In the 1992 film, Singles, Campbell Scott plays Steve Dunne, an earnest, idealistic transportation engineer keen on solving Seattle's traffic woes by building a "Supertrain": not just your average commuter system, but one with great music, great coffee and so much luxurious comfort that suburbanites will -- the theory goes -- forego their gas-guzzling vehicles and happily park 'n ride. Steve finally snags a critical five-minute meeting with the mayor, who shatters all his dreams in a single sentence: "People love their cars."
The fictional mayor was right on the money. It's been 15 years since that movie was made, and America is still Car Country, except for a few weird pockets here and there that violate this most fundamental law of US culture -- places like New York City. I never had a car when I lived there. I even managed to live in Washington, DC, for six years without buying a car, thanks to a decent Metro and bus system, and Zipcar -- a stellar example of community-shared vehicles. Los Angeles is different. Sure, there's a sort of subway, still in its infancy, and it might take me to Pasadena in a pinch. But nobody takes the subway to, say, Rodeo Drive. (Jen-Luc Piquant -- an inveterate clothes horse -- is chomping at the bit to get some serious shopping in, and would die of embarrassment if she arrived in anything less chic than a Beamer. An avatar must have standards.) For most of us, a car means freedom: you can hop in and drive anywhere you want, time and funds (and traffic!) permitting.
There are other, less practical reasons why a car is de rigeur in LA. When Future Spouse was apartment hunting last fall and trying to decide on a neighborhood, a local pal told him, "Dude, forget about where you're going to live. What are you going to drive?" One's choice of a car is a statement, you see, a vehicular extension of oneself. So it's very important to pick just the right mode of transport that captures the essence of your soul. Choose -- but choose wisely; by your choice shall you be judged. And I did my best, within my limited means. Yesterday I became the proud owner of a shiny new Prius Touring, in Barcelona red metallic with gray leather interior, and all the bells and whistles. (I chose red because everyone around here seems to drive silver cars, and I want to be able to find mine easily in a crowded parking lot.)
Admittedly, one of the many reasons for choosing the Prius is to assuage my white liberal guilt about abandoning public transportation after all these years. ("It's not you, it's me....") But as personal statements go, I think it suits me: practical, yet kinda stylin', brightly colored, with nifty gadgetry, and most importantly, it says, "I care about the environment." Or more honestly, "If I'm paying over $3 a gallon for gas, I'm damn sure gonna squeeze the utmost energy out of every last drop!" That's an image I can live with.
Cars have changed a lot since the last time I owned one, as auto manufacturers keep coming up with new twists to keep this century-old technology fresh. For starters, almost everything on this puppy is governed by microelectronics and complicated computer algorithms. I'm still figuring out the Smart Key System. Somewhat creepily, the car's computer knows when I'm approaching because it communicates wirelessly with the Smart Key whenever the two come within range of each other. Spoooky. And so much for the element of surprise. (Fortunately, there's also a manual key tucked into the casing for emergencies.) Did I mention the built-in Bluetooth enabled iPod hookup and hands-free cell phone features? How cool is that? And there's so many snazzy special features on the dashboard monitor -- in addition to the cutting edge, voice-activated GPS navigation system -- that I'm surprised there aren't more accidents involving Prius drivers who are too distracted by monitoring their real-time gas mileage to pay much attention to actual traffic.
The point is, there's a helluva lot of science and technology behind a modern car, even if it isn't a fancy hybrid model. Some of it's basic chemistry, like that telltale "new car smell." I've been greedily inhaling the scent whenever I sit in my Prius, mostly because it's such a novelty. But perhaps I ought to be a bit more careful. The odor derives from a complex mixture of volatile organic compounds, "primarily alkanes and substituted benzenes along with a few aldehydes and ketones," according to this handy explanation, courtesy of Chemical and Engineering News'' online resource, "What's That Stuff?"
That's because of all the adhesives and sealants used to hold together the various interior components, whether plastic or fabric. Basically, you've got a bit of residual solvent gas and a few other chemicals wafting about the interior -- those leather seats had to be treated with something, after all. The VOCs aren't present in anything remotely approaching harmful concentrations, but the site does warn about potential ill effects building up over time, and recommends that owners of new cars "make sure there is plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while they drive for at least six months after the vehicle has been purchased." It's been 75 degrees and sunny ever since I got here, so ventilation really shouldn't be a problem. But if I notice an increase in headaches, drowsiness, nausea, eye, nose and throat irritation, and the vague "respiratory distress" -- well, that would be cause for concern.
When it comes to the Prius, however, the smartest science is behind that incredible gas mileage: 60 miles per gallon in the city, and 50 miles per gallon on the highway. It accomplishes this partly by reducing the overall weight of the vehicle -- although at 2900 pounds, one could hardly call the Prius a lightweight. Most cars manufactured today use advanced composite materials for most of the components: plastics and ceramics, very few metals. So does the Prius, but it's also able to lose a bit of extra poundage because it can operate with a smaller internal combustion engine. The battery can pick up the slack when necessary, and the car's computer automatically switches back and forth between the two (it's an impressively smooth transition, too). Less weight means less energy (i.e., gas, combusted) is needed to overcome the car's inertia to get and keep it moving. Plus, it's got all those pretty aerodynamic curves to reduce drag, particularly at higher speeds -- which also translates into less need for energy.
Those features are nice, but I'm most impressed with how the car finds clever ways to recover energy that wold otherwise be lost and store it in the battery for future use --e.g., during deceleration and when stopped at a light. Think about it. The whole point of braking is to reduce the car's accumulated kinetic energy via friction, which releases the energy into the atmosphere as heat. That's the primary cause of wear and tear on brakes. The Prius actually "captures" the heat (how? I have no idea, but they call it "regenerative braking") and recycles it to keep the battery charged. Which is one reason a Prius gets so much better gas mileage in city driving than on highways, unlike a standard gasoline-powered car.
It's an ingenious solution, and will certainly make me feel better about the inevitable traffic jams I'll be experiencing. While other drivers sit there and fume at the wasting of valuable time, I can smugly reflect on the fact that some good is coming out of the delay: my battery is getting some extra juice! Potential energy is being stored, which can then be turned into kinetic energy and harnessed to perform the actual work of overcoming the car's inertia to accelerate forward.
(Jen-Luc wishes to chime in here with a reminder that just because the Prius recycles heat and other forms of energy for further use -- and has an onboard generator that maintains the proper level of charge automatically -- doesn't make it a perpetual motion machine, since it doesn't do so with 100% efficiency. Some of that energy is still lost in translation, thanks to entropy. Otherwise I'd be getting a gazillion miles to the gallon and my battery would last forever. Stupid entropy ruins everything. Thus endeth our little impromptu detour into Newtonian mechanics and classical thermodynamics.)
All this combined has made the Toyota Prius the top-selling hybrid vehicle in the US since it debuted in 2000. Between 2003 and 2004 alone, sales rose 82%, and Toyota had to boost production by 50% to meet the huge demand. Dealerships struggled to keep cars in stock, and it wasn't unusual for there to be waiting lists, sometimes as long as six months. Admittedly, sales have slumped a bit over the last year, but c'mon -- no product, no matter how stellar in concept and execution, can maintain that kind of growth rate indefinitely.
So okay, I'm not quite at the cutting edge of trendiness, but owning a Prius still has some cache. Charlie Eppes, the fictional mathematician on Numb3rs, was shown driving a Prius in an episode earlier this year. And Larry David's fictional counterpart in Curb Your Enthusiasm drives a Prius, which he affectionately calls "Peppy." There's a classic scene where he goes ballistic when he honks and waves at a fellow Prius driver, and said driver doesn't wave back in self-righteous solidarity.
In reality, Larry David is a staunch environmentalist, and does indeed drive a Prius. So does Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, and any number of other green-conscious celebrities. We feel more fabulous already. Sure, I'll be getting lost all over the greater LA area -- at least until I figure out how to program my spiffy new GPS navigational system. I can console myself with the knowledge that I am a member of an elite, though growing, group of drivers. As Larry David's alter ego explained: "We're Prius drivers. We're a special breed."