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Cars In Crisis? A View From The Detroit Auto Show

Paul Eisenstein reports from the Detroit Auto Show on the state of the auto industry. Eisenstein has covered cars for over 30 years; he currently reports for the independent news service The Detroit Bureau.

21:26

Other segments from the episode on January 15, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 2009: Interview with Paul Eisenstein; Interview with Daniel Sperling; Commentary on Ardent Studio.

Transcript

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Cars In Crisis? A View From The Detroit Auto Show

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

The 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit opens to the public Saturday, at a calamitous time for the industry. Automakers are in perilous financial condition, and concerns about gas prices and climate change are driving demands for manufacturers to abandon their gas-guzzling models of the past and embrace new, greener technologies. But the automakers' distress is producing bargains for car shoppers who have the cash or credit to buy now.

Our guest, Paul Eisenstein, has been writing about the auto industry for 30 years, contributing to a wide variety of publications. His new Web magazine, called the Detroit Bureau, launched online today. He spoke to us yesterday from the floor of the auto show, which opened to members of the media and industry insiders earlier this week.

Well, Paul Eisenstein, welcome back to Fresh Air. I always think of the auto show as sort of embodying that thrill you get when you get a new car. I mean, the smell of - and feel and the excitement of it. And of course, the auto show - my sense in the past is that people have really showcased power and speed and luxury and high-tech gadgets. But you know, the automakers got shellacked in the media when they appeared before Congress and had taken their corporate jets there. And I wonder, as they approach this one, are they worried about hitting the wrong tone in some major way?

Mr. PAUL EISENSTEIN (Auto Writer, The Detroit Bureau): Oh, absolutely. One of the things that an auto show like this is normally known for is this - well, first of all, the elaborate staging. You look at Chrysler, which was traditionally a manufacturer that loved auto shows because they would put on these incredible, incredible reveals. Twenty-seven years ago, when they launched their first Jeep Grand Cherokee, they drove the thing up the steps of the Convention Center, smashed through a plate glass window. They literally launched a minivan over the heads of their two top executives. They dropped a pickup truck from the ceiling rafters, and everybody else tried to do the same thing.

This is a very downsized show. Chrysler basically has nothing at their exhibit except cars. It looks like a slightly spread out new car dealer showroom. Most of the dinners have been canceled or cut way back. Interestingly enough, the only ones that are putting on the sort of lavish spreads that we normally expect in Detroit, at least during media days, were the Germans. They went on with business as usual, occasionally pouring a few glasses of Louis XIII cognac during their press previews.

DAVIES: The auto industry has always loved gadgets and new technology. Is it more important than ever nowadays?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Absolutely. In fact, where leather and wood and good design might have been the big distinguishers in years past between one brand and another, particularly between mainstream and luxury, it's all about technology today. And when you look at a product like the Mercedes E-Class, which was launched with much fanfare here, it really is the technological automobile. Mercedes has a system that can tell where to aim the headlights so that when you're using your brights late at night it won't get into the oncoming traffic's eyes. It has a system onboard that can tell when you're likely to have an accident to help you steer away from that, and if necessary, to almost create an emergency cocoon if you're going to have that accident to reduce the likelihood of injuries or death. There's even a new system on the Mercedes E-Class that will jiggle you, let you know when you're starting to get a little drowsy. It'll flash a coffee cup on its display screen and say, you're tired. Pull over and have a little Java.

DAVIES: I guess the the worry is that those safety features, if they malfunction, might, I don't know, put your lights into oncoming traffic or steer you into the wrong lane.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: That's interesting you say it. I was actually testing a new Ford system, which can park itself automatically. Literally, all you have to do is hit the button. It'll figure out where the parking spot is that you can fit into. You do manage the gas and brake, and they don't want to give that up entirely because they want to make sure that you ultimately have control. If there is a malfunction, your foot's still on the brake.

DAVIES: Hmm. Well, let's talk about some of the innovations that the auto companies have made to deal with the needs for a better fuel economy, lower emissions, greenhouse gases. There's hybrids. I mean, the Prius is sort of the gold standard. But a lot of the carmakers have hybrids. What are you seeing this year in that area?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Let me tell you what the single word you heard more than anything else here at the show this year: Electrification. By the middle of next decade, virtually every car on the market is likely to have something called stop-start. You see it in most of the hybrids now. You come to a stop light, put your foot on the brake, the car - the gasoline engine actually shuts off briefly. Lift your foot off the gas to start up, and the engine will kick back in again. This can save five percent or more of your fuel economy. I mean, it's amazing how little things can yield such big results.

Now, you move up a little bit, you get something like what's called a mild hybrid, where energy is recaptured as you drive during braking or coasting. And then it's reused, say, when you do start up at that light to help you use electric power - reuse electric power to drive off. That can save another five or 10 percent of your fuel economy. And then you get into full hybrids, you mentioned the Prius - which, by the way, they launched an all-new one here - which will probably get another 10 or 15 percent better fuel economy than the old one. These full hybrids can also drive for short distances on purely electric power.

Now, the real breakthroughs only begin there. And what we're seeing - we saw the production-ready version of Chevrolet's Volt. That's been getting a lot of attention in the last few months. This is a so-called plug-in hybrid, though they like the term extended range electric vehicle.

DAVIES: So the Volt does have a gasoline engine, right?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: Right. The plug-ins will have a gas engine. There are full electrics, which we should probably talk about, too. But there are different approaches to this technique. Some of the plug-ins, at night or when you're at work, you plug the car in. It has a bigger battery pack than today's typical hybrid - enough that you might get 20, 30, even 40 miles of range, typically enough for your daily commute, purely on battery power. That gasoline engine may never run.

GM takes a little bit different approach where even when the gasoline engine does kick in, it'll be only operating as a generator. So, you'll always have the wheels turning by electric power. What's really good about this compared to the old battery cars - you know, California had this experiment with battery cars a little more than a decade ago, and it failed miserably. And we blame the manufacturers and movies like, "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. EISENSTEIN: The fact was, consumers walked away because even though these cars could typically do your commute, I call it the over-the-meadow-and-through-the-woods syndrome. The fact is that even though you may never typically drive every day of the week but one, 30 or 40 miles, on that last day, if you want to go, you know, take a long trip, you want to go visit your family, you want to know that that car'll have the range. You don't want to stop every 80 or 100 miles for an eight-hour recharge.

DAVIES: All right. So let's talk about electric cars. I mean, how real, how ready are they?

Mr. EISENSTEIN: That's a real question. To get to the true electric means some radical transformations in technology. Right now, we're using in most of the hybrids what are called nickel metal hydride batteries. These are ubiquitous. They're everywhere from electric razors to laptops. But laptops are making the transition. Cell phones are making the transition to the next generation battery, probably the biggest breakthrough in battery technology in 20 years, and that's the lithium ion battery.

But it's one thing to put Li-ion batteries in a cell phone, which by and large you keep in your pocket, stays about the same temperature, it's small, doesn't have huge power demands. Now, put it inside an automobile. What one car company, a little startup in California has - called Tesla - has 6,831 little lithium ion cells in its Tesla roadster. And that's a small vehicle. That's a lightweight carbon fiber sports car. Now imagine trying to put enough batteries into something big, like a mid-sized sedan or even a light truck, and you're talking huge numbers. And these have to operate in ranges from 40 below zero in Minnesota to 120 degrees in Palm Springs in the middle of a hot summer. Will the technology work? They are still skeptics, but every single automaker you talk to now is committed to lithium-ion and quickly.

DAVIES: When we talk about electric cars, the Chinese are making advances in this area, right? Both in battery technology and are beginning to manufacture cars. Are we going to be driving Chinese electric cars in a few years?

MR. EISENSTEIN: Well, the question is whether we'll be driving Chinese cars at all. We've been seeing Chinese automakers show up in Detroit for the North American International Show now, what is this, the third or fourth year they've been here. And we have seen a lot of improvements. The very first year, I remember walking over to one brand, and they didn't even have the badge stuck on right. It was hanging at a sort of an angle and was ready to fall off. It wasn't exactly the most promising display.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. EISENSTEIN: There's a video going around about one brand that's actually on sale in Europe, and the crash test is frightening. You don't want to be in that car. But the Chinese are improving quality at a rapid rate, and it is very, very likely that we'll see the first Chinese brand on the market with a relatively conventional internal combustion engine within, oh, I'd say 18 months to 24.

But one of the ways that I think the Chinese makers hope to make a dent here is not necessarily by being even cheaper than the Koreans, who are even cheaper than the Japanese, but by having some break-through technology. And the Chinese, in part because of their own environmental concerns, have made a big push into environmental technology, which leads us to a brand called BYD.

DAVIES: And - and what? They make cell phone batteries, right?

MR. EISENSTEIN: Yeah, interestingly enough. Now they've been dating back to I think 1985 as a battery company, and they shocked everybody. In fact, I think their chairman was seriously excoriated for making a move into automobiles about seven years ago. It was, like, what are you doing? You've become one of the largest battery makers in the world. Why do you want to build cars? But he saw the opportunity to create a market. They have a bunch of conventional internal combustion engines, gasoline engines, but they are pushing hard into the electric vehicle space.

DAVIES: And they claim to have a car that has a range of 250 miles, is that right?

MR. EISENSTEIN: They claim to. Most everyone here is pretty skeptical of it. One of the things you can do is you can pull every possible ounce of energy out of a battery to get the maximum range. That, unfortunately, is also a recipe for killing the battery much more quickly than you would if you carefully control it. But we're getting real technical. I'll try to keep this simple. But the way to make lithium batteries work is to only use part of the power that they're capable of storing. These guys seem to use every ounce of it, so we'll have to wait and see. They're actually selling some of these in China, and I think we're going to be watching to see if they hold up and actually deliver anywhere near promised.

But 250 miles? If you do that, now you're getting a tank, a full gas tank's worth of driving range out of it. And they say that they can charge up 50 percent of that range in another ten minutes with special chargers. This is the paradigm shift that a lot of people are waiting for.

DAVIES: With all of this new technology, I mean hybrids and plug-ins, , is the auto service industry keeping up? Am I going to be able to find a mechanic that can work on this stuff?

MR. EISENSTEIN: Yeah, that's a real good question. It is a real challenge to have your stuff serviced. It's actually good news, I guess, for the car dealers, the new car dealers because it makes it easier for them to keep a customer even after they run out of warranty. In the old days, you'd leave and try to find some cheaper, local service station. But it is a problem. And one of the biggest warranty issues that consumers face is getting repairs on faulty electronic gear.

DAVIES: Our guest is Paul Eisenstein. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Paul Eisenstein. He's been writing about the auto industry for more than thirty years. He now runs the Detroit Bureau, which is available online and which feeds articles about the auto industry to a variety of publications.

Let's talk about buying a car. If you're in a position in this recession where you need and have the resources to buy a new car, is this the best time ever? You'd think that the automakers are dying to get cars off the lot.

MR. EISENSTEIN: Yeah, this is sort of dickenzien(ph). This is best of times, this is the worst of times. Can you get the credit or do you have the money in the bank? Then boy, are you in for a great deal. If you have to go for credit and you don't have the perfect score, you could be - I think the technical term is screwed.

(Soundbite of laugher)

MR. EISENSTEIN: The reality is, you can negotiate on everything. Even the hybrid Prius, which four months ago, you were paying well above sticker price. Now you can get a deal. They'll throw in the floor mats for free and a lot of other options, as well. My gosh, I've heard of people, full-sized pickups getting 10 and $12,000 off the sticker price. There are a couple of dealers that have been advertising, Buy one car, get another one free. And they mean it.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Dealers pay a significant charge, interest rate, what they call floor planning, when they have cars sitting around unsold. So it's costing them money to keep that car, and in some cases, these cars have been sitting around for four, five, six months. That's why Chrysler has shut down virtually the entire assembly operation, the entire company for more than a month to get inventories for dealers down, get their own inventory down. So they want to move cars.

And if you look at the numbers, even Toyota has been down 30, 35, 40 percent in recent months. So there isn't a carmaker in the businesses right now, even Ferrari, that isn't struggling a bit.

DAVIES: Now, there's also been a lot of reporting about dealers that are in trouble and predictions that frankly hundreds if not thousands of dealers will be eliminated in the coming year or so. Should you be worried about buying a car from a dealer that might not be here in six months or a year, and is there a way to find out if they will be?

MR. EISENSTEIN: I don't know of any easy way to find out unless you're really savvy about finances and you have great connections in the community. Sometimes dealers who look great one day close down the next, surprising even their competitors. But these days, I don't think people worry as much about whether or not they can go back to the same dealer. The reality is, your warranty will be honored by the guy down the block or on the other side of town if you need to. So if you find the car you like, you get a good deal, buy it, and don't worry so much about whether that dealer is going to be the one to service you.

But there's no question. Dealers are falling like the proverbial dominoes. A couple months ago, when I looked at some of the numbers - and I'm going to be actually looking again because I have a few pieces to write on the dealer crisis - but as of the fall, they were dropping at the rate of about two a day across the country. In some cases that included mega-dealers who operated numerous showrooms. And I believe that in the fourth quarter, when the industry sales totally collapsed, the rate of attrition has fallen.

Now here's a curious thing. This is great news if you're the automaker. They are jumping for joy seeing dealers going out of business. They want more and more and more to go out of business rather than them having to shut them down on their own.

DAVIES: Why?

MR. EISENSTEIN: Well, once upon a time, way back when, when Henry Ford was moving the Model T and is being challenged by GM's Billy Durant and other GM leaders who said that they wanted to build a car for every pocketbook and purse, having as many dealers as possible was great news because you just won by marketing muscle. But what's happened is, the Japanese changed that paradigm. They came in and said, we don't want a lot of dealers. We just want good dealers. We don't want these guys competing against each other. So, you know, today you have a Ford dealer on one block, and maybe another one a half mile or a mile away, and they are competing on price and battling each other, rather than battling Toyota. And that's driving down the cost. And to cut corners so that they can sell cars below sticker, they may be cutting back on service and so on, which ultimately hurts the brand's experience and reputation.

So everybody is moving into the Japanese model, which is fewer, better dealers, carefully spaced around town in better locations rather than in neighborhoods where they can get land for a bargain.

DAVIES: Now another thing that people might be thinking about is whether the car company they buy from is going to be around in a year. You know, years back, one of the ways U.S. automakers overcame concerns about

quality was to offer these extended engine and powertrain warranties so you had some assurance that if the transmission blew in two years, you were protected. Should I worry about buying a car from a company that might not be around in a couple of years to honor my warranty?

MR. EISENSTEIN: That is an issue. And that's one of the reasons you saw a big in drop in sales in the big three products in the last few months when there was a lot of concern about whether they would be around long term. But the reality is that we are very unlikely to see GM, Ford or Chrysler simply vanish. They make get taken over, the assets will be taken over by another automaker, perhaps. It seems probably better than even odds that Chrysler will either merge or be purchased by yet another company in the next year or so.

But they fooled us, so I don't want to say it's 100 percent, but I think the odds are fairly likely. And I don't think that these guys are going to go away. So I think if you like one of their products, I think you have a good shot that you are going to be able to get warranty coverage going forward.

DAVIES: Financing, of course, is an issue. Can you get financing? And what about lease deals that used to be available? It seemed like they were always advertising these great leasing deals.

MR. EISENSTEIN: Well, first of all, the lease, unfortunately, is disappearing at a fast pace, and that's largely because the people who apparently were designing lease programs for the auto industry were moonlighting on subprime mortgages. They just made a mess of it and lost the automakers billions of dollars.

Can you get loans out there? Yeah, you can. Unfortunately, if you don't have great credit, in some cases, you may be paying well into double-digit numbers to get a car loan. Now, we've seen it loosen up a little bit. One of the areas - one of the few areas where the federal bailout of the banks has helped is we're starting to see a little loosening in automotive finance, particularly finance by what are called the captive finance subsidiaries, like General Motors Acceptance Corporation.

They were declared a bank, and a couple of days later, I think they got four billion dollars, and a couple of days later, they lowered significantly the credit score you need to have to get money. And if you don't get it there, there are banks, there are other companies that are lending money right now, but you better have good credit because if not, you could pay a premium.

DAVIES: Well, Paul Eisenstein, I'm sure we will be checking back with you. Thanks so much for your time and enjoy the show.

MR. EISENSTEIN: It's been my pleasure to be with you.

DAVIES: Paul Eisenstein has written about the auto industry for thirty years. His new Web magazine, the Detroit Bureau, went online today. He joined us from the Detroit Auto Show. Special thanks to station WDET, who let us use their broadcast booth at the show.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
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Daniel Sperling: A Billion Cars And Counting

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. There are about a billion motor vehicles in the world today, and with the economic growth in China and India, we're likely to hit 2 billion by 2020. Our guest, Daniel Sperling, says if we keep driving gas-powered cars the way we have been, the planet just isn't going to be able to sustain us. Sperling also says that with American communities built the way they are, mass transit won't solve our transportation problems. Cars, Sperling says, are here to stay. But his new book with co-author Deborah Gordon says a combination of promising new technologies and innovations in the way we get around offer hope for a sustainable future, if our leaders have the wisdom and courage to embrace change.

Sperling is a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis. His book with Deborah Gordon is called "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability."

I spoke to Daniel Sperling earlier this week. Well, Daniel Sperling, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, one of the things that we're already seeing, of course, are hybrids. You know, the Prius is the most widely known one, which is part internal combustion gasoline driven and part electric. To what extent do hybrids represent a solution for the problems of sustainability?

Prof. DANIEL SPERLING (Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis; Co-author, "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability"): The hybrids are definitely on the path to a more sustainable vehicle, sustainable future. They really are the vanguard because what they're doing is they're putting an electric motor together with a gasoline engine, a combustion engine, in the same vehicle. And as we move into the future, we're going to emphasize the electric motor part of it more because the electricity is much more efficient, and of course, there's no emissions when you use the electricity on the vehicle.

So the hybrids are the first step towards this electric-drive future. And it's not exactly clear how this is going to play out in the long term. You know, it can lead to plug-in hybrids, where it's like a Prius except you plug it in and you get the electricity from the grid. It can lead to pure battery electrics, and it can lead also to fuel cell electric vehicles.

DAVIES: Let's look at the options, then, for manufacturing cars which don't have any - which don't use gasoline at all, that are purely electric. One option is a car which you plug into, you know, your electric grid, the wall outlet. How close are we to that kind of technology and what are the challenges it presents?

Prof. SPERLING: Well, the battery electric cars, they've been around. In fact, they were in a sense more popular and common than gasoline cars 100 years ago. What happened is that the batteries have not evolved as fast as is desired for a vehicle. So we have these battery electric cars that the technology is well known. Back in the '90s, General Motors built this car, the EV1, a little sports car, electric car. It was an outstanding vehicle.

It comes down to two things. It comes down to the batteries. The batteries keep getting better and cheaper, you know, we see that in our laptops. They're still not what we always want them to be, but they keep getting better.

And the other part is us as individuals, consumers. It's changing our behavior and adapting and getting used to the idea that a vehicle does have a more limited range. And we might have a household that has one car with a combustion engine or that can go a long distance, and another car that's an electric that we accept to have a shorter range.

DAVIES: Well, we talk about cars that we plug in - you know, a lot of people live in apartment buildings or they might live in urban areas where they don't have an external electrical outlet. Does this really work for people with garages or does - what about those who don't necessarily have that kind of electrical outlet?

Prof. SPERLING: Initially, the electric vehicles - both battery electrics and plug-in hybrids, are going to be more easily accessible to people that own garages and have houses. We've estimated that that accounts for well over 50 percent of the population, 50 percent of the households being able to use electric cars easily. But as we get beyond that, we do want to be able to make it accessible to others. So it's fairly easy to put a charging station in a parking lot by an apartment building or on the streets, for that matter.

So in fact, in Israel now, there's a plan by a company called Better Place that's building thousands of recharging stations all over the country, and it's working with Renault and Nissan to sell the electric vehicles there.

DAVIES: Let's talk about fuel cells. This sounds like truly futuristic stuff. How do they work to power an automobile?

Prof. SPERLING: A fuel cell is a device that converts hydrogen into electricity. It acts as a replacement, in a sense, for a battery. And because then you're still providing the electricity and you have an electric motor, so it's an electric vehicle, but in this case it's hydrogen converted into the electricity. And the the attraction of that is you don't have to deal with the problems of batteries. You don't have the cost of the batteries. You don't have the energy limitations with batteries. The fuel cells tend to be very efficient, and so it's a very attractive option.

The car companies have, over the last few years, have been much more interested in fuel cells than they have in batteries. Now they're more uncertain about it because with a hydrogen vehicle, not only do you have to build a fuel cell vehicle, but now you have to build up a whole hydrogen fuel infrastructure, which the car companies don't control.

DAVIES: And what are the obstacles? I mean, what are the drawbacks to the technology?

Prof. SPERLING: The fuel cell technology is, in a performance sense, is already here. In fact, I've been - at my university, we've had a few fuel cell vehicles that one of the companies has provided that we've been using for six years already, and we've been driving them regularly. They really perform extremely well. The challenges that are left are, one, to make sure the fuel cells really are going to last a long time. And the other is learning how to manufacture them at a lower cost. Now they're built essentially by Ph.D.'s in a laboratory.

DAVIES: But you can carry around enough hydrogen to power a car, I mean, and take it significant distances with significant acceleration and speed?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. The vehicle I've been driving is a small SUV. It gets about - it goes about 300 miles on a tank, and the tank just fits under the back seats. And you have all the same luggage space you normally have in the vehicle.

DAVIES: So how soon do you think - how long will it be before we see commercially sold fuel cell vehicles?

Prof. SPERLING: Well, it's possible to do it very soon. Part of the problem with hydrogen is it's been oversold in the future. You know, George Bush anointed it as the fuel of the future a few years ago, and in some ways, that was not good for hydrogen because there was a lot of backlash, you know, because of who was supporting it.

General Motors was promoting it. It had full-page ads a number of years ago saying that this was the fuel that they were going to bring out shortly. So it's been oversold.

But on the other hand, there are some companies, Honda in particular, GM, Mercedes, Toyota, they're going to be coming out with - they've been leasing them on small numbers already. We'll be starting to see them show up probably in the showroom in three, four, to five years is what's likely.

DAVIES: And they are emission free?

Prof. SPERLING: They are emission free, yes.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Daniel Sperling. He is the author with Deborah Gordon of the new book, "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Daniel Sperling. He's the author with Deborah Gordon of the new book, "Two Billion Cars."

Well, I want to talk about some of the behavioral changes. And we've been talking a lot about car technology and fuel technology. But let's talk about some changes in the way we live and work and conduct our lives. Now, you say in the book that mass transit won't solve the world's energy and climate problems, at least not in the affluent nations of the world. This is a disappointing conclusion for a lot of mass transit enthusiasts. Why not?

Prof. SPERLING: The first observation is that mass transit now only serves about 2.5 percent of the passenger travel in this country. It's essentially been vanquished by the car, except for in some of the dense cities of our country. You know, we need to come up with some better way of doing it.

The other part of it is that because the buses are not heavily used and - the average bus passenger is responsible for emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average occupant of a car. Now of course, if we had more people in the buses, you know, that wouldn't be the case. But that is the reality.

DAVIES: One of the alternatives you advocate is something called Smart Para-Transit. Now, I think most of us think of para-transit as, you know, kind of buses and jitneys that serve folks that have disabilities. What do you mean by Smart Para-Transit? This would be for everybody, right?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. Well, you might also think about it as the airport shuttles, as well.

DAVIES: OK.

Prof. SPERLING: So it's the idea that why not have these vans and these vehicles pick us up where we live or where we're going and drop us off? It's not that we all prefer to drive our own vehicles and get stuck in traffic and worry about parking. I think most of us would prefer to be chauffeured, and yet we don't have that option. And if - with the modern information technology, we can create these kinds of services. And the problem is the startup, you know, how do you get this thing started? But the benefits are potentially huge.

DAVIES: So in other words, in a lot of the communities we live, it doesn't make sense for us to all jump onto bus lines. But if you had a lot of these small jitneys and buses dispatched by a very sophisticated mapping and communications system and there were enough people using them, you could get a sort of an in between kind of transit system in which somebody relatively quickly stops by your house and you get on with a dozen other people and get pretty close to where you're going inexpensively.

Prof. SPERLING: Yes, exactly. And let me sketch out a little more because it's more than just these smart jitneys. It's also can include smart carpooling. So for instance, many times there are many people going to a university or going to an office, and they're all driving their own car, going to a ballgame. Why not have people coordinate? And we don't have any mechanism for doing that. At colleges, they have little bulletin boards, but why not make it electronic? And there are some companies, actually, starting to offer that service in a few cities.

Another innovation is smart car sharing. And so car sharing has started appearing in some cities, but we can do it on a much larger scale. And it comes back - again, this is something better for people. You know, sometimes we might want to have that SUV to go up into the mountains with four-wheel drive. Other times, you might want a sports car. Other times, we might want a pickup truck to carry something somewhere. The idea of car sharing is you have access to that when you need it, and you have different vehicles so you're not stuck with the one or two vehicles that you have in your household.

DAVIES: And car sharing are these very short-term rentals that you're saying, right? There are a few companies that have sprung up, particularly in the East Coast, where parking is a problem. Is that what we're talking about?

Prof. SPERLING: Yeah. They're mostly in the major cities right now. They're in the West Coast also. They're more popular in Europe. But another version of that, actually, is bike rentals. And so I'm in Washington, D.C. right now, and there's many of these bike rentals where you just swipe a card and you get a bike, you drive it somewhere. Paris pioneered this, actually, a few years ago. Now there's these bike stalls everywhere in the city, and you actually get the bike, you get a - I think it's 30 minutes free, and then you just leave it somewhere, and after that you pay more money, and it's all - goes right to your credit account.

And so I'm trying to tell this story that we've created this transportation mono-culture in the United States where we just have our own car, we drive it, and we don't have any choice. We have very few choices. And we can expand out these choices that are available, and then we won't need the cars so much. We won't need all of our cars that we maintain, which are very expensive - and they're expensive to produce, they're expensive to operate, they emit a lot of carbon emissions and create a richer transportation system.

DAVIES: You have a chapter in the book called "The Motivated Consumer, " and it gets to this question of why we behave as we do, and you've noted that, you know, a significant number of people have bought a Prius or another hybrid because it makes the statement they want to make about who they are. I mean, they do it even if it costs more because they want to be somebody who cares about the environment.

How far can you take that? To what extent can you count on people doing the right thing because it's the right thing, and to what extent do you really need rules and incentives to get the kind of mass behavior change you need?

Prof. SPERLING: I think we can count on people to some extent, but we really need leadership on the policy side. You know, there aren't simple solutions. You know, people want to say corn ethanol, or they want to say plug-in hybrids, that's the solution, or raise the gas price. You know, each of those are parts of it, but we need to put in place some process. You know, like, for instance, provide a price floor for gasoline so that the consumers don't see the prices going up and down and get confused about how they should make decisions about what kind of vehicles to purchase.

DAVIES: A price for gasoline. Gasoline can only be so cheap at the pump, right?

Prof. SPERLING: Right. And so it reduces uncertainty - so people have, you know, a sense that the prices are going to stay high and therefore they should be willing to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle or consider some of these alternative modes that we've been talking about. And we also, on the industry side, we need to come up with a better long-term framework.

And cafe standards - fuel economy standards imposed on car - on vehicle manufacturers are a good approach because we can keep tightening that over time. We need to be doing something similar to that with the fuel suppliers. There is something called a low carbon fuel standard that's being adopted in California. You know, we can't keep changing the rules and the policies and letting, you know, market prices go up and down.

You know, it's not a perfect market out there. It's not a - you know, there's a lot of flaws. You know, now, with the financial crisis, we're becoming a little - having a little more faith that government - there is a role for government in this, and I think that's appropriate in the energy sector, as well.

DAVIES: You end the book with a vision of a world with sustainable transportation, and you kind of compare it to the futurama exhibits that we've seen in world fairs in the past. And so you paint your own futurama - futuristic vision of a world in which we've really changed how we do things. Briefly describe it for us.

Prof. SPERLING: Well, this discussion we've been having, I've been very optimistic. You know, there's lots of reasons to be depressed. But there are lots of opportunities to think that we can transform our vehicles, transform our fuels, and transform mobility as we know it.

And so this vision of the future is one where the vehicles operate with electric drive. That means they're battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles. That they operate on fuels - on renewable fuels and on low carbon fuels, and so that would be on electricity and hydrogen, mostly, and some bio-fuels.

And the third leg of the stool, the mobility and individuals. That's where we would have this larger set of mobility choices, these new sets of mobility options. And also, part of it, I should say, has to do with land-use. We've allowed sprawl to occur through the whole 20th century, and we've got to rethink how we manage land-use in this country. And there is a - actually, there's a new law in California that sets us on that path, and I think other sates and the federal government might think about how to create incentives for cities to manage their land-use better.

We do have more density around the conventional transits so that rail transit and buses can be more successful, that we can integrate these other options into it. And in the end, we've got a much more sustainable system that can be - have a much smaller carbon footprint, use much less oil, be less expensive and provide better service to people.

DAVIES: Well, Daniel Sperling, I think we're out of time. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Prof. SPERLING: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Daniel Sperling is professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis. His book with Deborah Gordon is called "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability".

Coming up, Ed Ward considers the pop music from Ardent Studios of Memphis. Most of it never left the city limits. This is Fresh Air.
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The Sounds Of Memphis: Ardent Pop

DAVE DAVIES, host:

With all the great soul music coming out of Memphis in the late '60s and early '70s, it's easy to overlook the fact the city was also a hotbed of pop music. Very little of it escaped the city limits, and some of the best wasn't even released at the time. Most of it came from Ardent Studios, and today, rock historian Ed Ward tells its story.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWSON & FOUR MORE: (Singing) Everything is greeting,
Lately I can be tense,
Who's got tan and grey hair,
It's too much to stay here.

Growin' on my head
Make you feelin' half dead,
Everything is greeting,
Now I know it's beating(ph)...

ED WARD: In 1966, John Fry and John King, a couple of young men who were fascinated with the Beatles and The Who, not only their music but the way it sounded, bought some audio recording equipment and opened a studio at 1457 National Street in Memphis. They named it for the way they felt about this music: ardent.

They'd only been open a couple of weeks when a band called Lawson & Four More came in wanting to record. After hearing the results, they decided to start Ardent Records so they could put it out.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWSON & FOUR MORE: (Singing)
Oh, rich man,
Can't give you diamonds,
Oh, rich man,
Can't give you gold.

You can live your life,
Like a princess,
In comfort,
As you grow old.

But if you want it,
You can't find it,

WARD: Lawson & Four More had two important members: a maniac named James Luther Dickinson, who played loads of instruments, wrote songs, and had definite ideas about how to produce a record; and Terry Manning, who went to work for Ardent in 1968 when Dickinson proved too wild for steady employment. Manning would stay late to layer tracks for his own solo stuff, which didn't sound anything like anyone had ever recorded in Memphis before.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TERRY MANNING: (Singing) Pick a turn,
Play the turn,
Wouldn't you trade it for a dime?

A wooden soldier,
Walks a mile,
But writes his circle,
All the while.

WARD: Ardent was making good money recording jingles and advertisements and also picking up work from Stax, the soul label across town, whose sucess was overburdening their own studio facilities. And Fry and Manning eventually realized that they were working too hard. Bands were coming out of the weirdest places to record stuff at Ardent, among them a bunch of teenagers who called themselves Christmas Future.

Two of them, Chris Bell and Steve Ray, learned to run the studio from John Fry, who realized they were responsible and reliable and allowed them to work at Ardent at night. When Terry Manning heard what they were doing, he started working with them - with amazing results.

(Soundbite of song "Feeling High")

ICE WATER: (Singing) Well, there are things,
Floating past in the sky,
People look,
You mistook,
Love goes by.

It's a dream,
Different from reality,
A cigarette tray's been thrown,
Silver sits eating bread,
It's got you with its head removed
Sits on lightly
covered ground...

WARD: This track, "Feeling High," was credited to Ice Water, one of several names the studio project took, and it was on a reel of tape Manning took to New York to play for someone at Electra Records, who rejected it because it sounded too much like the Beatles. As they say now, that's not a bug. It's a feature. But at least Electra had something of a point there.

Another tape went to Atlantic Records in 1969, and its rejection is absolutely incomprehensible.

(Soundbite of music)

ICE WATER: (Singing) Well, I'm free again,
To do what I want again.
Free again to sing my songs again.
Free again,
To end my longing,
To be out on my own again.

Well I had me a girl,
But she couldn't understand.
Being my way,
Remind me to be a man.

Left her today,
Took my life in my hands,
Well I'm free again.

Well I'm free again...

WARD: Alex Chilton had been the teenage star vocalist of the Box Tops. He'd had a huge hit with "The Letter," and then got messed up in legal matters. With those out of the way, Chilton approached Ardent about recording and found his old high school friend, Chris Bell, working there. Chilton's new songs were incredible, and eventually, Bell got a drummer, Jody Stevens, and a guitarist, Andy Hummel, from another band in the Ardent orbit, Rock City, and a new band was born.

(Soundbite of music)

BIG STAR: (Singing) Don't even talk about a doctor,
Don't even talk about a shrink.
Don't need to hide behind no doctor,
I don't need to think

Cause when my feelings beside me,
I don't worry.
With my feelings beside me,
All I know,
With my feelings beside me,
I don't worry.
With my feelings beside me,
All I know...

WARD: They called themselves after a local grocery chain, Big Star, and with Stax now handling Ardent's distribution, everyone had reason to feel that great things lay ahead. And they did. Out of nowhere, an Oklahoma band called Cargo appeared and recorded a song that very nearly became a national hit.

(Soundbite of music)

CARGO: (Singing) Feelin the clouds will pass by here,
Feelin the smile in my eyes
Why do you frown at me
Is it because I feel all right
Feel all right.

Rushing my face from place to place,
Feelin the world go by
Why do you frown at me
Is it because I
Feel all right, feel all right...

WARD: Right at that moment, however, Stax began to have financial problems, and Al Bell, the executive who championed Ardent, left. Big Star hadn't sold nearly as well as everyone had hoped, and Chris Bell absconded for England, where he was sure he'd be recognized as a genius.

Another genius, Jim Dickinson, who'd been recording with Aretha Franklin, among others, showed up to put together a second Big Star album, "Radio City," which did no better than the first. Ardent Records was over.

Ardent Studios, however, wasn't, and continues to this day. Over the years, they've put out occasional power pop singles, and Alex Chilton, Big Star, and Chris Bell, who died in an automobile accident in 1978, have all become icons for a new generation of pop performers.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. You can download podcasts of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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