Tomorrow's Adults Have Mixed Views On Electric Cars

LIKE most of us, the high school seniors in Father Tom Whelan's classes at St. Mary's School in southern Oregon have mixed feelings about the environment.

They can believe that ``humans should be humbled by nature,'' as one wrote recently, that ``we cannot destroy our home.'' But they can also be very skeptical about the lifestyle changes that might be necessary to demonstrate such lofty ideals.

After discussing a Monitor article on electric cars, one wrote: ``These cars simply do not have the power or reliability or convenience to be practically used in society.... Electric cars are just about worthless for the way of life in the United States today.''

That's more true in the rural West than in the rest of the country. Here, driving long distances is commonplace. In rural areas, four-wheel-drive vehicles are a necessity for many, including some of these kids for whom getting to school can involve rough roads and rough weather.

But by the time these graduating seniors are ready to turn things over to the next generation, the United States population may well have doubled. Twice as many people, twice as many cars, twice as much impact on the land, which is especially obvious in a place that has seen not only the effects of over-use on forests and rivers, but also a steady influx of newcomers looking for relief from urban problems - including traffic and smog.

There are signs that things are changing regarding personal transport, even in a valley more than 200 miles from a major metropolitan area. With a $2 pass, students at the local college can ride public buses all year for no other charge. Many are taking advantage of the good deal.

Here, as elsewhere, folks took part in ``National Bike To Work Day'' last week, which was part of National Bike Month. Some employers are making it easier, providing places to change clothes, and relaxing dress standards on certain days of the week.

If 10 percent of all car commuters switched to public transit and bicycles, $1 billion a year in fuel costs would be saved. The League of American Bicyclists figures the saving to individuals would be a big chunk of the $4,850 now spent each year on average to own, operate, and maintain a car.

The prospect of pokey, short-range, humming electric vehicles puts off many, but that's mostly a function of habit and a failure to take the long view. ``We are not talking about a pipe dream here,'' says James MacKenzie, author of a recent World Resources Institute study favorably comparing ``EVs'' to carbon-based alternative fuels like ethanol, methanol, and compressed natural gas. ``We can switch to electric vehicles within three or four decades if we put our minds to it.''

Putting the power of human minds to work is what the ``Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles'' is all about. President Clinton announced the government-industry collaboration last fall, with the aim of producing a prototype car within 10 years that gets 80 miles to the gallon (about three times the current average) while meeting safety and emissions standards and -

very important - meeting consumer demands on cost, performance, and comfort.

Sometime between now and then, today's high school seniors - perhaps a young man or woman in Father Tom's class - will be among the engineers designing a high-gas-mileage or electric automobile. Or perhaps they'll be an urban planner putting together energy-efficient communities or public-transportation systems. For sure they'll someday be getting around in different fashion than they do today. The first house they own and its sources of heat and light are bound to be more energy-efficient.

Rather than see these prospects for change as a threat to comfortable and familiar practices, we should all see them as opportunities.

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