The Wishful Environmentalism of Cars 2

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Courtesy Disney / Pixar

Cars 2 opened to lukewarm reviews and a smash box office, taking in $66 million domestically and another $42 million internationally during its opening weekend. The film’s ability to transcend unusually tepid reviews is clearly a testament to the power of the Pixar brand (another gift of Steve Jobs), which has generated a remarkable series of animated hits stemming from the Toy Story franchise that began in 1995 and continuing through gems like Wall-E and The Incredibles, as well as the first Cars. But this film also carries a loud and unmistakable message about alternative energy, automobiles and their shared future.

At the risk of a mini-spoiler alert — though it’s unlikely anyone with kids will decline to see the film because the ending has been given away — Cars 2 revolves around a plot by one of those devious tycoons usually found in Bond films to destroy the nascent market in alternative energy vehicles and reap riches from selling oil. The heroes, Lightning McQueen and his loyal sidekick Mater, are drawn into a web of intrigue when said tycoon sponsors a race with all the vehicles using a new form of flexible fuel. Through various twists and turns, it becomes clear that the tycoon has rigged the fuel to explode, which will then discredit the new fuel and thereby increase demand for gasoline. The plot is, of course, foiled, thereby showing the evil of oil tycoons and the potential new path for alternative energy.

(MORE: Cars 2: A Pixar Fantasy That Runs Out of Gas)

It’s a compelling vision of an automobile world powered by organic, renewable fuels and by electricity, and it resonates with many in the United States and throughout the world who yearn for a carbon-less future for automobiles. But it is also an ideal that is far removed from what is actually happening.

This year, the most well-known hybrid fuel vehicle, the Toyota Prius, celebrated its millionth vehicle sold in the United States and its two-millionth sold internationally. That’s a big number, but in autoland, it is very, very small. U.S. vehicles sales alone have been in the range of 12 million to 14 million cars a year (less in 2009) in the decade plus since the Prius was introduced. Total global hybrid sales are still in the low millions, compared to more than 400 million cars produced globally since 2000.

(MORE: Cars 2 at the Box Office)

In the country with the highest percentage of hybrid and flex-fuel cars, Brazil, nearly 70 percent of all new vehicles run on either ethanol or some type of flexible fuel mixture that combines ethanol, biofuels and traditional gasoline. But Brazil uses its massive sugar cane resources to produce ethanol, whereas similar efforts in the United States currently require the use of corn-based ethanol fuel, which is almost as energy-intensive to produce as refined gasoline.

China is the world’s fastest growing and largest car market. Auto sales there are estimated to grow from the current 13 million units a year to 24 million in 2018. Though the Chinese government has announced a push for electric and hybrid vehicles to offset what promises to be a vast spike in gas prices as demand increases, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles represent a tiny, tiny portion of cars sold in China. In Beijing or Shanghai, no one aspires to own a Prius.

And then there is the coming roll out of electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf. These will have to overcome the distance issue (people worried that they will lose battery power in the middle of nowhere) and cultural shifts, and hence the initial roll out will be in the tens of thousands, impressive but hardly a dent.

All of this adds up to the fact the economics of Cars 2 are an ideal, not a reality. The fact remains that the world’s gas-only cars dominate the market to an extraordinary degree.

Yet, the promise of renewable fuels is real. The technologies not only exist but are now marketable at reasonable prices. The enthusiasm for Cars 2 shows that for the generation that is yet to drive, a future of efficient cars using renewable affordable sources of energy is a compelling, exciting vision. Let’s hope that the cars that their parents are still driving and buying don’t make it impossible for those kids to do the same.