Betting Against Einstein

10/20/2011 03:27 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Washington, DC -- Recent announcements of new experimental results in physics have suggested that -- just perhaps -- Albert Einstein might have been wrong, and it may occasionally be possible for something to travel faster than the speed of light. It seems odd, though, that the Tea Party wing of the Republican party, which still cannot accept either Darwin's Theory of Evolution or current climate science (or even plain-vanilla toxicology on heavy metals like mercury), is apparently rushing to embrace this new (and at the moment highly speculative) result.

Einstein theorized that the faster an object moves in space, the more slowly it passes through time. At the speed of light, time stood still, and no faster movement was possible, because that would require moving into the past. But now researchers at CERN, the European Center for high-energy physics, have reported that it appears a few neutrinos might in fact have exceeded the speed of light. Other scientists subsequently challenged this finding

But in the three weeks since the CERN announcement (although perhaps not because of it), the "forward to the past" caucus in the U.S. Congress has been beating the drum for time travel. In the view of Representative Darryl Issa and other members of the hard right, the fact that the auto industry, the Obama administration, and environmental advocates were able to agree that carbon pollution emission limits and fuel-efficiency improvements in America's passenger vehicle fleet were in the national interest is not a cause for celebration. Instead, Issa argues, it is proof of a conspiracy.  

The new rules do, indeed, imply that Einstein was right -- America must move into the future. The era of cheap oil, energy dependence, and "what me worry" climate science is over. The United States must join, not just the rest of the world, but the 21st century, in embracing the idea that the cars of the 1950s, and even the SUVs of the 1990s, must pass from the scene like the horse and buggy and the Model T -- to be replaced by fundamentally new transportation options.

Issa held a hearing last week, whose sole purpose appeared to be to show that agreement between Obama and the auto industry proved the Administration is hell bent, in the word of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, on "substituting its bureaucratic judgment for the independent judgment of the marketplace." Why leaving a carbon-emission limit at the current, 1970s number constitutes such bureaucracy, while selecting another, reflecting current oil prices, would be market-based, was not clear.

Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), an auto dealer before he was elected to Congress last year, made it clear that he was determined to manage his business, as well as his congressional office, back to the 20th century. (Of course, Kelly was a Chevy dealer -- and the decades-long refusal of General Motors to embrace the future probably cost him a good deal of the value of his business. No wonder he wants to turn back the clock.) Saying that higher fuel economy for consumers was "absolutely insane," Kelly went on to lament, "Where in the heck are we going with this policy?"

It's clear where Kelly is going. He ended by telling the hearing the sad fate of one of his employees who made the mistake of ordering an electric Chevy Volt for his dealership, "That guy who ordered that Volt in my store is no longer in that job." (One more American job gone.)

This all has a certain whiff of desperation. In spite of the Tea Party, the future is indeed invading all parts and regions of America -- even Normal, Illinois, just up the road from Peoria, where Mitsubishi is making its first electric vehicle, features in a wide-ranging media campaign which proclaims "Welcome to the New Normal."

Nor are the American people signing up for the time-travel, anti-Einstein movement. A new poll by the University of Texas shows that Americans, 3 to 1, think the nation is "on the wrong track" with regard to energy issues. What is their biggest concern? Conspiracies between the Obama administration, environmentalists, and auto companies? Nope. Americans, 2-1, want government to do more to shape our energy future. The biggest concern? Consumption of foreign oil, with 84 percent ranking it as a top worry. And the least trusted entity? The U.S. Congress. Next least trusted? Oil and gas companies. Desire for energy innovation? Over the top.

This all appears lost on the Republican leadership in Congress. The sad part about this frantic effort to travel back to the past is that while the Koch brothers and the Tea Party are pretending that we don't have better options, American entrepreneurs and innovators are showing us an abundance of future choices. Two years ago, a team of engineers calling themselves Edison 2 won the Automotive X-Prize for demonstrating a "Very Light Car" that got more than 100 mpg.

Since then, Edison 2 has continued to develop its disruptive, innovative approach to automotive engineering. Its latest prototype has been certified by the EPA as having a 244-mpg rating and an all-electric range of 79 miles. (But it's a plug-in hybrid, so range doesn't matter much -- you can recharge off a tiny gasoline motor. And this car will be cheap, because it doesn't need heavy and expensive batteries to make it efficient.

Or take internal combustion innovator Scuderi's split-cycle engine. Recent lab results show that installed in a conventional small car, the Scuderi split engine gets 65 mpg. So imagine the efficiency and cost savings that could result from combining a very-light Edison 2 vehicle with a more efficient Scuderi- design internal combustion engine!

And most experts expect to see major breakthroughs in battery power/pound, so that the cost and the weight of the electric power pack of tomorrow's vehicles will be a fraction of today's. Combine all three innovations and you have the potential for cars where the cost of gasoline simply won't matter, just as today no one worries about the price of windshield-wiper fluid. (Online one brand costs $10 for 8 ounces of concentrate, or $160/gallon. Don't freak -- you use so little you can afford it. Let's make oil like that.)

Maybe it's time for the Tea Party to start betting with Einstein, with the future, and with America.