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American Business Driving A New Car Culture

By: Don Cayo
Vancouver Sun
September 5, 2008


Original link to column

REDMOND, Wash. - Americans invented the car culture and the auto-driven economy. But if you had followed me Thursday morning on my "shortcut" down Interstate 405 - or, I'm tempted to say, Parking Lot 405 - to this pleasant town just outside Seattle, you wouldn't have to be a saucy columnist to observe that they are in danger of losing it if they don't smarten up.

Yet, now that I'm here - 10 minutes late, and with a renewed insight for what car commuters put up with every day - I can tell you that, Seattle's legendary traffic jams notwithstanding, they are starting to smarten up. And faster than most of us might think.

Granted, I'm here for the "Beyond Oil" conference, and given its A-list of speakers, there may be no better place in America to find boosters for alternative technologies. But from the dozen or so utilitarian electric vehicles parked outside the Microsoft Conference Center, to the many speakers who walk the walk - and in many cases make money while they do it - the message is clear: The American addiction to imported oil can be and is being eased, although it's still far from ended.

What surprises me most at the conference is the tone. The over-riding imperative is not, as I had expected, paranoia about dependence on foreign oil - although that's an understandable undercurrent. Nor is it touchy-feely do-goodism. Rather, it's entrepreneurial zeal.

There's gold in them there alternative technologies. And a lot of the people here are panning like mad to get their share.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire set the tone - an appropriate first speaker, given that a fair bit of that gold is still in the form of government incentives.

But, Gregoire noted, the "outrageous price of gas" - which is about $15 a tank cheaper to fill my little car here than it would be at home - has created a huge appetite for change. And a huge market for those who make the right changes.

"Washingtonians want more hybrids, more rail, more buses, more efficient highways."

This means many demands on the state treasury. Yet her focus was less on what efforts to meet these needs will cost than on the opportunities they will create. Washington, already identified as the third-greenest state, has in very recent years built a solid core of green-collar jobs, and her eyes fairly danced at the prospect of a lot more. Not just jobs, she said, but "family-wage jobs."

This theme is taken up by most of the 500 or so people attending the conference, being sponsored by a non-profit think-tank, the Cascadia Centre of the Discovery Institute, which looks at West Coast transportation and development issues on both sides of the border.

I wasn't even in the door before I met people who had custom-equipped a plug-in hybrid that looks and runs like a real car or SUV or pickup - plus is fun for even a teenager to drive, plus is able to take me 100 miles or more on a gallon of gas. Or others who had retrofitted a gas-guzzling tractor-trailer to save 25 per cent or more on fuel.

I don't know these players well enough to be sure which ones have business models based on government grants and which are purely market-driven, but clearly there are both kinds rushing to make sales.

I reluctantly acknowledge the role for subsidies to kick-start some aspects of the new economy. So I was particularly interested in how the American federal government seem to be taking a different tack from our governments at home.

Joshua Schank, the director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Centre in the other Washington, outlined how the federal approach to funding state projects differs sharply from what we see in Canada. Whereas our federal government sometimes responds to cajoling for money for this project or that, theirs sets out national objectives and monitors closely to see if they are being met. But it doesn't tell the states where or how to spend the cash - only the results they expect.

This is an approach that Ottawa and Victoria - both overly fond of using their purse strings to micro-manage -- would do well to emulate.

So John McCain may spend billions on offshore petroleum if he wins, and Barack Obama may shower money on hybrids. But America's energy future is still likely to be shaped by a lot of diverse decision-makers, most of whom have their eye on the bottom line.

(Ed. - see also this Don Cayo blog post from the Beyond Oil conference: "Can The Developing World Dodge The Rich World's Mistakes?").

dcayo@vancouversun.com






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