Cars By The Billions

UC-Davis professor visits USF Friday to talk about cars, pollution and the world’s motoring future.


By Vickie Chachere News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 13, 2011) – There are about a billion cars on the world’s already crowded roads, and over the next decade that count will double with the growth of automobile ownership in nations like China and India. That’s why University of California-Davis Professor Daniel Sperling’s cautionary tome, Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, seems to have struck a chord with drivers and policy-makers alike. The professor seems to be everywhere these days, from cracking up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talking gridlock on über-serious NPR.


With peak oil on the horizon and the impact of carbon emissions related to transportation prompting real concern about the planet’s future, Sperling’s insight into the ever-expanding global car culture is prompting many to rethink the way we get from Point A to Point B.


Sperling will be at USF’s Marshall Student Center Theater on Friday as part of the College of Engineering’s Eminent Scholar Lecture Series. A book signing begins at 1:30 p.m. followed by a 2 p.m. lecture. The event is free and open to the public.


But before he hit the road from his California home to USF, USF News Manager Vickie Chachere caught up with Sperling to get his quick-take on what the future holds for a world on the go and what it takes to match wits with the funniest man in news.


Q: What was your inspiration for writing Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability? Did one of those legendary California traffic jams have anything to do with it?


A:  I was irritated and frustrated that almost all the widely read books written on energy (and even transportation) were by journalists. No disrespect for journalists, but if we depend on journalists to educate us on energy and transportation solutions, we are in big trouble.


Q:  Your book has really got people talking, do you think we’ve finally reached the point that Americans – where the car culture began – are finally ready to get behind alternative fuels and different types of vehicles?


A:  We’re already fuel alcoholics (almost all gasoline now contains 10 percent ethanol). The next step in the car paradigm is more sustainable cars.


Q:  You will be visiting a city (Tampa) where the voters have just voted down a light rail referendum intended to get traffic off the road, did we make a big mistake?


A:  The real challenge is to rethink transportation and finally take advantage of the IT revolution - to create new mobility services where we can use our smart phones and internet and computing capability to have demand-responsive vans pick us up at work and home at a moment’s notice, to organize carpooling more easily, and generally to make getting around easier and cheaper.   


Q: What kind of car do you drive? And should we all be buying hybrids?

A: I ride a bicycle and have driven a Prius since 2000 (now on 2nd generation Prius), and have ordered a Nissan Leaf. Cars and light trucks are on a new trajectory where each model will be much more efficient than the previous. And it’s not so far off when most cars will be hybridized to some extent.  My advice is to pay attention to the fuel economy ratings and pick the most efficient vehicle in the category of interest - and to think twice whether you really would be just as happy with a smaller vehicle.

Q:  Jon Stewart sort of had his way with you on The Daily Show, what’s it like showing up to talk about a serious subject and then trying to keep a straight face with him?


A: The biggest challenge was to retain some control of the conversation. He really is so funny and so quick that it was a daunting challenge. The producer did tell me beforehand that she had only one bit or advice—to remember that he’s the funny guy and I’m the smart guy, and don’t get confused about that.


To read more from Sperling and Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability co-author Deborah Gordon click here. Check out Sperling’s website here.