Transportation has a huge environmental impact, so society must focus on reducing that impact. Consider the environmental impact of a single automobile that travels an average of 100,000 miles in its lifetime. There is the damage that results from the manufacturing of the car and the mining and processing of the raw materials; from the drilling, transporting, and refining of the oil and gas that it uses; and from the emission of green house gases, NOx that contributes to acid rain, and ozone that causes photochemical smog. There are many other problems associated with automobiles. Driving a car is one of the riskiest activities we engage in, and cars make walking and bicycling much more dangerous on shared roads. Much of our country has been paved over by roads and parking lots, which has increased flooding risks but also uglified our landscape (I love Joni Mitchell’s song “They Paved Paradise and Put up a Parking Lot”). Driving in heavy traffic is very stressful, often leading to episodes of “road rage”. Yes, driving in the countryside without other cars can be very relaxing and enjoyable, but how often does that happen today, and is it worth all of the problems it creates? My prediction is that the most significant lifestyle change in the U.S. in the next two decades will be the abandoning of the car culture. That lifestyle won’t disappear completely, but it will become less prevalent as the price of fuel dramatically increases (due to peak oil and carbon taxes). The change may be traumatic, as 88% of workers in the U.S. travel to work by car, making the U.S. particularly vulnerable to peak oil . People will choose smaller cars, cars that do not run on fossil fuels, or other modes of transportation including moped, bicycle, and mass transit. They will move closer to their jobs to decrease their transportation costs (I hope to buy a home within walking distance of my work before peak oil makes the cost unaffordable). They will take fewer long trips, and they will go to school closer to home. They will travel less for work, as companies try to cut costs. Telecommuting will become even more widespread, and in many cases, videoconferencing will make travel to meetings unnecessary. All of these changes will reduce traffic congestion and pollution, increase our national security by decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, reduce CO2 emissions contributing to global warming, and I would argue, increase our health (more walking) and quality of life (less time wasted in traffic, better scenery).
The technology of automobiles hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Most still use a standard internal engine fueled by gasoline. Throughout my life, U.S. auto manufacturers have presented prototypes of cars that were supposed to change the way we drive, but none of them ever came to fruition. Production and leasing of the EV-1 in the 1990’s signaled a potential shift to electric cars, but GM aborted that foray into new technology by confiscating all of the cars and destroying them, as documented in the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”. However, contrary to general wisdom and the claims of some environmentalists, electric cars currently are not better for the environment. That is because the electricity used to power them comes primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. Also, they are inherently less efficient, because any time you convert energy from one form to another you lose some energy. Converting fossil fuels into electricity to fuel automobiles is much less efficient than using them to fuel the car with an internal combustion engine directly. The same argument holds true for the now heralded hydrogen cars, which use electricity to produce hydrogen gas H2, which in a fuel cell in the car reacts with oxygen gas O2 to produce H2O, releasing energy in the process. Although the hydrogen-fueled car emits only water, the process of producing the hydrogen requires lots of energy that usually comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which emits large amounts of CO2 and other pollutants. So how can we make cars less harmful to the environment? First we must convert our primary source of energy from fossil fuels to renewable forms like wind and solar. Then we should use the electricity that is produced to fuel plug-in gas-electric hybrid cars, or eventually to produce H2 gas for hydrogen-fueled cars.
Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius have already raised the bar for energy efficiency. Hybrids have both a gasoline engine and electric motor. They produce electricity through regenerative braking, and automatically shut off the engine when idling. Another promising development is cars that run on biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Flex cars can use ethanol or gasoline, but this is not a new technology, as it dates back to the original flex-fuel vehicle, the Model T, built in the 1910s. Many have concluded that production of ethanol from corn is not energy efficient, with some estimates showing that it requires more fossil fuel energy to produce the ethanol than is obtained from burning it. In addition, use of corn for ethanol production has increased the price of corn worldwide, which is a serious problem for the poor who depend on it for food. An increase in the price of corn causes increases in the price of all products for which corn is used as a feedstock. This problem of using food for fuel can be avoided by producing ethanol using switchgrass and wheat straw, which are also more energy efficient than corn.
So what can you do now? First, make every effort to decrease the number of miles you travel. Combine your errands. Never idle you car. Make sure your car is in tune and properly inflate the tires to maximize gas mileage. Carpool whenever possible. Make purchases online rather than driving to the store. Accelerate and decelerate slowly, and try to maintain a constant top speed. Ask your boss if you can telecommute one day per week. Vacation locally, or consider purchasing carbon offsets for the miles that you travel for vacation .
When the time comes to change your ride, buy a fuel-efficient hybrid as soon as you can, or even better, switch to mass transit. Encourage your employer to pay for your mass transit costs (like my employer, Vanderbilt University, they may be willing to do so because it means they will save money by building fewer parking garages). Imagine how much money you would save if you didn’t have monthly car and car insurance payments.
In the future, I envision a decentralized system of energy production for fuel-efficient homes and cars. Picture a windmill in your yard, and solar panels on your roof. The wind and the sun that power these energy sources are free and limitless. The electricity that they produce could be used to power your home and your plug-in electric car, or to produce hydrogen for the fuel cell in your car, all with zero CO2 emissions or pollution.
1. Brown, L., Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. 2008, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.
2. Jeffery, Y., L. Barclay, and M. Grosvenor, Green Living for Dummies. 2008: For Dummies.