Why 9/11 convinced me to buy a Nissan Leaf
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."