I was a guest of Hyundai Motors, whose afternoon press conference, complete with jugglers, soccer stars, and acrobats, was abruptly canceled due to "an incident in New York" in which "two planes have flown into the World Trade Center" the voice from the public announcement system explained. Our group, none of whose cell phones worked in Europe, departed the show ignorant of further details of the tragedy unfolding back home. Rumors started to circulate during dinner (mostly via strangers expressing their condolences), and our little group of Americans occasionally wondered out loud how two planes -- we assumed they were small private planes involved in a freak accident -- could have possibly crashed into the World Trade Center.
Late that night, after returning to my hotel room and switching on the television, reality finally hit. All that night, and for the next several days, I was effectively stuck in Europe, mostly glued to the television and Internet. I distinctly recall a BBC analyst commenting that "it is going to come as a shock to many Americans that they aren't well liked in parts of the world."
On September 11, 2001, I was in Frankfurt, Germany, covering the 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show for Automobile Magazine. That's the year the Volkswagen Group debuted the Lamborghini Diablo's replacement, the Murciélago, and confirmed production of the 1,001-horsepower, 16-cylinder, 8-mpg Bugatti Veyron. Those were heady times. Over on the Ford stand, the Americans were premiering a wacky hydrogen-powered concept car that could supposedly be on the market by 2004. There were no electric cars.
Two days after 9/11, I visited Dachau, figuring I was already depressed and might as well see the worst humanity is capable of doing to itself. If you've never been to a Nazi death camp, it's harrowing, and I was horrified to see gruesome images of the piles of human bodies discovered by U.S. Marines. Holocaust victims had been photographed in the same gas chamber anteroom in which I stood, and it was there that a jarring thought occurred to me: By burning gasoline, we're poisoning the air we breathe -- adding carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gases -- to an increasingly warmer atmosphere.
Environmental arguments aside, there can be little debate that we're also funding people who hate us. When it was reported that all of the 9/11 hijackers were from countries in the Middle East (of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi Arabian, two were United Arab Emirati, one was Egyptian, and one was Lebanese) it immediately became clear to me that the United States of America desperately needed to disengage from trade with that particular region of the world. The only way we could do that would be to stop using oil, the Middle East's most valuable commodity. Oil was also something that, as a staff writer for a glossy car magazine that took gasoline for granted (one of the dirty secrets of car magazines is that they provide their staff writers with free gasoline, sponsored by the gas companies themselves), I felt guilty about encouraging others to use.
So I began seeking out automobiles powered by alternative forms of energy. In September of 2006, five years after 9/11, I was a senior automotive editor for Robb Report, a publication that exists mainly to provide suggestions to the nouveau riche about interesting ways to spend their money. When a new company called Tesla invited me to Santa Monica to take a ride in its electric Roadster, my ears perked up, and I suggested the story to my editor as a potential cover subject (it would in fact become Tesla's first magazine cover). I interviewed the company's then-CEO Martin Eberhardt, who told me: "You can drive around and feel smug in a hybrid car. But you're still burning oil, dude. If we want to become independent of countries that hate us, we need to stop burning oil altogether."
Tesla's groundbreaking roadster cost more than $100,000, which meant it wasn't an option for a humble reporter, or for the vast numbers of middle-class Americans whose choices in transportation could make a dent in our country's energy dependency. The sporty Tesla merely proved that electric cars didn't have to be weird like the GM EV1; they could, in fact, be quite sexy. It was a first glimpse into the future of motoring that promised alternative-energy-powered cars didn't have to suck.
Five years later, I have an electric car. My wife and I took delivery of our Nissan Leaf
in June, and have been happily motoring around town on
renewable energy ever since. I live in Palo Alto, California, where I pay a little bit extra (1.5 cents per kilowatt hour) to buy renewable energy from Palo Alto Green; 97.5 percent of my electricity comes from wind turbines, 2.5% derives from solar panels. With access to 100 percent sustainably produced electricity, I'm the ideal candidate for an electric car.
The Leaf's range gets us to work (a 20-mile round trip), the kid to school (2 miles), the grocery store (across the street or 4 miles to the downtown Whole Foods), and occasionally to San Francisco International Airport and back (which takes most of a charge). We usually plug in at night, when electric rates are cheaper, by running an extension cord off our front porch to the parking lot. Twice, neighborhood kids have unplugged the Leaf before it fully charged, which is kind of annoying. But generally, there's no anxiety associated with driving an electric car. It's quiet, it's efficient, and best of all, it's nice to never stop at a gas station and handle toxic liquids derived from oil.
As a result, I, for one, am officially off the oil grid. My family's daily transportation needs contribute zero emissions to the air we breathe. It also means we contribute zero revenue to the Middle East in the form of petrodollars. More than 20 percent of the gasoline Americans put in their cars derives from the Middle East, which means the average American pays at least $10 per fill-up to parts of the world that don't like us. Or, we can elect to simply recharge our batteries.
Oddly, buying this Japanese car feels like the most patriotic thing I've ever done. It's an empowering feeling.