I’ll never see big, multiple exhausts in the same way again.

Posted on January 29th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

A sea change.

A cathartic experience.

The scales dropping before one’s eyes.

To suddenly see something in such a totally new way that one wonders how one ever saw it before.

Well, maybe the latter’s overstating the case a bit, but still, I’ll never see big, multiple exhausts in the same way again.

I’d been browsing (‘reading’ is too strong a word for a leaf-though) a book I’d bought on eBay. On the screen it sounded interesting but Asphalt Nation proved to be a stream-of-consciousness gush of disconnected ideas. But the basic premise was clear: there are too many cars taking up too much road space in the world.

And despite working for modified car magazines for the last 15 or so years, it’s a perspective I am quite comfortable with. If the price of fuel doubled tomorrow, it wouldn’t unduly worry me; and if a government decided to offer incentives for riding bicycles, I’d welcome it. Fundamentally, it is ludicrous how some cars being sold here in Australia have 6-litre engines; it is crazy how many cars on the commute to work are peopled by a single occupant; and it is madness how there’s little incentive to buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient and less polluting car.

I don’t see any of that sitting at odds with the V8 Lexus LS400 that’s one of the cars in my driveway (happy to pay its 10-12 litres/100km fuel bill when I drive it; yes, even at double rates), and I don’t see any fundamental conflict with modified or performance cars. (A well-modified car should be more efficient than standard, offering potentially better fuel economy than standard. And why does a modified car have to be a huge, heavy, thirsty vehicle? Answer: it doesn’t.)

But it was after thinking of mass overt fuel consumption, of unwieldy and huge cars whose performance has more to do with the phallic aspirations of their owners than any performance outcome, that I saw it. A current model AMG Mercedes, it idled by where I was quietly eating my lunch under a tree spreading across a blue sky. It was the perfect time and place to think about the environment, about how our consumption of fossil fuels is largely dictated by a capitalistic system geared not to the judicious use of finite resources, but to profit and greed. (But, I hasten to add, a system that seems to work very well in most other aspects.)

In fact, during this lunch break I’d been thinking about the really big polluters, those industries enveloping the world in greenhouse gases – coal-powered electricity generating stations, for one. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, the huge smokestacks associated with these and other industries were seen as sources of engineering pride; of such import that specific heights (“the huge stack is 312 feet high”) would be mentioned in sonorous tones on the newsreel.

Would, I thought, the power stations of the future try to hide their smokestacks, to begin to realise that such an ostentatious display of pollution is today socially unacceptable? Would the power station owners philosophically do as those north of Sydney have? Those coal-powered stations have huge cooling towers, emitting harmless clouds of condensing water vapour. However, to the general public driving down the main highway that passes nearby, the emitted fog looks all the world like noxious smoke. And so the power station authorities have erected large roadside signs that indicate it’s just water vapour being emitted from the towers. (The signs don’t say anything about the waste products from the combustion of coal!)

They’ve realised the public no longer embraces polluters; that conspicuous signs of the magnitude of the pollution being emitted are no longer sources of pride. The four huge oval and chromed exhaust tips of the AMG had long gone, but their image kept being recycled in my brain.

Click for larger image

And suddenly, I could no longer see their potent picture of power, their manifestation as an aural exhaust note of a symphonious V8. Instead I could see them only as four dressed-up smokestacks emitting stupid quantities of carbon monoxide, of oxides of nitrogen, of carbon dioxide and of hydrocarbons into the environment in which I was biting into my sandwich.

And that image is impregnated. A Porsche Cayenne S drives past. I see just two huge oval-shaped smokestacks. A 6-litre Monaro passes me on the freeway. I don’t see the beautiful rear three-quarters view of poised muscle. Instead I see just the smokestacks.

Maybe it’s a strange thought – and an even stranger thought to be propagating on these pages – but when you consider the size and number of the smokestacks has got nothing to do with the power or performance or fun of the car, it rests more happily. Instead, it’s all about the shit the car’s putting into your environment. Need to excrete more shit? Well then, put in more smokestacks…

There is no intrinsic connection between having huge exhaust flow and putting a smile on the face of the driver. None. Instead, it’s all to do with decisions about how inefficient the design will be made: how big and heavy will this car be, how much gas do we need to take in, to pollute, and then to shit out into the air in order to make the power.

Rather significantly, the story I edited the other day on the new 510hp 6.3 litre AMG V8 contained only the merest lip service to emissions. “The new AMG 6.3-litre eight-cylinder engine meets all current exhaust emission standards without difficulty. Both the European EU-4 standard and the stringent US standards presently in force and planned are complied with.” And that’s at the same time as companies like Honda are producing engines which meet ULEV standards outa the box. (And anyone that suggests that Honda couldn’t build a huge, V8, 500+hp engine that meets ULEV emission standards is fooling themselves. The fact is: they choose not to.) That’s while Toyota is a decade ahead in hybrid technology – I think it’s the first time in the history of the car that the leading edge in technological centre of development has not been in the US or Europe. Just recently, Bosch – the German leader in car electronic technology for 50 years – said in a press release that Toyota was “a trendsetter in hybrid technology” – a stunning admission from the company that believes itself without peer.

It may be that this decade represents a change in car manufacturer philosophy, one that considers not only the explicit scientific data about the magnitude of emissions, but also the subtleties of how those emissions are visually portrayed. It’s perhaps significant that there are some powerful cars being produced where the manufacturer has deliberately chosen to keep the exhausts low key, subtle. Perhaps that’s just because they consider it more stylish, but maybe it’s because a company-employed social futurologist thinks that advertising how much a car is excreting is not such a good long-term idea…

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