Disneyland faces pressure to electrify its stinky ‘Autopia’ ride, and quick

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Disney’s Autopia ride has been making headlines recently, after a park spokesperson told the LA Times that the park is “evaluating technology that will enable us to convert from gas engines in the next few years.” But activists want to put the pressure on to ensure that Disney goes all-EV with the ride, and fast.

The news was reported in many outlets suggesting that Disney is going all-electric with Autopia, but unfortunately, Disney’s statement is a little noncommittal and open on that front. We’ve seen a lot of automakers call 100% gas-powered hybrids as “electrified,” and given that Disney was nonspecific about both its timeline and powertrain source, there’s still room for pressure to ensure that Disney goes with an all-electric choice.

Autopia is a classic ride in Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” area, but given the EV world we’re living in, its stinky gas-powered cars certainly don’t seem too futuristic.

Until 2016, Autopia vehicles were noisy, polluting two-stroke engines. Two-stroke engines differ from four-stroke in that they can create more power in small formats, but are much dirtier because the combustion process is less complete in a two-stroke engine, and thus exhaust contains ~30x higher levels of particulate emissions (for example, running a two-stroke gas leafblower for one hour can make as many poisonous emissions as driving a passenger car 1,100 miles).

The emissions from these engines cause smog and harm the health of those who breathe them – so putting them directly in front of small children isn’t the best idea. But the ride was sponsored by Chevron from 1998-2012, and that company is pretty dedicated to poisoning small children anyway, so it was apt.

Thankfully, in 2012, Disney attracted a new sponsor, Honda, and in 2016, Honda upgraded the engines to small four-stroke engines, reducing noise and pollution significantly. However, the cars still create exhaust, which is still poisonous to the children riding behind these polluting engines. It’s also poisonous to employees, to the point where Disney pays hazard pay to employees who are assigned to staff the ride.

2016 was also notably after EVs had proven themselves in the automotive realm. So upgrading to an old technology seems a little inappropriate for “Tomorrowland.” But Honda themselves have been behind the ball on the EV transition as well.

Tomorrowland is the section within Disneyland which was meant to show visions of the future. It first opened in 1955, and offers a time capsule of what a 1950s vision of the future might have looked like.

Needless to say, in the seven decades hence, things have changed somewhat. To the point where the original designer of the Autopia cars, Bob Gurr, who is now 92 and was interviewed by the LA Times, said “get rid of those God-awful gasoline fumes.”

It’s certainly ironic that in California, where EVs keep setting sales records and where you can’t even buy gas-powered “small off-road engines” anymore, a Disneyland parkgoer might drive to the park in a clean EV, only to show their children a vision of the past with a poisonous, low-performing gas engine on one of the admittedly more-fun rides in the park. Just imagine how much more fun the ride could be if it were electric.

And Disney could do a lot more to update Tomorrowland with actual visions of the future, rather than an old-timey time capsule. The original Tomorrowland featured a “Carousel of Progress” show of futuristic efficient home appliances, and the Monorail and PeopleMover which both still exist. Disney could showcase more public transport or other post-car mobility options, ideas for futuristic city planning, induction cooktops and more.

But for now, making Autopia electric seems like incredibly low-hanging fruit. Electric go-karts are nothing new, and while Disney’s commitment to move away from gas in the “next few years” is good to hear, it’s been a long time coming, and now isn’t the time to wait.

To this end, local EV advocates and Plug In America are hosting a “Dump the Pump” rally this Sunday, April 21 at 10am at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Not a bad way to spend Earth Day weekend, perhaps after attending one of the LA-area Drive Electric Earth Month events the day before (and one of the founders of Drive Electric Week, Zan Dubin-Scott, is organizing the Burbank rally).

Given Disney’s 2030 net-zero pledge (which is ambitious compared to many companies), it’s about time they ditch gas at Autopia – and not just in the “next few years,” but maybe before next Earth Day rolls around. How about it?

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