LA Auto Show displays more environmental promise than you might think

Anna Doty

This post was co-authored by Timothy O’Connor

In Los Angeles, where the personal car is an indispensable piece of the city’s lifestyle, the event of the year – the annual LA auto show – is under way, and we had the pleasure of attending the highly publicized affair with some colleagues.

Unlike in previous years, the modern event has become much more than a showcase of new toys for the rich and status-seeking elite. In many ways, it’s a celebration of invention and ingenuity, pushing back on the idea that cars are nothing but major contributors to local air pollution, urban sprawl, and carbon emissions. 

When renowned economist Dr. Joseph Schumpeter wrote in the mid-1900s, “Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary,” he might as well have been talking about the auto industry—and the LA auto show. In other words, “creative destruction,” as Dr. Schumpeter called it, means businesses associated with the old way of doing things need to innovate and evolve, else gets left behind. 

Several new models of mind-blowing concept cars, self-driving internet-enabled vehicles, and squadrons of cutting edge electric and hydrogen vehicles are raising eyebrows among car enthusiasts this year. These longer-ranging, more powerful, and in many cases cheaper vehicles promise to transform the transportation and electricity distribution system.  

Hyundai’s new hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV is going into mass production in 2014, and Toyota’s 2015 fuel cell model will get over 300 miles to the tank. On the electric side, the show also includes cars like the small Smart Fortwo selling for under $25,000, and the 2013 Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid that can achieve a range of 620 miles and has seats made partially of plant materials instead of petroleum products.

And, it’s not the first time an auto show has shown transformational promise.

Visitors to the 1908 Detroit Auto Show —then the global epicenter of the emerging auto industry—were treated to the first ever Ford Model T, a four-wheeled machine designed for use by the “every man.”  Cleaner and more powerful than horse travel, the Model T solved many of the prevalent transportation challenges of the day, including the increasing problem of where to put all of the horse manure dropped by the over 120,000 horses in New York City alone.  In just over nine years, all horse carriages were gone from the Big Apple, and carriage drivers transitioned to different jobs created by the emerging technologies of the day.

Similar to the evolution from horse-to-car, energy innovations and the new age of green car technology are the kinds of trends that have defined major industrial shifts for hundreds of years.  The rise of coal gas, and later coal oil and crude oil, to replace animal and vegetable oils is yet another example.  Similarly, the advent of shale gas development in just a few short years has transformed the energy landscape in the US – bringing cheaper energy for consumers and huge profits for companies that were the first players in these markets.  “Creative destruction” is present in all of these case studies, and brings about an important lesson as the world faces a serious energy and climate challenge.

Widespread public health impacts and atmospheric destabilization are being experienced across the globe – and it can be traced back in large part to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.  The global response to these challenges, at home and abroad, is to innovate and deploy new carbon reducing technology across multiple sectors, while also reducing the use of carbon intensive processes. Creative destruction at work means that the days of technologies associated with high-carbon systems may be numbered, and new ideas will become the industries of the future.

As shown by the modern LA auto show, today’s auto-manufactures are no longer just part of the current high-carbon economy—they’re producing solutions and alternatives to displace the old way of doing business.  Bolstered by laws like California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), these car makers are demonstrating to the world the power of creative destruction at work – all the while making sure they aren’t left behind with the high-carbon economy of the past.