CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- My father would have had a few things to say to those automakers grumbling about government-mandated gas-mileage standards. He would have waved his fist in the direction of Detroit and thundered: "Global warming! Alternative energy!"
But I've learned there's more to getting good gas mileage than that. I now drive the most high-tech, fuel-efficient car humankind has ever created, and it turns out there's something even my dad could not have guessed. Good gas mileage could save civilization. I know it sounds odd, but it's true.
My father taught environmental policy at George Washington University and was co-recipient of a sustainable development award with Vice President Al Gore. He was an old-school environmentalist. He'd reuse an envelope 10 or 20 times — before recycling it. And when I was a kid in the 70's, he had the smallest car on the block: a miserly two-door Datsun. The car was the cutting edge of the subcompact craze. Its tiny engine tended to stall at stoplights, so Dad rigged a string from the accelerator pedal up to the dashboard. He'd yank on it when both his feet were occupied with the clutch and brake.
When the Datsun finally conked out, my father bought one of the first compacts built by Detroit, a Chevy Chevette. In the 80's he switched to an early Toyota Camry, which got even better mileage. He still had the Camry when I bought my first car — a sport utility vehicle.
I remember the pit in my stomach when he first saw it. The feeling that I had betrayed my father didn't go away even after I outgrew the S.U.V. My next car was a new American muscle machine: a Ford Probe GT. It was fast and had wide sticky tires and a gorgeous exhaust note. And it was plenty thirsty.
Then my father got sick. So did his Camry. The first operation to remove the throat cancer seemed like a success, and Dad turned his attention to buying a new car. He had sworn his next automobile would be one of those gas-electric hybrids, but they hadn't hit the market yet. So after decades of frugality, he opted instead for a little indulgence. He got a nice bottom-of-the-line BMW. The cancer came back. We mostly used the BMW to ferry him to radiation treatments after the second operation.
Dad didn't make it. I drove his new car for a while in his honor. Then my brother and I got a better idea. We sold it and bought a gas-electric hybrid. Now I drive a sleek Honda Insight. It's silver, and the rear wheels are covered over for extra streamlining. It has a tiny three-cylinder engine that turns off at traffic lights on purpose. It has brakes that produce electricity when you slow down. It goes 600 miles on a 10-gallon fill-up, and you never have to plug it in. My father would have loved this car.
But here's what I wish he could see: Everybody loves this car. Like most Americans, I thought I knew what I wanted — security, high up in an S.U.V.; escape, low down in a sports machine; status, in the comfort of a luxury cruiser. But these cars insulate us from our fellow human beings. When I started driving the Insight, I realized what we're missing.
Wherever I go in the Insight, people wave, shout, honk, roll their windows down, give me the thumbs up, pull alongside. They always smile. Boys playing ball have dropped their bats and mitts and run after me. Bicyclers in the Berkshires have flagged me over to the roadside to talk. Firemen have stopped polishing their fire engines to ask how the car works. In parking lots, people leave me exuberant notes or they wait for me to return so they can quiz me. Honda reports having sold 7,084 Insights by July of this year; they are still rare, and enticing.
Nowadays, when I get towed for a violation it's fun, because the grimy guy at the holding lot can't contain his enthusiasm. In the inner city where I live, a menacingly thuggish man recently pulled up in a low-rider. I was ready to retreat indoors, but he stopped me and said, "Hey, isn't that one of those hybrids?" We spent the next hour chatting about the experimental gas-electric car he'd built in college.
I think of my father every time I turn the Insight's key. If government-mandated gas-mileage standards require Detroit to put hybrid technology in S.U.V.'s, some of the work my father did to slow global warming may be strengthened. But if the automakers stop there, they'll be missing out. Global warming may hit us hard no matter what we do. In the meantime, somebody could make a lot of money selling cars that spread joy, friendship, community and hope. Those qualities may be even more important for getting us through than good gas mileage.
Trevor Corson is managing editor of Transition, a quarterly publication at Harvard University.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company