After the Collapse: Fuel Choices for 'Mad Max' Road Warriors
A standoff between Max and the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2.
CREDIT: Warner Bros.
The year "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" debuted with its post-apocalyptic vision of wasteland warriors raiding lone settlements for gasoline, alternative-energy vehicles barely existed. Now, upon the 30th anniversary of the 1981 film, electric battery-powered cars, plug-in hybrids and even some natural-gas vehicles promise that any "Mad Max" existence would be less miserable.
If society collapsed today, lone road warriors such as Max still wouldn't find many choices for self-reliant vehicles with an inexhaustible fuel supply . But settlements would not have to rely solely upon a nearby oil refinery and oil well to survive the scenario that creates the main conflict between roving raiders and settlers in the film's Australian wasteland setting.
"The film is quasi-realistic because things like that happen where there are abrupt infrastructure collapses," said Anna Stefanopoulou, a mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan. "Then the idea is that we will coalesce around small communities and use local energy sources."
Make it electric
Those energy sources have expanded since "Mad Max 2" opened in Australian movie theaters Dec. 24, 1981. Electric cars could recharge by using a settlement's hydroelectric power, solar panels or wind turbines. The wanderlust of Max might not be fully satisfied by a range of 100 to 200 miles (161 to 322 kilometers) per charge, but an electric car at least could allow a road warrior to travel between settlements that have renewable energy sources.
Watching the film, "I just laughed when the settlement's engineer took 12 hours to fix everything in the fuel truck and fix the engine," Stefanopoulou told InnovationNewsDaily. "If you have such an engineer, why don't you try to put together some solar panels for the settlement? For that place, I would definitely utilize the local resources. And I think we're moving toward that."
Self-sustaining electric cars can even use their own solar panels to keep themselves going. Such prototype vehicles have raced in annual challenges in places such as North America and Australia since 1985, albeit at speeds barely reaching 55 mph (88 kph) ? less than ideal for trying to outrace wasteland bandits. Still, the technology offers a possible path for self-sustaining vehicles.
"We have solar cars and we have solar car races," Stefanopoulou said. "They're extremely light but are a neat form of transportation. They're probably good for Australia."
You say gas, I say gasoline
A number of trucks and at least one commercial car now run on natural gas rather than oil-refined gasoline. The owners of such vehicles could top off their tanks with biogas a fuel created by the gasification of organic wastes such as sewage, leftover crop material or even animal manure. That scenario appears in the third "Mad Max" film, in which a settlement includes a methane refinery powered by pig feces.
Even a road warrior restricted to a gasoline-powered vehicle has some choices. Millions of today's vehicles use flexible fuel mixtures of gasoline and ethanol fuel made from plant materials. Energy-self-sufficient refineries already help produce some of the world's ethanol supply, with the United States and Brazil churning out billions of gallons each year.
Meanwhile, cars have become less like gas-guzzlers since "Mad Max 2" debuted. The efficiency of new U.S. passenger cars rose from 24 miles per gallon in 1980 to almost 34 mpg in 2010.
DIY road warriors could attempt to convert their cars from running on gasoline to burning solid fuels such as wood chips or charcoal. Drivers in Denmark and Sweden turned en masse to wood gas generators during World War II because of fuel shortages. But they abandoned the conversions after the war, due to fuel inefficiency and the generators' toxic fumes.
In many ways, gasoline remains today's most reliable fuel, Stefanopolou said. But she pointed to renewable energy as having the edge for long-term survival in a post-apocalyptic world.
"Renewables will be right there, and so people can rely on that," Stefanopolou said. "That's what happens now in the developing world."