Expo puts environment in the driver’s seat

Times Staff Writer

Lance Melnik peered into the powder blue hydrogen car and turned to his 9-year-old daughter. By the time she drives, he told her, “These will be the cars on the road.”

His wife, Maria, wasn’t buying any of it. The source of her skepticism? A yellow power cord hanging out of the next bumper over.

The cars -- fuel cell, electric, hybrid, biodiesel -- were on display Saturday at the Alternative Energy and Transportation Expo, held at Santa Monica Airport.

“It has to be convenient, I’m sorry,” she said, pushing their 1-year-old daughter in a stroller. “This whole charging thing is a problem for me.”


In the age of global warming, fuel-efficient, low-emissions cars have become something of an environmental fashion statement. The expo, in a hangar and adjacent parking lot, attracted plenty of bicycle advocates, vegans and people worried about their carbon footprints.

Melnik, who grew up in Detroit, had a more immediate concern: rising gas prices.

He spent nearly $5,000 last year fueling up for his commute from Wilmington, near Long Beach, to his office in Beverly Hills.

He figured it was easily worth the price of a few more gallons to drive to the expo to check out the future -- much of it available now. A 35-year-old computer systems manager with a cellphone perched on his ear most of the time, he is a strong believer in technology.


The family arrived in Maria’s new Ford Explorer XLT, which gets about 20 miles per gallon on the highway and 14 in the city.

Maria, 37, said she needed it to haul around relatives and children.

When the family traded in Lance’s Nissan SUV for the Ford he wound up with Maria’s old Saturn SUV. It’s cut his commuting costs slightly, he said, but not enough.

So after a lifetime of SUVs, he’s looking for something smaller.


A Smart Car on display was probably too small, even if it did get 60 mpg. “They’re almost like toys,” his wife said.

Not much bigger was an old Fiat that had been turned into an electric car for sale for $7,500. Lance picked up a pamphlet.

A lime green Toyota Camry hybrid, advertised at 33 mpg on the highway, had more than enough room -- and a sticker price of $31,233.

Maria wondered if that negated the money they would save on gas. “In the end, you end up paying the same,” she said.


As the couple browsed, Maria’s sister, 35-year-old Iris Lozano, took notes for a college term paper she is writing on hybrid vehicles. “I’m really looking at the ways we are destroying the Earth with gasoline,” she said.

Maria said she too worries about global warming but wondered if the high-tech vehicles came with hidden environmental costs.

“All these pamphlets show only the good things,” she said. “What do you do when the battery’s dead? Where do you toss it?”

She has tried taking Metrolink to work, in sales at a calendar company near LAX. But two buses and a subway ride at 7 a.m. were too much. “You can’t just hop in your car and go,” she said.