Sunday, 29 June 2014

Festival of Speed

"But, but, but, " I can hear you saying, "aren't you an environmentalist? Why would you go to the FoS?"

Well, I never promised that I would be consistent, now did I?

The truth is that I like high-end, performance cars. I could pretend that this was not the case, just to fit into other peoples expectation, but I gave up doing that a long time ago. However, I do want people to understand why I can justify this desire. I want to explore or explain why not all petrolheads are like the odious Jeremy Clarkson.

A collection of some of the most prestigious cars in the world
 I do believe that denying an enjoyment of motorsport - or anything else for that matter - is dangerous. Repression of our desires can lead to all sorts of trouble (there are many examples of leaders who repress desires that they consider to be unacceptable, only to them be found out and suffer all sorts of consequences) and is unhealthy. Now I would also accept that letting all of our desires have free reign is also unhealthy to our society and, often, ourselves. I am not advocating this either. I am saying that we should be prepared to admit to them, and work out around this.

However, there is more. Driving is environmentally damaging, but we in the UK at least, are very reliant on our cars. There are many reasons for this, including government policy over the last few decades, but also including out increased independence and desire to have control over our own travel. This also comes down to the increased amount of "stuff" we have to have with us. In truth, I don't think we can change this attitude, this reliance on personal transport, at least not within a comparatively short time.

However, we also like high-performance cars, because they are enjoyable to drive, they make the driving experience much more pleasant. And yes, they can be a whole lot of fun. I don't believe that this is something that we can change either. Some of us have to get our thrills where we can.

The answer, if there is one, has to be in far better, vehicles with more environmentally friendly energy sources - electric being the most likely.

This is why I was fascinated at the FoS this year, because I have been following the progress of electric-powered cars for a while, and this year there has been a very significant change. Let me explain.

The most popular hybrid car is the Prius. Some people see this as the way ahead for electric cars, but the truth is that it has not made enough of a difference, and there have not been other manufacturers building similar vehicles. The problem with the Prius is that it is very boring, very worthy. It is an example of conspicuous sacrifice for the sake of the environment - it might make you feel good, but it will not inspire jealously and so encourage others to want one.

The reason is, it was developed as a family car, as an environmentally friendly, mid-range, boring car. And that is what it is. But very few people want to admit that this is what they are buying. Many people want to buy a sports car, that has been tamed for a normal life. This is why family cars with a sports heritage do well, this is why so many manufacturers are involved in sports cars and racing.

Many people see a top-end car by a particular manufacturer and decide that they like it, but cannot afford it (or the kids wouldn't fit in, or the shopping). So they look at the rest of the range, and may find a car that seems to be the same only cheaper and with more space.

Which is where manufacturers like Tesla come in, because they made an electric car that was unashamedly a sports car - the Tesla roadster. It was a success, because it was a proper sports car, that just happened to be driven by electric motors, rather than petrol. Now they have produced a salon, which is still expensive, but it more of a challenge to the BMW and Mercedes buyers. Bringing the sports car technology to more ordinary cars is good news and real progress.

This year, there were three spectacular, top-end cars, by Porche, Maclaren and Ferrari - all names to interest lovers of performance cars.  And all three were hybrids, and were driven up the hill in respectable times on electric power only. They are proof that it is possible to produce a high-performance sports car that runs on electricity, that is still fun to drive, still satisfying to those who want the ultimate in sports car experience.

A very pretty looking Ferrari
There is also another aspect to this - the delight in beauty. Some of these cars are exceptionally good looking (of course, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so others might disagree with me), and that is something that I want to celebrate wherever I see it. These cars are exceptional examples of engineering, of styling, of all the achievements of some of the best minds. I can totally acknowledge this, and accept this.

I don't believe that we will resolve our problems with pollution or greenhouse gasses by resisting high-end, performance cars. This is the place that, so often, real engineering innovations are made, important developments some of which filter down to other cars, making them all better. If this move to hybrid - and all-electric - cars continues, and continues to filter down to more reasonably priced vehicles, it will make a big difference to everyone, pulling more people into driving these vehicles, because they get the fun and feel from them.

As long as this electricity is produced in an environmentally healthy way - and the fact that they should charge overnight will help this, although we can hope that solar panels can also assist - that is a way that can make a significant impact on the environment, in the longer term. It is a way that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is a way to save our planet.

Post-hoc justification? Maybe. But I believe that being supporting of the production of environmentally friendly, performance cars will make a difference, and far more than purely demonising them.

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