Tom Hodgkinson: 'Every 50 miles you would have to sleep'

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The Independent Online

Is the future electric? I ask because I have just returned from Amsterdam, where, having strangely morphed into some sort of eco Jeremy Clarkson, I found myself road-testing a new electric car being released by Vauxhall next year. Although I am suspicious of that old HG Wells idea of a technological utopia, which was so effectively satirised by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, I have to admit that the electric car seems an attractive idea. Oil production might well have peaked, and it is an undeniable fact that it is wildly expensive: I'd say that a quarter of my annual income is currently spent on oil, for heating and driving. So a combination of new forms of energy and reduced consumption would seem to be an obviously sensible idea.

Vauxhall's car can run on its battery for 50 miles, after which a petrol engine takes over. During the brainwashing session I attended as part of the test drive, we were shown a film of a groovy young eco family enjoying breakfast then going down to the garage (piled high with logs for the family's wood-burning stove), where the daughter unplugged the car and off they set. Vauxhall's research says the drive to work is the most common car journey, most of which are under 50 miles, so commuting costs would be drastically reduced.

The obvious point to make is that you would use a lot less petrol and reduce costs even further if you simply stayed at home instead of going to work. But while I share with Oscar Wilde the social goal of full unemployment, that particular idler's utopia is perhaps a little far off. And as far as energy usage goes, while we might be able to persuade a handful of idealistic families in Europe to chop logs instead of buying oil, it would be difficult to encourage, say, the whole of China to get out of the city and go back to subsistence farming. The new Chinese mega-cities are genuinely awe-inspiring: Chongqing has a population of 30 million, and most of the city has been built over the past 15 years or so. And the first thing that happens when you urbanise is you start to use more energy.

The idea of the electric car has actually been around for nearly 200 years. The first, a slow-moving table-top model, was built by a Hungarian named Anyos Jedlik in 1827. At the turn of the past century, 38 per cent of cars in America were electric. But they faded away, probably because when oil was cheap and plentiful, there was no commercial will behind the idea; gas-guzzling became the norm.

Today, however, there is renewed interest in the idea, and I would argue that a combination of more idleness and more electricity use is the way forward. We have all been conditioned to bomb around the world in frantic fashion. But there is a lot to be said for doing a little less in the future. A little less rushing about, a little less driving, a little less shopping, a little less work.

Since the electric car needs to be recharged every 50 miles before it starts using petrol, journeys in it would be much cheaper if they were simply much slower. Every 50 miles you would get out, plug in, and sleep for four hours or however long the car takes to charge. Then you could remount your electric steed and be on your way.

Thank you to those who have written in to correct a Latin mistake I made in a previous column. I was discussing the etymology of the word "passion" and bemoaning the word's promiscuous overuse in modern marketing phrases such as "passionate about crisps" and so on. I wrote that the word "passion" derives from the Latin passio, meaning "I suffer".

In fact, the correct Latin word is patior. As a promoter of good grammar and old-school Latin learning, this error, as you can imagine, caused me great shame. I can only say in my defence that I foolishly relied upon substandard online translation programmes, when I should have made the 2ft journey to my bookshelves and consulted a proper Latin dictionary. The old ways are so often superior to the new.

I am pleased, by the way, to report that sales of our forthcoming Idler Academy Latin course are very strong. This brings me great delight, particularly as the millionaire publisher John Brown, of Viz fame, scoffed at the idea of our old-school curriculum when I told him about our plans for an academy, saying: "I think you may be overestimating the level of interest in Latin out there."

Laudamus veteres!

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'

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