Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Sparrow Makes Friends

Curiosity about driving a tiny electric car follows me everywhere I take my canary yellow Corbin Sparrow.

On my way to a business holiday party a teenager in an SUV pulls up to a stoplight alongside me and rolls down his window so I roll down mine. "What is it?" he asks amazed, his eyes roving rapidly over the body of the car. I tell him it's an electric Corbin Sparrow. "That is so cool. I want one," he says as his girlfriend looks on smiling and I imagine him getting down from his SUV throne and tucking his tall frame into the little bird. I tell him how to Google it and he asks me if I've seen the Austin Power's movie Goldmember. Now I'm excited because we have a point of reference. In Goldmember the bad guy makes his getaway in a one-person car. It has a huge tail pointing upward and the fenders on the car are enormous and bulbous giving it the profile of an erect phallus. There are other Sparrows in the chase scene too, that are not so absurdly modified.

"Yes it's the same one," I shout over and he offers to do his imitation of one of the characters in the movie and just as he gets into it, the light changes and off we go.

People talk to me in the car on a daily basis, or wave, or give me the thumbs up. Nearly always I get a big smile. Teenagers standing on the sidewalk burst into spontaneous laughter and point. The week the Sparrow was delivered we met our neighbors as if we were, well, neighbors. As the lesbians on the block we are not generally a part of the neighborhood chatter; only a few make a point of saying "hi". On this day even the standoffish talked to us as and joked about getting a Sparrow for their teenage daughter so she couldn't neck with her boyfriend in it. Another family stood in a row at their window watching as I test-drove it. "Yeah, but it only fits one person, " said one.

My partner Catherine and I can squeeze into it for short trips. I sit in her lap and drive with my knees pressed to the dashboard. We drove down to the Christmas tree lot and had a small tree strapped to the roof just for the fun of seeing people's reactions when we drove it home.

Driving the Sparrow was definitely a form of street theater and inspires costumes. For the holiday party I dug up my bright yellow party outfit with the green brocade trim. The yellow just matched the hue of the Sparrow and when a colleague photographed me with the car, it became the photo I sent to my relatives in Thailand. They did not comment. I'm sure they didn't know what to make of it. I was either crazy as usual or I was onto some hot new American trend and they would be left behind. My cousin wrote me shortly afterwards that she had just gotten a Sony Vario. Only one friend in Thailand, a chemistry professor, was enthusiastic. She well knew how dangerous the level of air pollution in Bangkok had become. A normal day in that city is ten times worse than a smog alert day in LA. The average life span of a tollbooth worker was 35 years old. They wear those white cloth masks which do nothing. Meanwhile rich people live in air con houses and shop in climate controlled buildings that filter the air.

My organizing colleagues were particularly curious about the car because I was using it for the work that we all did. "Well it wouldn't fit my table," said one as I showed them the trunk. "It wouldn't fit my garbage can," said another. The garbage can, I knew, was this colleague's signature. Her clients saw that she meant business when she brought her full size garbage can into their office. And the table, well that was used for sorting in a home where there were no surfaces yet cleared. I, too, had filled my station wagon to the brim for clients who were throwing stuff out and have often worked on the floor for lack of clear space, but my clients tended to need ongoing help with the paper they had, not a big purge. The Sparrow was big enough to fit my usual tool bag, drill, hardware box and office supplies. Sometimes it was a tight fit, but I just planned better, taking only what I needed.

In fact better planning was exactly what I needed in my life. I had so often driven off into my day only to realize four blocks down the road that I had forgotten some essential and had to return home. With the Sparrow I couldn't afford such errors because every wrong turn would cut into my overall range. I drive the freeway less because it is an extra four miles to get on and off the freeway from my house. Surprisingly driving the secondary roads didn't slow me down that much. And I began to feel more connected with the communities I was passing through, what with the slower pace and the people waving at me. A Sparrow day was a happy day. I drive the Sparrow most of the week and my 33-mpg Honda wagon on long trips about 6 times a month. Between the two I get better mileage than a hybrid and Catherine does well too since she drives the Sparrow when I'm not and takes the train when she can.

My clients are happy to support me driving an emission free car. They let me plug it in when I arrive. I have come to understand what is meant by infrastructure. The reason we are so tied to the combustion engine and its gas guzzling ways is because, we are told, there is no infrastructure to support an alternative transportation technology. I was proving that the infrastructure already existed. Laptop users and cell phone users in need of a charge already know this. They just stop at the local coffee shop to hang out and juice up. The coffee shop owners like it. It makes the place look busy; people buy their coffee at the same time and it is easy to add more outlets. If people are stopping in coffee shops to plug in their iPod, no reason why I can't drag in an extension cord and plug in my goPod. I'd be happy to pay double the 25 cents it would cost. And if Starbucks really wants to be cool, they can add solar panels and design their buildings to face the sun like the old Ben Franks hotdog chain did. (All those solar panels are gone now, but the silly building still remains.)

While the automakers continue to claim that there is no demand for cleaner cars let alone electric ones, Prius owners are proving them wrong. Prius owners are teaching their friends that the electric part of their hybrid car is really cool and nothing to be afraid of. It's so quiet; it's so easy and the more it kicks in, the less gasoline is used and the less pollution. There is also a group of Prius owners ( who have added more batteries to their car, thus allowing it to drive exclusively on the electric motor at 35 mph and they can plug it in for more juice.

Plugging in the car is still a little too much for most people to wrap their mind around. Probably because of all the stuff in their garage (and of course some don't have garages). A few EV owners have installed outlet boxes at the curb and invite fellow EV drivers to plug in on their travel. Now that I plug in my car at home, I find it more convenient than stopping at the gas station and more pleasant too.

Our American automakers and our President are touting the fuel cell car as the technology of the future because it runs emission free on hydrogen. Environmentalists have already pointed out the flaws of hydrogen. It's a "leaky" gas so hard to contain, takes energy to make, costs 2 to 3 times as much and will very likely be made from methanol or gasoline not renewables. Pretty sneaky way of getting the public to continue to use oil not to mention the 1.7 billion in our tax money to figure out how to do it. Splitting hydrogen off from hydrocarbons leaves us with, duh! carbons, adding to our global warming troubles. (At latest report, global warming has nearly reached the point of no return having accelerated considerably while we were arguing about whether it exists or not).

And while automakers have successfully ridiculed the electric car as being the 8 track of vehicle technology, they never mention that the fuel cell car also uses an electric motor. Yes, that's right it is nothing but an electric car with a box behind it with a chemistry lab inside it producing electrolytes on the go rather than just storing it like a battery. Getting the hydrogen in the car is the tricky part so we might just end up pumping in gasoline that would then be made into hydrogen inside the fuel cell. And because all this takes up room you would still have to fuel up every 125 miles which is about the range of the electric car that Toyota and GM put out in 1998 so why not use the electric car now? It will be a while before the engineers work this whole fuel cell thing out, decades perhaps. The better to allow automakers to continue to sell their combustion engine and spend their time suing California's latest clean air regulation. (This innovative law is the first to curb tailpipe emissions related to global warming. I sincerely hope it stays on the books this time).

Meanwhile the sale of electric scooters is climbing rapidly. Called PEVs (personal electric vehicles) these inexpensive transports include motor assisted bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds, push scooters and the Segway I saw in my neighborhood yesterday. The paradigm is shifting; people want to get out of their earth fouling behemoth cars. Judging from the way some SUV drivers react when they see my little car, I know they know their days of being cool are over. It's getting harder to justify one person driving a vehicle that is the equivalent of having their living room bolted to a truck chassis. These guilty drivers turn away from me in my Sparrow or give me disparaging looks because the contrast between us is so striking; my appearance beside them just screams out "excess", "road hog", "resource gobbling pig" as clearly as if I had held up a sign. I just smile and speed away quietly leaving them fuming, so to speak.


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