Page 59 of Wheels

"But do we believe it?"

"Hard to know what to believe, Mr. DeLosanto. Our own people tell us we have engine emission problems licked. Do you believe that?"

"In Detroit I believe it. When I get here I'm not so sure."

What it came down to, Brett knew, was the balance between economics and numbers. It was possible, now, to build a totally emission-free auto engine, but only at high cost which would make the cars employing it as remote from everyday use as a nobleman's carriage once was from the foot-slogging peasantry. To keep costs reasonable engineering compromises had to be made, though even with compromises, present emission control was excellent, and better by far than envisioned only a lustrum ago. Yet sheer numbers - the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly proliferation of cars - undid the end effect, as was smoggily evident in California.

They were at the car Brett would use during his stay.

"I'll drive," Brett said. He took the keys from Barclay.

Later, having checked in at the Beverly Hilton, and shed Barclay, Brett drove alone to the Art Center College of Design on West Third Street. CBS Television City towered nearby, with Farmers' Market huddled behind. Brett was expected, and was received with dual enthusiasm as a representative of a company which hired many of each year's graduates, and as a distinguished alumnus himself.

The relatively small college buildings were, as usual, busily crowded, with all usable space occupied and nothing wasted on frills. The entrance lobby, though small, was an extension of classrooms and perpetually in use for informal conferences, interviews, and individual study.

The head of Industrial Design, who welcomed Brett amid a buzz of other conversations, told him, "Maybe someday we'll take time out to plan a quieter cloister."

"If I thought there was a chance," Brett rejoined, "I'd warn you not to. But you won't. This place should stay the pressure cooker it is."

It was an atmosphere he knew well - perpetually work-oriented, with emphasis on professional discipline. "This is not for amateurs," the college catalogue declared, "this is for real." Unlike many schools, assignments were arduously demanding, requiring students to produce, produce . . . over days, nights, weekends, holidays . . . leaving little time for extra interests, sometimes none. Occasionally, students protested at the unrelenting stress, and a few dropped out, but most adjusted and, as the catalogue put it too:

"Why pretend that the life they are preparing for is easy? It is not and never will be."

The emphasis on work and unyielding standards were reasons why auto makers respected the college and kept in touch with faculty and students.

Frequently, companies competed for the services of top-line students in advance of graduation. Other design colleges existed elsewhere, but Los Angeles Art Center was the only one with a specific course in auto design, and nowadays at least half of Detroit's annual crop of new designers traveled the L.A. route.

Soon after arrival, surrounded by a group of students, Brett broke off to survey the tree-shaded inner courtyard where they had gathered, and were sipping coffee or soft drinks, and chewing doughnuts.

"Nothing's changed," he observed. "It's like coming home."

"Pretty packed living room," one of the students said.

Brett laughed. Like everything else here, the courtyard was too small, the students elbowing for space too many. Yet for all the congestion, only the truly talented were admitted to the school, and only the best survived the grueling three-year course.

The exchange of talk - a reason why Brett had come - went on.

Inevitably, air pollution was on the minds of students; even in this courtyard there was no escaping it. The sun, which should have been shining brightly from an azure sky, instead filtered dully through the thick gray haze extending from the ground to high above. Here, too, eye and nose irritation were constant and Brett remembered a recent U. S. Public Health warning that breathing New York's polluted air was equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day; thus nonsmokers innocently shared a smoker's probability of death from cancer. He presumed the same was true of Los Angeles, perhaps even more so.

On the subject of pollution, Brett urged, "Tell me what you characters think." A decade from now students like these would be helping shape industry policy.

"One thing you figure when you live here," a voice from the rear injected, "is something has to give. If we go on the way things are, one day everybody in this town will choke to death."

Brett pointed out, "Los Angeles is special. Smog is worse because of geography, temperature inversion, and a lot of sunlight."

"Not so special," someone else put in. "Have you been in San Francisco lately?"

"Or New York?"

"Or Chicago?"

"Or Toronto?"

"Or even little country towns on market days?"

Brett called across the chorus, "Hey! If you feel that way, maybe some of you are headed for the wrong business. Why design cars at all?"

"Because we're nutty about cars. Love 'em! Doesn't stop us thinking, though. Or knowing what's going on, and caring." The speaker was a gangling young man with untidy blond hair, at the forefront of the group. He put a hand through his hair, revealing the long slender fingers of an artist.

"To hear a lot of people out. West, and other places" - Brett was playing devil's advocate - "you'd think the only future is in mass transportation."

"That old chestnut!"

"No one really wants to use mass transport," one of the few girls in the group declared. "Not if a car's practical and they can afford it.

Besides, mass transport's a delusion. With subsidies, taxes, and fares, public transport delivers a lot less than automobiles for more money. So everybody gets taken. Ask New Yorkers! Soon - ask San Franciscans."

Brett smiled. "They'll love you in Detroit."

The girl shook her head impatiently. "I'm not saying it because of that."

"Okay," Brett told the others, "let's agree that cars will be the main form of transportation for another half century, probably a lot longer. What kind of cars?"

"Better," a quiet voice said. "A lot better than now. And fewer."

"Not much argument about being better, though the question's always: Which way? I'm interested, though, in how you figure fewer."

"Because we ought to think that way, Mr. DeLosanto. That's if we take the long view, which is for our own good in the end."

Brett looked curiously at the latest speaker who now stepped forward, others near the front easing aside to make room. He, too, was young, but short, swarthy, with the beginning of a pot belly and, on the surface, appearing anything but an intellectual. But his soft voice was compelling and others fell silent as if a spokesman had moved in.

"We have a good many rap sessions here," the swarthy student said. "Those of us taking Transportation Design want to be a part of the auto industry.

We're excited by the idea. Cars turn us on. But it doesn't mean that any one of us is headed for Detroit wearing blinders."

"Let's hear the rest of it," Brett urged. "Keep talking!" Coming back, listening to forthright student views again - views unencumbered by defeats, disillusion, too much knowledge of practicalities or financial limitations - was an emotional experience like having personal batteries charged.

"A thing about the auto industry nowadays," the swarthy student said, "is it's tuned in to responsibility. Sometimes the critics won't admit it, but it has. There's a new feeling. Air pollution, safety, quality, all those things aren't just talking subjects any more. Something's being done, this time for real."

The others were still quiet. Several more students had joined the group; Brett guessed they were from other courses. Though a dozen art specialties beside automotive design were taught here, the subject of cars always evoked general interest within the school.

"Well," the same student continued, "the auto industry has some other responsibilities too. One of them is numbers."

It was curious, Brett thought, that at the airport earlier he had been thinking about numbers himself.

"It's the numbers that eat us up," the soft-voiced, swarthy student said.

"They undo every effort the car people make. Take safety. Safer cars are engineered and built, so what happens? More get on the road; accidents go up, not down. With air pollution it's the same. Cars being made right now have the best engines ever, and they pollute less than any engine ever did before. There are even cleaner ones ahead. Right?"

Brett nodded. "Right."

"But the numbers keep going up. We're bragging now about producing ten million new cars a year, so no matter how good anybody gets at emission control, the total pollution gets worse. It's wild!"

"Supposing all that's true, what's the alternative? To ration cars?"

Someone said, "Why not?"

"Let me ask you something, Mr. DeLosanto," the swarthy student said. "You ever been in Bermuda?"

Brett shook his head.

"It's an island of twenty-one square miles. To make sure they keep room to move around, the Bermuda government does ration cars. First they limit engine capacity, body length and width. Then they allow only one car for every household."

A voice among the newcomers objected, "Nuts to that!"