My father believes that the one modern invention above all others to contribute to the downfall of the planet, not to mention our civilization, is the drive-through — or, in the spirit of efficiency on which it’s based, the drive-thru.
Not only does it encourage laziness and obesity by tempting fast-food fans to stay seated in their automobiles during both purchase and consumption, there’s the whole car idling issue. By one estimate, every fifteen minutes of idling consumes 0.175 gallons of gas, resulting in as much as 58 million tons of CO2 dispersed into the atmosphere annually. The Sierra Club says that fast-food customers alone burn up some 50 million gallons of gas each year.
But at least one company believes that there is tremendous environmental potential in the drive-thru. New Energy Technologies Inc., which describes itself as “a next-generation alternative and renewable energy developer,” has designed a gizmo to green this American institution. It’s called MotionPower Kinetic Energy Harvester, and it promises to capture energy currently wasted beneath a car’s tires.
The technology, the company says, is the cousin of that used in hybrid cars, but it’s installed on the street, soaking up the heat generated by an idling automobile and transforming it into electricity — possibly enough to power 250,0000 homes daily, if they could trap the heat generated by all 250 million cars on the road. And what better place to grab that heat than the drive-thru?
The company announced recently that it will install a prototype of the technology in a suburban New Jersey Burger King. The start-up is so small and next generation that the one person authorized to speak about MotionPower couldn’t be reached to comment for this story — he was out of the country, apparently convincing other nations that they can transform suburban environmental flaws into potential green gold mines. The Burger King franchise owner, Andrew Paterno, says some 150,000 cars pass through the Hillside, N.J., drive-thru annually, and could simply cruise over an energy-capturing strip as they do so, with nothing getting between them and their Whoppers.
But MotionPower has popped up concurrently with an onslaught of anti-drive-thru sentiment (and not just from my dad), coming in forms as informal as blogs and as formal as legislation. Cities from Madison, Wisc., to Hamilton, Ontario, have considered banning drive-thrus altogether, though powerful restaurant coalitions tend to fight them with force, and with success; San Luis Obispo, Calif., is one of the few cities to successfully ban drive-thrus, which they’ve done since 1982.
Last year, the Canadian donut company Tim Horton’s — which has been steadily making its mark in America, transforming 12 New York City Dunkin’ Donuts just this month — commissioned an environmental engineering firm to evaluate the emissions generated by drive-thrus. According to the report, the snail’s pace of parking lot drivers searching for a spot creates more pollution than the continual line of cars. “Assuming the same volume of traffic, a parking-only store would produce about 20 percent more smog pollutants and as many as 60 percent more greenhouse gases than a location with drive-through service,” wrote their director of public affairs in a newspaper editorial based on the report. According to them, drive-thrus are already good for the environment.
If you side with the restaurateurs and believe the drive-thru isn’t so bad, MotionPower’s premise is still a win. The technology, should it prove to be both profitable and viable, can be used anywhere that slow driving occurs: highway tollbooths, stoplights, residential zones with traffic calming, our nation’s borders, and, yes, the lots of parking-only stores. My father might have to find a new scapegoat for climate change and the decline of the modern world.