What’s a fossil fuel car, grandad?

An original horseless carriage in black and white with a man in a hat sitting in the driver’s seat
Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

My grandaughter looked at me over the top of her iPhone99 Max the other day and asked one of those questions that only the innocent could ask.

“Grandad,” she asked “What’s a fossil fuel car?”

I smiled at her as I considered what she asked. At seven years old she is, of course, too young to remember the age of the cars run on petrol or diesel. She’s never had to drive around in a car that kicks noxious fumes, pollutants, and carcinogens out the back. She’s only ever known Electric Vehicles.

Of course she’s aware of fossil fuels. She knows that ‘oil’ is a thing. A non-renewable thing made from dead dinosaurs. I mean we still use oil everyday in lots of manufacturing processes. But we no longer drill for it by the millions of barrels per day and refine it into explosive liquid that powers our world. That was something we started to wean ourselves off back in 2030 when governments started banning the sale of fossil fuel cars in their respective countries.

Sure, the car manufacturers bitched and whined about it. But they could see the writing on the wall. They knew they had to pull their collective thumbs out of their collection buttholes and sort things out. Otherwise they would go the way of the dinosaur — just like Toyota did.

But my grandaughter? She was in the dark when it came to fossil fuel-powered cars. They were ancient history for her. Like when people of our generation ask about ”What was the World Trade Centre in New York?” Because it’s something that no longer exists in the form it used to there is little understanding for what it was and what it stood for.

The same with a fossil fuel car.

Remember fossil fuel cars stood for progress in advanced civilisation for decades. The first one was created back at the end of the 1800’s. With very few exceptions all of the cars from then until the mid 2030s were all powered by some sort of refined oil product. The environmental destruction perpetrated by those who propagated this form of transport for so long is something we’re only now managing to deal with.

So when she asked me ‘What’s a fossil fuel car’ I had to be careful to make sure I told her what she needed to hear.

“A fossil fuel car was both the best and the worst thing man ever invented.” I said. “It was the thing that opened the world up to people like your grandad’s grandparents. It allowed them to visit the seaside, the city, friends and relatives. It was something that made life convenient and liveable.” I paused, unsure exactly how to go on.

“But don’t cars do that today?” she asked. Electric cars, she meant.

“Sure. But back then we didn’t have electric cars. We spent fortunes drilling for oil, moving it across the country to refineries, using huge amounts of electricity to refine it, storing it in tankers and using fossil fuel vehicles to deliver it to things called petrol station. Then you’d take your car there and fill it up.”

“Are petrol stations like charging hubs?” she asked.

“A little. They were all over the place. Even little towns had two or three of them.”

“What if they were closed, Grandad. Could you get petrol at home?”

“No, sweetie,” I said, smiling as I understood what she meant “The only place you could get fuel for your car was in a petrol station. It wasn’t available at home like electricity was. And it was expensive, too.”

“How expensive?”

“When I first got an electric car I spent about £400 on electricity to do 12,000 miles. My last fossil fuel car cost almost £2500 to do the same amount.”

“Why was it so expensive?”

“Like I said. It had a long journey from the ground to the car. Lots of people needed to be paid for their work. Oil workers, refiners, tanker delivery drivers. We even used to get oil delivered from the Middle East in huge ships.”

“I didn’t know there was oil in the middle east.” She said. “Where did they put the drills? In between the solar panels?”

“There weren’t solar panels in the Middle East back then.” I told her. “It was mostly desert and lots of oil wells. Countries went to war over it.”

“War? That’s stupid!”

I nodded. “There was even a time when your grandad was little when they stopped sending oil over to us for some reason. We had no petrol for cars and the government started handing out ration cards for it. You had to queue for ages to get some. Lines around the block!”

“Couldn’t people use their own solar panels?”

“We didn’t have solar panels back then, honey.” I smiled at her innocence. “Even if we did the cars didn’t run on electricity.”

She looked at me with one of those faces which she made when she thought I was pulling her leg. “Don’t be silly!” she said.

“Seriously,” I said ”There was a time when all cars ran on petrol or diesel, you could only get it at places called petrol stations and it cost a small fortune to fill up. But the worst thing was the pollution.”

“The heating stuff?” That was her way of referring to the causes of climate change. I nodded.

“These fossil fuel cars used to burn petrol. What was left when it was burned was pushed out of the back and into the air. Over time it caused problems and made everything warmer.”

“That’s why we grow coffee in England now.” she stated. True. Since England had become a subtropical climate we could grow our own coffee beans. But she was going to flip when I told her the worst bit “Then there’s particulate matter.”

“What’s particulate matter?” she asked, as I knew she would. Her eyes widened with the thought she was going to learn something new.

“Particulate matter was some tiny, invisibly nasties that lived inside car exhaust. They hung around in the air and people breathed them in. But they were so small they went right into people’s blood and made them ill. Little children especially.”

“Why little children?”

“Because they were small and closer to the bad stuff that came out of the fossil fuel cars. It happened a lot when Mummies and Daddies went to pick their kids up from school.”

She sat silently for a few moments. She was looking down at the ground. I could tell she was thinking things through, working the angles in her head.

“So people drove around in cars that burned oil that was not renewable, made poison gas that hurt children and warmed the planet so much we can now grow coffee in England. They also fought wars to get the oil so they could sell it for lots of money to people who had no choice if they wanted to drive a car?”

I nodded, knowing there was more to come.

“But all the time we had the sun, the wind, and the tides making free power for us to drive electric cars?”

She looked me in the eye for what seemed like minutes but was probably only a couple of seconds.

Then a big smile spread over her face.

“Aww, Grandad. Stop joking. That’s just too silly to be true.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

Writer. Director. Actor. Podcaster. Some writing stuff: http://ow.ly/4HmL30oCKvQ. Creator of the EV Musings podcast.

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