NOVA: The Car of the Future


On Tuesday, Nova will be broadcasting their “Car of the Future,” episode. You can read all about it here. And while I didn’t make the preview, they have posted online 30 (!) clips they have of me talking about climate change and cars, especially plug-in hybrids.

Here is the program description:

Tom Magliozzi has a problem. The wacky cohost of NPR’s Car Talk needs to replace his beloved 1952 MG roadster. But in today’s car market, where should he turn? Is new technology about to transform the way we drive? Tom and his brother Ray hit the road in this program for a lighthearted but shrewd take on America’s four-wheeled future.

John Lithgow narrates as Tom and Ray mix their trademark slapstick with serious nuts-and-bolts analysis of what it will take to make our autos more energy-efficient. With a quarter of all the oil ever consumed guzzled up in the last decade and oil supplies being drawn down faster every day, the brothers’ screwball automotive odyssey doubles as a serious environmental wake-up call.

Tom and Ray explore everything from the glitzy, high-octane North American International Auto Show in Detroit to the earnest do-it-yourselfers of the AltWheels Festival in Boston, where the brothers squeeze, clown-car style, into a tiny three-wheeler that, even at 100 miles per gallon, isn’t quite ready for the rush-hour commute–it can’t go in reverse.

A distinguished group of engineers doubles as Tom and Ray’s straight men, including Lee Lynd of Mascoma Corporation, who is working to bioengineer microbes that can produce ethanol from plant wastes, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who is developing an ultralight, full-size “green” car that is efficient and almost indestructible.

Also appearing are Andy Frank of the University of California at Davis, whose lab has developed a plug-in hybrid vehicle that “fills up” from an ordinary electrical outlet, and Martin Eberhard, founder of Tesla Motors, who wants to prove that battery-powered cars can be fast, stylish, and take you 250 miles on one charge.

Even representatives of the giant automakers make an appearance, despite their penchant for producing 500-horsepower, gas-guzzling road machines that even a couple of car nuts like Tom and Ray find excessive–as the brothers emphatically point out to a cornered Detroit executive. A decade ago, Toyota paved the way to more efficient vehicles with its Prius. But will our current romance with hybrids lead to a breakup between Americans and their big, high-powered automobiles?

Which new technology will take off as the standard for the car of the future? With Tom and Ray, we learn that hydrogen fuel cells are the touchstone of zero emissions, since all the waste they produce is water vapor. But they require a new infrastructure for tanking up with hydrogen gas, which, as Tom and Ray note with a nod to the notorious Hindenburg zeppelin accident, is highly flammable.

Care to tank up on niblets? An ethanol-gasoline blend is already available at many filling stations, but doubts persist about whether ethanol represents much of an energy savings. Energy-dense lithium-ion batteries, like the ones that power computer laptops, could one day replace the gas tank altogether–but, as Ray points out, a pesky few of those batteries have spontaneously burst into flame.

Tom and Ray again turn an expert, comic eye on the promise and pitfalls of tomorrow’s auto technology, and their quest inspires cautious optimism that novel green vehicles are about to get roadworthy. But do any of these future cars tempt Tom to give up his ’52 MG? Tune in to see how the car guys answer this puzzler.

6 Responses to NOVA: The Car of the Future

  1. John Mashey says:

    Wow! Car talk! You have truly arrived.

  2. Earl Killian says:

    Ah, now we know what you look like. :-)

    The original script seemed a bit hydrogen tilted. Do you know if that got fixed?

  3. Jade A. says:

    Joe you look totally different than how I imagined you! Somehow I imagined you would be like a skinny version of Ernest Hemingway with a full head of white hair and the beard thing. In any case I really enjoyed the clips. Even downloaded a few. I also got around to purchasing your book on Amazon and am looking forward to reading it.

  4. ford says:

    Cars on accumulators while seems most real. imho

  5. Robert says:

    Joe – You seem to have a bit of a blind spot about the rest of the world. Believe it or not the US is only quite a small part of the problem, and the problem can’t be solved without getting the whole world on board. Your video clips actually address a rather different issue, that of US energy security.

    People use the word “we” in different ways. Your “we” is that tiny 5% of the world population that lives in the US:

    We tried really, really hard to put a man on the moon. I mean, our budgets for clean energy technologies are probably about one-tenth that of what we spent to get on the moon. So, you know, I think it’s- the American public knows that we can do whatever we set our minds to. We just haven’t started doing it yet.

  6. Jim Ellis says:

    The answer is to get independent people in Congress who arent two party corporate globalists stuck on oil. So write in “Jim Ellis for President” in Nov 08 on your ballot.