Let’s look at China for a moment. The People’s Republic was founded in 1949, and it took nearly 50 years before Beijing had a million cars on its teeming streets. But in just the few years since, the capital city’s fleet has more than doubled, to 2.6 million in 2005, when 1,000 vehicles a day were being added.

Today, China uses about a third as much oil as the U.S., but it won’t stay that way for long: By 2010, the country will have 36 times more cars than it had in 1990. By 2030, it could have more than the U.S., and who would be buying more oil then?

According to Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon in their provocative new book Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability (Oxford University Press, $24.95), the 1.5 billion (including motorcycles and scooters) vehicles we will have by 2010 are “pumping extraordinary quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, draining the world’s conventional petroleum supplies, inciting political skirmishes over oil and overwhelming the roads of today’s cities.”

And the Third World not only wants, but also is entitled by any reasonable moral standard, to enjoy the same mobility as the west. But with global warming emissions already at a tipping point of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (plus the specter of peak oil), how is it even possible?

Two Billion Cars is not 300 pages of doomsday statistics. It is, in fact, a somewhat hopeful book. The grim projections are not preordained. Sperling, a green transportation guru who directs the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California told me recently, “We know it’s not going to be easy or cheap or quick, but our message in the book is that we’ve started to turn the corner in the last couple of years. The auto industry has moved beyond denial, and I think the big oil companies are now in the exploratory, reflective stage.”

That was Sperling talking after Obama was elected. The new president has not only made a huge commitment to green cars (including a million plug-in hybrids by 2015) but to alternative transportation as well. And, interestingly enough, the latest U.S. government statistics show that Americans have been driving less for 14 straight months, at first because gas prices were high and now because they’re economically challenged on many fronts.

Two Billion Cars confronts Detroit’s headlock on energy and climate policy, but in many ways that hold is already broken. With the auto bailout, the carmakers (even as they continue to fight California’s global warming transportation law) are approaching Washington with a begging bowl.

And consumers’ tastes are changing, too. The book notes that the top-selling autos in October 2007 “were overwhelmingly gas guzzlers, averaging 20 miles per gallon,” with the market evolving in positive directions by mid-2008. But I’m pleased to say that for 2008 overall, the top sellers included a whole host of greener cars: the Toyota Camry (number one) and Corolla (number three); and the Honda Accord (number two) and the Honda Civic (number five). The fleet is greening, even with some SUV blowback as fuel prices dropped.

The times they are a changin’, and so is the auto industry. The authors cite the two utopian General Motors Futurama events of 1939 and 1964, and imagine a new one, Futurama III, in 2050. “Futurama III would fill the senses with the motions, sights, sounds, and feelings of life in thriving communities served by new mobility options,” they write. “It would portray a world powered and propelled by a multitude of non-fossil fuels, with carbon emissions reduced 50 to 80 percent below current levels, with climate stabilized and oil wars a distant memory.”

And wouldn’t that be nice?


Jim Motavalli, a regular contributor to the New York Times, is the transportation blogger for MNN.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Two Billion Cars
Are two billion cars a nightmare we can avoid? MNN's auto blogger reviews a new book on the subject.