The home front

I walked down the block to my neighbor Andy Lipkis’ house last Sunday to try out the latest weapon in the war to defend the home front.

Andy raised his garage door, and there it was: a Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt goes 40 miles on its electric battery before its gas engine kicks in, enabling longer trips by recharging the battery. Technically, it’s a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, but the groundbreaking design allows for largely gas-free driving, since most Americans drive fewer than 40 miles each day. 

Andy, the visionary founder of the urban forestry group TreePeople, is an environmental leader with juice. Chevy picked him to be one of 15 Americans to try the Volt pre-release.

“Want to drive it?” he asked me.

“I want everyone to,” I said.

Two headlines from this past week only underlined the importance of the Volt.

The fires that raged across Northern Israel last week, killing 42 and ravaging more than 12,000 acres, were tragic enough in their own right. But they also serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us how quickly even a Start Up Nation can crash down unless it is prepared for the worst.

America has known since the 1973 oil embargo that our economy is fatally dependent on oil imported from some of the world’s least stable, most autocratic, least democratic, most anti-Israel countries. About 25 percent of our oil comes from the Gulf. And our oil imports from there have grown since 1973. We’re not preparing for the worst, we’re guaranteeing it.

And that brings me back to Andy Lipkis’ garage.

Currently, our transportation sector is 98 percent petroleum dependent, and 66 percent of our oil consumption is in the transportation sector.

If we change our fuel, we change our fate.  

Last week, a fresh batch of WikiLeaks revealed — as if we needed more evidence — the utter insanity of our oil addiction. In a New York Times report on a series of internal State Department cables from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s chief oil suppliers, emerges as duplicitous as ever.

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” the Clinton cable says. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

As long as we, and the rest of the world, aren’t technologically set up to replace Saudi oil, they, not we, call the shots.

“Think how different our conversations with Saudi Arabia would be if we were in the process of converting to electric cars powered by nuclear, wind, domestic natural gas and solar power,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote of the cables. “We could tell them that if we detect one more dollar of Saudi money going to the Taliban then they can protect themselves from Iran.”

Just 2 percent of our electricity generation comes from oil. Electric vehicles like the Volt, which Motor Trend selected as its 2011 Car of the Year, are — finally — Detroit’s way of telling the Saudis to shove it.

Story continues after the jump.

A 220-volt charger that Chevy mounted inside Andy’s garage plugs into the car’s side, where it “fills” the batteries at off-peak hours at about a tenth the cost of gasoline, and at a tenth the carbon footprint.

I climbed behind the wheel. The Volt starts, like a Prius, with the push of a button. The dashboard lights up like a video arcade.

I punched the accelerator. Aside from the ignition, the car is clearly the anti-Prius. It takes off like a beast. Small on the inside, with barely room for four, it has the zoom and handling of a muscle car. It’s not cheap (around $33K after a federal tax credit), or even practical for a family of four, but it will rebrand green for the Camaro class.

Chevy understands that, for most Americans, “alternative” means “sacrifice.” With the Volt, you get all the power, all the handling, and all the bells and whistles of a gas-guzzler. I mean, in park, the dashboard screen will play DVDs.

I drove around the neighborhood, racing down Venice Boulevard, doing some doughnuts at Glyndon. It’s a fast car, with everything but the noise. In fact, there’s a secondary horn to push when you want to warn pedestrians a car is approaching. It sounds like a choked goose.

When we pulled back into Andy’s garage, the dashboard calculator calculated our miles per gallon: 235.

235 MPG. Now, that’s the future.