Best of all, there was a performance drive of all the vehicles. It has finally occurred to the advocates of clean-air transportation that competitive performance is the only way to prove that green vehicles are ready for the garage of anyone who is not Ed Begley, Jr., the well-meaning but off-the-beam actor who has long been an enthusiast of electric vehicles. Of course, the performance test was nominally an evaluation of fuel economy, requiring the competing vehicles to negotiate 100 miles of the road circuit at Sears Point at an average speed of 45 mph. But it looked more like a special test of the World Rally Championship, as assorted hired guns from auto racing tried to maintain an average speed of exactly 45 mph in the shortest time possible while their navigators called out the lap times to the nearest tenth of a second. We saw SCCA racer Bryon Farnsworth in a PZEV-certified Volvo S60 from Volvo North America and Jim Russell Racing School-instructor Mark Wolocatiuk in an LPG-fueled Ford Crown Victoria from SA Motorsports. NASCAR shoe Bobby Hamilton was racing Dodge's diesel-powered pickup truck so hard that he was blackflagged by race control.
At the end of the three-day event there were plenty of winners in a bewildering number of categories, much like a kid's soccer tournament where everyone is expected to go home with a positive self-image. You can read all about it at www.challengebibendum.com. All the vehicles were assembled for a souvenir picture with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background as Bibendum, the Michelin Man himself, waved gaily. We have the following observations to report:
Challenge Bibendum has become an important event simply because it rounds up every important clean-air vehicle and provides a worthwhile glimpse of relative real-world performance. For example, there were fourteen fuel cell vehicles, the most ever gathered in one place. Challenge Bibendum also shows us that the green vehicle sub-culture has finally reached critical mass. There are recognizable spokesmen, interesting vehicles, lots of enthusiasts, fun events, a big race, and even a magazine, The Green Car Journal.
For all this, the circumstances that inspire ever-cleaner, ever-more-fuel-efficient vehicles are certainly no joke. Even a sixty percent increase in CAFE fuel-economy standards would not close the gap appreciably between this country's consumption of oil and its domestic production. American demand for petroleum-powered personal transportation will double by 2020, and by then we'll face dramatically increased competition for fuel from rapidly increasing vehicle fleets in places like China and India. It's no wonder the science guys are so serious about the issues of efficiency improvement, pollution reduction, and new fuel production so seriously.
It is possible to make fuel from some pretty disgusting stuff, as the promoters of bio-diesel proved with vehicles powered by sewage, sludge, and even household kitchen grease. But there's something about it that makes you feel like you're driving inside a newsreel taken of life in Russia during the 1930s.