When Wheels debuted 30 years ago, environmental issues weren’t initially a hot topic.
It was 1986, and the world was focused on CFCs from aerosols and the hole in the ozone layer while oil prices had just collapsed and gasoline was cheap and plentiful. “Global warming” as a buzz term was still a few years off.
In the very first issue of Wheels dated Sept. 27 of that year, amid mentions of the arrival of the Plymouth Sundance and Ford making motorized seatbelts standard equipment, a Canadian Press wire story tucked away on the last page mused about the “car of the future.”
“What kind of car will you be able to buy in 1996?” asked author Steve Mertl. “It will be quicker, more space and fuel efficient, safer, and certainly more expensive.”
The story explained that carmakers of the time were hesitant to abandon gains made through the 1970s gas crisis in cutting the weight and thirst of their designs “(d)espite the oil glut.”
By the end of the ’80s, environmental concerns had picked up steam enormously. Consumer awareness of greenhouse gases skyrocketed as new studies garnered mass media attention. Leaded gasoline was being phased out, and the Bush Administration made corporate average fuel economy standards tougher to meet.
Wheels became peppered with headlines such as “Saab to emphasize its ‘environmentally friendly’ engines,” (Jim Kenzie, Oct. 21, 1989), “Days numbered for muscle cars?” (Warren Brown, May 6, 1989), and a Letter to the Editor titled “What world needs now is certainly not Wheels.”
Fortunately, the Star’s editorial board was unfazed.
When 1996 rolled around, advancements were arriving at a rapid-fire pace that those early car-of-the-future predictions couldn’t possibly have seen coming.
Hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles began to appear (“Mercedes hydrogen fuel cell is power plant of future, says German carmaker,” Alex Law, May 11, 1996), the pivotal Toyota Prius took its first bow (“Dual-engine Toyota bows in Japan,” Alex Law, Oct. 18, 1997), and Wheels writer Jim Kenzie began his mission of vocally extolling the virtues of diesel (“1,300 km on one tank? Only in a VW Passat TDI,” Jim Kenzie, Feb. 24, 1996).
These were the beginnings of a technology debate that, amazingly, rages on to this day. But the industry had plenty of challenges to surmount in the meantime.
Ontario’s Drive Clean program was launched in 1999 to get smog-belchers off the road amid consternation that continues unabated (“Drive Clean hurting consumers: investigation,” Paul Coninx, Jan. 15, 2000).
Recycling and material sustainability came up far more often in the new millennium with targets ranging from tires (“BioTRED tire made from cornstarch,” Eric Lai, March 31, 2001), fuel (“Can grain ever be the future of fuel?,” Linton Weeks, Dec. 16, 2006) and older cars (“Life after death for old cars; Wreckers become recyclers as parts, badly needed, are sold,” Jil McIntosh, July 6, 2002).
Car-sharing programs cropped up for the first time, giving urban dwellers an alternative to the cost and environmental impact of full-time ownership (“Car-sharing plan works for city-dwellers,” Brian Dexter, May 5, 2001).
Then came the fuel price spike midway through the first decade of the new millennium.
Hurricane Katrina, tension in the Middle East, and concerns about using up the world’s oil supply (“Peak oil calls for fuel conservation, research,” Gerry Malloy, July 21, 2007) kicked off a surge in costs at the pumps that worsened with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.
As consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles hit its peak, a flood of headlines touting the latest green technology ran alongside news of an industry fighting for its life — sometimes in the very same story (“A dying industry turns to the Volt; As the Big Three went begging in Washington this week, GM continued work on its electric dream,” Peter Gorrie, Nov. 22, 2008).
Soon afterward, road tests for some of the first commercially feasible all-electric cars began to grace these pages such as the Tesla Roadster Sport (“Driving the Tesla like he stole it,” Jim Kenzie, Nov. 28, 2009), the Nissan Leaf (“Listening to the sound of electric silence,” John LeBlanc, Oct. 23, 2010), and the BMW i8 (“Secretive i8 test drive was a true honour,” Jil McIntosh, Dec. 28, 2013).
And then, just as fiscal stability returned and more planet-friendly technologies firmly grabbed a foothold, the world learned just how far an automaker would go to appear to be the greener option as news of the dieselgate scandal broke (“What happened to simply telling the truth?” Norris McDonald, Oct. 3, 2015).
Where does all of that leave us today? Sadly, not with many more answers than we started with as far as cars and green solutions go.
Corporate average fuel economy is better but is still a very long way off the dream of reaching zero, and more palatable gas prices have taken the sting out of the sense of urgency, at least from a consumer perspective.
It’s still not clear whether electric or hydrogen fuel-cell power plants are ultimately going to win the war of infrastructure — and buyer preference.
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As much as the industry has changed so drastically in the last three decades, only one thing seems definitive: that more work is needed and the most significant developments are still on the horizon.
There ought to be even more to talk about after another 30 years.
Stephanie Wallcraft is a freelance writer who contributed to Wheels for several years. She started writing about motorsports and branched out into general automotive features and vehicle reviews. She can be reached at: [email protected]
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