Most of these engines are fantastic. Advances in internal combustion are creating small displacement four and six cylinder engines which produce even greater horsepower than some of the recent V8s.

But something is lost in the translation, like watching a great foreign film with subtitles. You get the gist of it, but you miss some of the nuances.

V8s have been part of the automotive landscape since Ford rolled out their Flathead in 1932. Like Coke, rock 'n roll and apple pile, they are a staple of American culture. I doubt they'll ever go completely away, but the days of V8 powered sedans and SUVs may be coming to an end.