Imagine legislators in Washington being driven around in steam-powered cars, indicting heavy polluting car companies, holding federal hearings on reducing carbon emissions, and introducing legislation to ban the internal combustion engine within 10 years. Sound like an optimistic future? Try 35 years ago.

Morgan Morel
Sam Butler

Under gloomy forecasts concerning peak oil and global warming, the push for alternative fuel sources has become a hot-button political issue. But it is hardly a new issue. The technology has been available for decades; only the willpower is lacking. Through chicanery, distraction and seedy underhanded schemes, the auto industry has deliberately stalled efforts to replace the internal combustion engine for more than 40 years. However, the general public has committed a far more heinous crime – we’ve let them get away with it.

Legislation to reign in the auto industry and the internal combustion engine can be found as early as 1957 when U.S. Rep. Paul Schenck (R-Ohio) introduced a bill to ban all vehicles that exceeded hydrocarbon levels established by the surgeon general. Imbued with that activist spirit, change really seemed to be at hand in the late ’60s. In 1969, U.S. Rep. Leonard Farbstein (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment to the Clean Air Act to ban the internal combustion engine by 1978. In conjunction with Nader’s Raiders, Farbstein also invited the Big Three auto companies to a public summit to discuss cleaner fuels. Only Ford showed up.

Federal hearings were convened to investigate alternatives to the internal combustion engine, and one of the more prominent choices was a steam-powered car. In 1968, independent inventors Calvin and Charles Williams drove their steam-powered convertible to Washington and testified before Congress about steam’s potential. The Williams brothers then chauffeured congressmen around the Beltway, impressing them with the car’s agility and quiet ride. At the same time, industry experts were advocating steam engines as light as 150 pounds, and even Ford executives admitted that the engine would fit in most models.

But the Big Three were not open to change. Ralph Nader’s 1970 study, titled “Vanishing Air,” featured testimony from a General Motors engineer who was instructed to prove that steam power wasn’t viable. As explained in Jack Doyle’s book, “Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution,” GM, placating to sweeping public opinion, developed a steam-powered prototype and unveiled it at an auto show in 1969. Unlike the Williams brothers’ version, the prototype was noisy, clunky and featured an engine weighing more than 450 pounds. The message was clear – if you wanted alternate fuel sources, you’d be subjected to a less than genuine commitment to quality.

Can you imagine what the world would look like today if we had jumped on the alternative fuel bandwagon back then? Perhaps we would be already driving zero-emission vehicles. Perhaps Al Gore would have to find a different issue to boost his popularity. Perhaps thousands of Americans would not have died under the hot desert sun fighting a war for oil.

Shame on us for letting such public momentum slip away. Shame on us for being surprised when GM nixed its EV1, star of the recent film “Who Killed the Electric Car.” Shame on us for relinquishing last summer’s veracity over the problem as soon as gas prices dropped back to acceptable levels.

Alternative fuel is again at the forefront of public awareness. But this time, we are being distracted by a new form of placation – corn-based ethanol.

To quote an Associated Press report, “America is drunk on ethanol.” Gov. Jennifer Granholm hopes it will be the very thing to jump start Michigan’s sputtering economy and has offered tax incentives for people who drive ethanol vehicles, gas stations that install ethanol pumps and ethanol plants that come to Michigan. Washington is just as intoxicated, offering bushels of similar incentives and subsidies. Earlier this month, President Bush signed a deal to exchange ethanol technology with Brazil. We hail all of these efforts as improvements, but our declarations of love for ethanol may just be the liquor talking.

The environmental benefits of corn-based ethanol are marginal at best. Some scientists even argue that once the total cost of production and shipment is calculated, ethanol is not only less efficient but may be more environmentally harmful than petroleum. So then, why is ethanol the fuel de jour? Because industry fat cats have allowed it to be.

Unlike electricity and steam, ethanol still makes consumers dependent on filling stations and provides an enormous boost to corporate farmers. Ethanol lets auto companies make only minor modifications while still claiming to be green, and it lets the enormous farming lobby line its pockets with a little more green.

Car companies have missed the boat and on alternative fuels will do anything to delay making costly adjustments. Only federal legislation will effect lasting change. Sadly, the same thing was said 35 years ago when one commentator wrote that “the handwriting was on the wall” for the internal combustion engine. Apparently we didn’t read it.

Steam power, electricity, ingenuity and imagination birthed the industrial revolution. Where is that big-idea thinking today? The first automobiles ran on steam and electricity – how sad that we’re now trying to get back to the same place we were 150 years ago.

Sam Butler can be reached at butlers@umich.edu.

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