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Jay Leno Talks Cars, Alternative Fuels, and Lost Technology
When Jay Leno hands over the reigns of NBC's "Tonight Show" in 2009, he'll be wrapping up an association with the show that spans more than 30 years, beginning with his first appearance as a guest in 1977. The stand-up comedian became the exclusive guest host for Johnny Carson in 1987 and took over the desk in 1992. Since then, Leno's "everyman" style and astute cultural observations have made the variety show entertaining and relevant for a whole new generation of viewers. A life-long auto enthusiast, Leno is increasingly channeling his passion for cars through environmental concerns. Some of his projects include working with General Motors on alternative-fueled performance cars and outfitting his Big Dog Garage (jaylenosgarage.com) - home to his rather amazing collection of rare automobiles - with solar panels and a wind turbine.
Green Car Journal : Your car collection is both eclectic and legendary. What's your favorite?
Jay Leno: "Well, if I had a favorite I wouldn't have all these cars. I have to admit I'm a fan of lost technology, like steam and early electric. You know, when you go back to the turn of the century you realize they were facing the same problems we face now. What was going to be the means of propulsion? Would it be electricity, steam, even biodiesel? When Henry Ford did the Model T his idea was that a farmer would be self-sufficient...grow his own corn, make his own ethanol. But obviously, gasoline became so cheap at a nickel a gallon he might as well go with gasoline. We all act like these are new problems we're dealing with now. But they're not. They're the same problems we've always had and people have always reached for alternative fuels or alternative forms of energy. It's just that gasoline - especially 50, 80, or 100 years ago - gave you such a bang for the buck and was so plentiful, it just naturally won out."
GCJ: Considering the cars you have here that run on steam, electricity, and biodiesel, it seems you're sort of a pioneer alternative fuel driver.
LENO: "I don't know about that. I'm not an engineer, I'm not even a very good mechanic. The fun part of lost technology like steam is ... it just baffles people. My Doble steam car, which was built in 1925, comes pretty close to passing current emissions. It was started by electric and there was no open flame. You turned the key, you started a fire, and within 30 seconds to a minute you got a full head of steam. You also got a thousand pounds of torque and it was quiet, I mean dead quiet. And effortless - no shifting, no clutches, no transmission. People are amazed. What we have now we've always had. It's just that back in the day, technology was expensive and labor was cheap. Now labor is expensive and technology is cheap. It's fun to see how they dealt with those issues early on, but it's really nothing new.
"I have a 1916 Owens Magnetic, which is a gas electric car. It's called a 'magnetic' because there's no mechanical connection between the gasoline engine and the dynamo. When you rev up the engine the metal flywheel spins and creates a magnetic field that powers a 24 volt dynamo, which is like a giant electric locomotive. So it's a car that requires no shifting or anything of that nature. And it's a gas-powered electric car, not a true hybrid in the way we think of hybrids, but in the day...not bad."
"There was also a gas-electric car called the Dual Power made in the United States in the early 'teens. I have a 1909 Baker electric car of which there were thousands in New York City at the turn of the century. They went 110 miles on a charge. They were quiet, they were efficient, and there were charging stations all over the city."
GCJ: With so many of them on the road ... you wonder what happened.
LENO: "The problem with the early electric cars is there was a marketing mistake. Since they didn't require any cranking or any messy oils or carburetors, they were quite popular with women. So they became women's shopping cars. Well, if you try to sell a woman's car to a guy, it's the same problem we've had for the last 100 years: 'I'm not buyin' one of those. I'm not buying a woman's car, I want a manly automobile!' And as dumb as it sounds, it was a problem then and electrics hit the wall. They realized that Clara Ford, Henry Ford's wife, didn't even drive a Model T. She drove a Baker Electric. Electrics were so popular with women that they just became women's cars. That's not the reason they died out but it's one reason among many."
GCJ: Do you drive the cars in your collection?
LENO: "Oh yeah, I drive them all."
GCJ: Tell us about the Ecojet.
LENO: "I think every kid has dreamed of a jet powered car at one time or another. We just sort of took that idea and said, 'why not do a green version?' So we ran it on biodiesel. It doesn't get particularly good mileage. The idea is to draw attention to alternative fuels. The joke I sort of say is, 'you drive it, you wait for the harvest to come in, you harvest the crops, and then you drive it again.'
"Obviously, it's not a car that's gonna be used every day. But I think if you want to get kids interested in this type of thing, maybe the practical part of it is not the way to hook 'em. The impractical part is to show 'em a jet car. 'It goes 200 miles and hour and oh, by the way, it doesn't use fossil fuel, it runs on biodiesel.' You know what I mean? When I was a kid I read a lot of comic books, and my mother never discouraged this because I was reading. And she knew eventually I would tire of that and move on to real books. When you have something like the Ecojet or the E85 Corvette that has 600 horsepower, and you see a nine- or 10-year-old boy's eyes flash at it, then you explain to him: this is an alternative fuel vehicle. 'Really? Wow, my parents have a Prius but it's nothing like that!'"
GCJ: What's your view on the use of natural gas for transportation?
LENO: "Natural gas is one of my favorites. Why throw away 130 years of internal combustion technology? I mean, we've got the engine. So why not just change the fuel? We've got variable valve timing, we've got little 1-liter engines that can make 200 horsepower, 250 horsepower. Why throw all that away and start all over again? I like fuel cells and all that stuff...they're sexy. But in the everyday world we know how to fix an internal combustion engine. We know when it's about to wear out, we know how to change the oil, we know all of that. Why not just change the fuel source? I think the only problem with natural gas is that it's not sexy. You know, we Americans like flash. Hydrogen is sexier than natural gas. 'Natural gas? Well, I have that in my oven.' That's what you get from people. Whereas hydrogen sounds like ... the Jetsons."
GCJ: You recently spent time in the BMW Hydrogen 7. What was that like?
LENO: "It was impressive just by how normal it was. We did kind of a dramatic test back in 2001 when I was able to introduce the hydrogen vehicle to Paramount Studios. I drove it up on stage, we started the car up, and I put a glass under the tailpipe. I spoke for about 20 minutes, the glass filled with water, and I drank the water. It was just a dramatic demonstration. With the general public, when you start talking alternative fuel technology you see their eyes glaze over. But when they see you put a glass under a tailpipe, and where harmful emissions and black liquid came out before and now nothing but clean water comes out ... boy, that makes an impression."
GCJ: Some say hydrogen vehicles and fuels are too futuristic, what do you say about that?
LENO: "We are kind of wide-eyed. When I was a kid, it was always flying cars ... cars that went 1,000 miles. Nobody ever predicted GPS. Global Positioning Satellites just came out of nowhere. And that's what will happen. I was reading about this scientist, I believe in Pennsylvania, that is bombarding sea water with high frequency radio waves and getting the sea water to explode. Is that a potential fuel? Sure. Where did that come from? I mean, that's what will happen. There will always be some technology we did not expect to come out. I don't think hydrogen is so far in the future. I mean, it works now. I drove it.
"But you know something, when I was a little kid they said we'd be on the moon in nine years. That was pretty good, when Kennedy said we're gonna be on the moon. And then we went to the moon. Americans like a chore ... like to be given an assignment, see it through to the end, and then bathe in the glory afterward. That's what we do best."
GCJ: How do pure electric cars fit in the picture?
LENO: "I don't think there's much future in pure electric cars. I've got a 1909 Baker electric. It goes 110 miles on a charge and requires no maintenance. Ten years ago I had an EV1. It went 125 miles on a charge and required no maintenance. We gained 15 miles in 100 years."
GCJ: What about hybrids?
LENO: "I think hybrids are a stop-gap measure that works very well right now. But you have to have two powertrains, electricity and gas. In a natural gas car like the Honda Civic you get more range on one fuel supply. You shouldn't need to carry two. Steam cars need to carry two, gasoline and water, and maybe a third one, a pilot fuel, to keep the thing lit. So, I like hybrids, I think they're interesting. But I think you're carrying a lot of unnecessary weight that affects handling. Hybrids are great for going from point 'A' to 'B' and they can be comfortable, but they're not a vehicle for the enthusiast. I think hybrids will be around for 20 years until we go back to single propulsion again."
GCJ: What's our greatest transportation challenge today - greenhouse gases, air pollution, energy security, gridlock, something else?
LENO: "Well, gridlock is up there. You know, it's hard to get Americans into public transportation. It would take a whole different mindset. How many times have I actually seen a comedian on TV talking about trying to meet a girl, but I don't have a car. Big laugh ... audience falls down laughing because what idiot, what loser, doesn't have a car? I'm not saying that's the way it should be. I'm just saying that's the way it is. I did a joke the other night about Lance Armstrong and dating Jennifer Aniston. Now he's going out with one of the Olsens and he's only got a bike. Imagine the chicks he'd meet if he had a car! That got a huge laugh. The car is the status symbol of America and probably will be for quite a long period to come.
"I think the problem is greenhouse gases, gridlock, obviously the situation in the Middle East. You know, we can go to natural gas cars tomorrow if we really want to. It's not a problem. The problem is getting the general public interested. For this to work you have to give the public something relatively equal to what they have now, and to make it work it has to be a little bit better, a little more fuel efficient and cheaper. And then they'll switch over."
GCJ: In your view, how do we achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental compatibility we need while also enjoying the cars we love? How big of a challenge is that?
LENO: "I think the way to handle it is the way they did it with smoking. You make it socially unacceptable. You reward people by giving them a rebate. Government mandates ... I don't know. I find with Americans, when you mandate us and tell us you have to do this, well, they'll fight you tooth and nail. When you tell the automakers they have to increase fuel mileage they will take you to court and fight you for 10 years. When you make it socially unacceptable, when Hollywood stars and athletes and everyone goes, 'I like this little car,' the marketing changes the next day. So to me, I think it can all be public pressure.
"I'm very optimistic. When I first came to L.A. in the '70s there were 180 or 200 smog days. I don't think we had one this year. Is the air perfect? No. But it's a lot better than it was. I'm not a doom and gloom guy. I see science as the great savior."
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