ROCKWELL: Well, good morning. This is the Lew Rockwell Show. And how great to have as our guest this morning Mr. Eric Peters. Eric is an automotive columnist. He's the author of Automotive Atrocities that would be a big book and Road Hogs, his most (laughing) recent book. His web site is ericpetersautos.com. Take a look at his wonderful archive at LRC. And we'll link, of course, to his web site and to his books and to his Facebook page.
But, Eric, your recent column has caused a huge amount of interest on the web site, and that's the corn con. Tell us a little bit about what ethanol is doing to our automobiles as well as, of course, the broader political and economic issues involved with that.
PETERS: Well, you've got to go back in time a little bit to provide some context. This all started I believe in the early 1980s. And at that time, somebody came up with the idea to oxygenate fuels. And that was essentially done to reduce the emissions from the cars at that time by incorporating things like MTBE and then later ethanol. And while there might have been some justification for that because the cars would run lean, that is, burn less gas and thus produce fewer harmful emissions, as computer controls came along, that no longer because necessary and, at that point, it just became a big giveaway to the agri-business lobby, which makes billions of dollars out of this program. Currently, about 10 percent, I think the figure is, of the "gas," in quotes, that you put into your car is actually ethanol.
ROCKWELL: And, of course, it's had an effect, too, in Mexico and other countries where the artificially increased demand for corn and therefore the higher prices for corn have made it very tough on people who are in poverty. It made tortillas and so forth, corn meal much more expensive and caused a lot of social unrest.
PETERS: There and here. It's no coincidence that food prices have risen as this program has grown and expanded because land that would have otherwise been put towards food production has been put towards the production of corn that winds up being used to fuel our vehicles. And I wish I had the figures in front of me, but the net costs of producing the ethanol, you end up putting more energy into it than you get out of it, which is the ultimate tragic irony of this program.
ROCKWELL: Well, it sounds like recycling and a lot of the other (laughing) government environmental programs.
ROCKWELL: That it
PETERS: You know, to give the benefit of the doubt to the advocates of these programs, perhaps they think that they're doing good. But I'm more cynical in my view of this because it's been going on for at least 20 to 25 years now and the science has been pretty clear about the net result to this, and it's no good for anybody except the people getting the money as a result of the program.
ROCKWELL: Well, as you look over the whole panoply of federal activities, maybe there's one that's actually helpful to society. I can't think of it. But certainly, this is not.
What about the damage that putting corn in your gas tank causes?
PETERS: Well, yes, that's a huge issue right now. And as I mentioned in my piece, it's one of the reasons why real unadulterated gas is coming back onto the market. It's not so much of an issue for late-model cars. And when I say late model, that means pretty much anything built since about the middle 1980s. That was the point at which cars had computer controls and electronic fuel injection. And also the manufacturers built the engines and the related hardware to accommodate alcohol-based or alcohol-adulterated fuels.
But older vehicles that were not designed for alcohol, which is corrosive among other things, can have a lot of problems, everything from mechanical problems to out-right engine fires from using this stuff. And it's also a concern to people like myself who have farms or who have commercial properties and use outdoor power equipment that was not designed to use this stuff. And I've had some e-mails as a result of my column from people who were in aviation and use outboard engines and so on, and apparently, for them, they also have major problems with this stuff.
ROCKWELL: Well, the government doing us good as usual.
PETERS: As usual.
ROCKWELL: Eric, you've written a lot about what we may call the highway police state. And you had a wonderful piece recently on something that, these days of aggressive policing, tasing and all the rest of it, is I think a concern to everybody because the cops are stopping far more people for far more reasons, and are far more aggressive about it. And you had I thought a very freedom-loving but also reasonable, given the situation we're in, approach to what to do when a cop stops you.
PETERS: Yes. The key thing unfortunately is that the law is no longer on our side or on the side of liberty, so you kind of have to adopt, in my opinion, a strategic approach. That is, you want to protect your liberties but you don't want to be obsequious. And the first step that I advocate is maintaining low tones and not being belligerent or confrontational. I don't think that it does you any good to quote the Fourth Amendment or the Constitution when pulled over by a police officer. Many are not going to be sympathetic. Some will be largely ignorant and a few will be hostile. It's not going to serve your cause at all.
The key thing, in my opinion, is to be calm, provide your information, that is, your driver's license and insurance, which you're required to do by law. But that is it. That's where it ends. Don't confess to anything. Don't respond to any leading statements. Try to get the interaction over with as quickly as possible and be on your way.
ROCKWELL: And you don't put your window down all the way?
PETERS: I would not do that because, in a way, that invites the cop to a closer inspection of your vehicle and you're not legally obligated to do it. You're required to provide your identification. You're required to answer some simple yes-and-no questions. That's it.
If the cop does something such as ask whether he can look inside your vehicle, you can respond by politely saying, "I do not consent to any searches."
ROCKWELL: You know, right after the whole 9/11 hysteria and what happened at the airports, I must say I was expecting nationwide checkpoints on the highways where they would want to see who you are, where you're going, why, and all those kinds of questions. And it didn't happen. I must say that's still is something that concerns me. And is this actually happening more at least in some of the states and maybe in the guise of checking your insurance, maybe in the guise of seeing if you've been drinking, the great demon among all of our prohibitionists. But am I right in thinking that this is becoming more frequent?
PETERS: Well, it is becoming more frequent. There was a little bit of a hubbub in the news I think about two weeks ago. You probably noticed some of this. In Tennessee and I think another state, the TSA launched these VIPR, V-I-P-R, checks on the interstate highways where they were making trucks and other vehicles go through a gauntlet where they would be inspected and subjected to what amounts to a probable-cause-free search. And they're not yet doing this to private cars that I'm aware of, but they are doing it at bus stations, and they are doing it at major sports events, such as football games.
ROCKWELL: So this is something we all have to be on the alert for as, of course, with all the other indications of a rising police state in this country.
But to get back to your automotive roots, you had another great column recently about five automotive disasters that you shouldn't buy. That
PETERS: Those that aren't selling probably
is a better way to characterize it.
ROCKWELL: And you shouldn't be buying one to help the sales?
PETERS: No. I wouldn't recommend buying one. There are a number of them there that are it would be funny I suppose if you're not the person stuck with the bill.
I think the one I that I led off with was the so-called Smart Car, which I assume a lot of people out there are familiar with. It's that kind of funny looking little clown car that sort of looks kind of like a golf cart. And the irony of this thing, as I looked over its spec sheet, I compared it to one of my motorcycles. I have a number of motorcycles and one of them is a touring bike, which is a bike that has bags on the side of it and a fairing, and you can use these kinds of bikes to tour across the country. And I found that I can carry as many people on my motorcycle, that is, two people; I can carry more stuff in my motorcycle that has more cargo room; and it gets approximately 20 miles per gallon better fuel economy than the Smart Car does. But my motorcycle only cost me it's a used bike but it only cost me $2,000, whereas the Smart Car's base price is about $13,000.
ROCKWELL: Wow. Yes. Aren't they sold at Mercedes dealerships?
PETERS: They're sold through them. I actually haven't gone to look at one at a dealership and I wonder whether Mercedes actually has those things out on the lot with the Mercedes cars. I kind of doubt it.
ROCKWELL: Well, there's a dealership in Atlanta that does.
PETERS: Do they?
ROCKWELL: It looks odd, especially because, of course, they all realize that you'd be far better off with a Prius if you're concerned about mileage, and other cars, for that matter. A Toyota Corolla or whatever, you'd have a far better vehicle for less money.
PETER: Oh, heck, a couple of weeks ago, I test drove and wrote about the new Fiat 500, which is the first Fiat that's been sold new in this country since I think 1987, a long time. And this is just a great little car. And it seats four people, not two. It has a lot of cargo room, comparable to the little Mini Cooper. And it gets 40 miles per gallon, which is about the same as the Smart Car. And the kicker is it only costs $2,000 more. The base price of the Fiat 500 is fifteen and change. So it's about $2,000 more and you get a real car instead of half a car.
ROCKWELL: Also, it's extremely cute. I mean, it's a very
PETERS: Oh, it's great.
ROCKWELL: It's a great design. They kind of updated the classic '50s or '40s Fiat. And I hear they're much more reliable than they were before. But it sure is a great-looking car, whereas, as you say, the Smart Car is the stupid car from the stand point of looks anyway.
PETERS: Looks and also functionality. I suppose if you lived in an inner city or in downtown Washington, D.C., let's say, and you only needed the car to get you from Constitution Avenue down to the Library of Congress or something along those lines, well, OK, I suppose I can see that. But most people don't have such minimalist driving requirements and actually need to get places. And the Smart Car is essentially unusable on the highway. It's underpowered, which is bad, but it's got an extremely short wheel base and a very tall profile, so it's very tipsy. And when a semi tractor trailer goes by you at about 80 miles an hour, it will knock you into the ditch. It's a scary car to drive on the road, and I've driven a lot of scary cars. This is the only new car that I've driven that is scary, frightening to be out on the road in.
ROCKWELL: Well, (laughing) I've never driven one but now I'll be sure not to.
Also, when I look at it, I wonder what happens to you in a crash.
PETERS: Well, you know, I think I wrote about this a few months back. Its crash ratings are good. But they never tell you when they discuss crash ratings that crash scores are within a class of vehicle. So a Smart Car performs well when it's hit by another vehicle that is approximately the same size as the Smart Car. The problem, of course, is that 99 percent of the vehicles on the road are considerably larger and heavier than a Smart Car. And if a Smart Car gets hits by, oh, an SUV or even a Toyota Camry, a mid-sized car, the results are probably going to be devastating for the Smart Car driver.
ROCKWELL: Eric, you had five cars all together. What were the other ones that you should stay away from?
PETERS: Well, let's see, one, of course, was the defunct Tesla, which ceased production this year. That's the $100,000 electric car that I think Johnny Depp has and Leonardo DiCaprio has. And it's based on a Lotus. The Lotus that it's based on costs about $50,000. And they convert it to electric drive and then it winds up costing $106,000. And it's a very good-looking car. It's a very quick car. So is the Lotus that it's based on. But to me, the whole point to these electric cars is ostensively, well, OK, you're not going to burn gas, but if you're burning money by buying the thing, you're not saving any money, so what's the point of the thing?
ROCKWELL: Well, I guess it's the style. But people I encounter, a lot people I encounter seem to think that electricity is, quote, unquote, "clean," unlike gasoline, because they think, I guess, it comes out of the plug in the wall
ROCKWELL: and they don't realize it has to be generated
ROCKWELL: by coal or other means.
PETERS: Or oil. In this country, I don't recall the percentage, but I think it's on the order of two-thirds of the utility capacity that's fed into the grid is oil or coal fired. And that is why a wag referred to so-called zero-emissions electric cars as elsewhere-emission cars
which I always thought was clever.
ROCKWELL: Yes, but, as you say, the Hollywood stars were buying the Teslas.
PETERS: Yes. And it's a prestige car. It's another way of expressing indulgence just by a different means. A man who likes a high-performance car might go out and buy a new Porsche 911 because it's a fast car; it's an exotic car. Well, for a certain type of person, who wants to be very obviously "green," they can go out and buy a Tesla or they can go out and buy the Chevy Volt and, at their cocktail parties, they can point to it out in their driveways and say, look how green I am. And that's I think what these cars are all about.
ROCKWELL: And you hope when they point at their Chevy Volt in the parking lot, it's not on fire.
PETERS: Yes, I heard about that. I haven't had a chance yet to look into that but apparently there have been a number of reports about fires. I know for a fact that a lot of the hybrids have definite issues with regard to EMTs during an accident trying to, you know, cut open a door, let's say, to rescue a person who is in the car. If you cut through one of those high-voltage cables, the results can be lethal to the person trying to get into the car.
ROCKWELL: Oh, it's so very interesting.
PETERS: If you look under the hood of any of the hybrids, like the Prius or any of the other models, you'll see there are these brightly wrapped orange cables with big warning placards all around saying, "Do not touch," "Do not cut into," and that's the high-voltage wiring. And each one of these cars also has a very large battery pack, typically around 400 pounds of batteries, either lead acid or lithium ion for the newer ones. And, of course, those things are filled with horribly caustic chemicals. And they are encased and protected just as a gas tank in a car is encased and protected, but that does not mean they're invulnerable. And in a certain type of accident, they can split open and that stuff can just spill everywhere, and there you have a major hazardous-materials clean-up on your hands.
ROCKWELL: You know, for those of us, like you, like me, and I'm sure like most of the people listening, who have been car people all our lives, we're all aware that the government has made the production of cars much more expensive. It's cut down on our choices. But if you were looking for a car why don't you talk about some of the cars you like, at various price levels, if you were going out to buy a car today. And, of course, again, given the there may be better things available in Asia or Europe that are not imported into this country. You've talked about, for example, the so very many diesel cars that are not allowed in this country. But given what we've got here, what do you like?
PETERS: Well, there's a couple that come to mind immediately. The first is that Fiat 500 of which I'm a very, very big fan. For the money, that's an outstanding little car. It's not a cheapie. It's not depressing. It's quick. It's fun to drive and it gets good gas mileage. So that's high on my list if you're interested in something that's kind of a compact sporty car, but which can also serve as a fairly practical car or a commuter car.
Another one that I really like that's doing extremely well in the market is the Nissan Versa 1.6. This is the most affordable new car that you can buy. It has a base price of $9,999. Now, that's without air conditioning and it doesn't even have a radio and it certainly doesn't have power windows or locks but this is a complete family-sized car, slightly bigger than a compact car, almost a mid-sized car. And for about another $1000 or so, you can install have air conditioning in the vehicle. And it's pre-wired for a stereo. So rather than spend $600 or $700 on the factory system, you can go to an after-market electronics store, Circuit City and what have you, and buy the radio that you want and put it in yourself, as people used to do, and you've got an $11,000 brand new car that gets 35 miles per gallon and which costs less than a lot of used cars do.
ROCKWELL: Wow. Well, it's a cute car, too.
PETERS: It is. And
ROCKWELL: I've never been inside one but they are, they're good looking.
PETERS: Well, I'm 6'3" and over 200 pounds, and I can sit comfortably both in the front and the back of this thing. And compare that I had a Chevy Volt about a week ago. The Volt only seats four because of the battery pack. They have to put a big hump in the middle of the thing to accommodate the batteries. The Versa seats five. And it has a much more commodious backseat than that Volt does. And it's literally a third of the price of that Volt. And that's after the $7,500 federal subsidy that Volt buyers can get.
ROCKWELL: And what about if you want to move up a little bit in terms of size or money?
PETERS: Well, you mentioned diesels, and finally we are getting a number of diesels on the market. And one of my favorites is the BMW 3 Series diesel. It has excellent performance. It does zero to 60 in the mid-six-second range, I believe. And it also is capable of 40 miles per gallon on the highway. And being a diesel, with any kind of decent care, this is a car that you should be able to get 300,000-plus miles on. So it kind of amortizes the higher up-front costs of the car relative to, say, a gas-powered car.
ROCKWELL: What was the reason that we didn't have so many diesels?
PETERS: Well, for a long time it had to do really with the manufacturer warranty concerns and emissions-related concerns, having to do with the fuel that was available in this country, different formulations, not just nationwide, but state to state, versus what's available in Europe. And finally, they altered the fuel formula and they made it common across all 50 states. So now the manufacturers can economically bring these cars here and begin to sell them to a mass audience.
They haven't yet brought over compact, small-sized, diesel-powered vehicles, such as V.W. sells in European markets, some of which get 70 miles per gallon, which is considerably better than any hybrid on the market, but I think that they're going to come next year or perhaps the year after that.
ROCKWELL: Well, that's good news.
PETERS: I think it is. I'm a big fan of the diesels. The only downside is that, once again, our friends in the government came down with these new emissions regs on the diesel engines and now all diesels produced, both passenger car and heavy truck diesels, have to have these urea injection systems. And urea is basically pee. It's acquired from agricultural sources. And each of these vehicles has a tank, a separate little urea tank that has to be periodically topped off, depending on how many miles you drive and so on, but it's roughly about once a month, and you have to put about $30 or $40 worth of this urea into the tank about once a month.
ROCKWELL: I've driven the BMW diesel and I must say it sounds and feels nothing like the old diesels. And, of course, it has tremendous power and tremendous torque, especially.
PETERS: And could you even tell that it even was a diesel? I mean
ROCKWELL: No. Couldn't, no.
ROCKWELL: No. I found it extraordinary, because it had been some time since I had driven a diesel car. So it doesn't sound like one; doesn't feel like one.
PETERS: Yes. It's a revelation. BMW has a clever ad out that shows somebody ironically driving an old junky Mercedes diesel, chuffing and chuffing, with the smoke spewing out, being passed by everything. And then the 330d BMW just goes zipping past, quietly and powerfully. And it nicely conveys the difference between then and now.
ROCKWELL: Well, Eric Peters, thanks so much for being on the show. Thanks for the work you do. Thanks for allowing LRC to run your columns.
PETERS: Oh, thank you for carrying them.
ROCKWELL: Great to meet you over the phone.
PETERS: You, too.
ROCKWELL: And I look forward to all your great writing in the future and the ideals you stand for, too.
PETERS: Thank you, Lew. I really appreciate the time.
ROCKWELL: Thank you, Eric. Bye-bye.
PETERS: OK. Bye-bye.
ROCKWELL: Well, thanks so much for listening to the LEW ROCKWELL SHOW today. Take a look at all the podcasts. There have been hundreds of them. There's a link on the upper right-hand corner of the LRC front page. Thank you.
October 9, 2012Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.
Copyright © 2012 Eric Peters