The Myth of the Efficient Car
Let’s get something straight about green industry: in its basic form it means we all have to buy new stuff … lots of it. As an industrial policy that will create jobs and increase spending, it’s pretty sound. As an environmental policy, it’s largely a fraud.
Nowhere is it more disingenuous than the pursuit of the fuel-efficient car. In their effort to stave off collapse of their industry, auto executives have continually cited their efforts are building the high-efficiency cars of the future. The problem is, there are no cars of the future, and the looming catastrophe of global pollution, including climate change, will never be solved by building more cars – efficient or otherwise.
We’d desperately like to believe that there is a way to preserve our car-centered civilization, while simultaneously placating the gods of atmospheric warming. Even the president-elect believes it, and Obama made fuel-efficient cars a central part of his energy policy. He promised a $7,000 tax credit to hybrid car buyers, aiming for a million plug-in hybrids, getting 150 mpg, by 2015. He wants to put an additional million completely plug-in vehicles by the same year. And he’s willing to federal funds up for research, or at least he was before we lost all our money.
Even on its face, this seems like a tepid response to climate change. At the moment there are upward of 250,000,000 registered vehicles in the United States – more than there are licensed drivers. Converting one percent or so of them to greater fuel efficiency is not likely to do very much in the time needed to act. Nevertheless, the hope is that introduction of a new generation of electric and semi-electric will eventually lead to a replacement of our entire fleet of gas-guzzlers. Maybe. But the bigger problem is that increasing fuel efficiency has never led to an overall reduction in pollutants. In fact, efficiency has always led to more production and consumption.
But there’s an even more profound problem with building more efficient cars. In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons discovered an efficiency paradox: the more efficient you make machines, the more energy they use. Why? Because the more efficient they are, the better they are, the cheaper they are and more people buy them, and the more they’ll use them. Now, that’s good for manufacturers and maybe good for consumers, but if the problem is energy consumption or pollution, it’s not good.
The so-called Jevons Paradox was resurrected in the 1980s by a variety of environmentalists and is occasionally referred to as the Khazoom-Brookes postulate or the more explicative rebound effect. It's been neatly summarized as, “those energy efficiency improvements that, on the broadest considerations, are economically justified at the microlevel lead to higher levels of energy consumption at the macro level.” Or, in short, you make money on each transaction and lose it in volume.
The rebound effect is not an immutable scientific law, but it’s a widely observed phenomenon and has held true in the most energy-intensive consumer activities. The most commonly cited example is in lighting. As the Encyclopedia of Earth puts it, “For instance, if a 18W compact fluorescent bulb replaces a 75W incandescent bulb, the energy saving should be 76%. However, it seldom is. Consumers, realizing that the lighting now costs less per hour to run, are often less concerned with switching it off; in fact, they may intentionally leave it on all night.” I know I have at times.
The same effect has occurred with cars. Automobiles have become more efficient over the years. Led by the Japanese, carmakers have increased the fuel to weight ration, decreased damaging vibration and vastly increased reliability. In the 1950s, a car that lived to drive 100,000 miles was a rarity; today they routinely last 150,000. The result? Increasing fuel consumption. And not just because more people in the developing world are buying cars, either. People everywhere are buying more of the better, cheaper more efficient cars and – here’s the problem – driving them more. And that was even so when gas peaked there at $8 a gallon in Europe.
The real problem is, though, cars don’t move people, cars move cars. The average car or light truck is two tons or so: 4000-plus pounds to move 200 pounds of people. OK, everybody out of the SUVs and F-150s and into a nice, green Prius. However, the curb weight of an unladen Prius is 2765 pounds, which means a ton and a half around to get you and a bag of groceries home. Not good.
Environmentalists like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and green business advocate Paul Hawken have generated a lot of press with a proposed 100 mpg lightweight, plastic composite called the hypercar. But all the drawings of the hypercar very much resemble…a car. Tires, windows, bodywork, engine and drive train. Even if everything is paper-thin – something the public won’t easily warm to –you’re still driving five times body weight around.
Even if we were able to produce a 100 mpg, zero pollution vehicle, we’d still need to maintain the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and energy distribution. That means steel, concrete, asphalt and plastics. Just concrete production alone generates as much as 10 percent of all greenhouse gas. In 2007, the U.S. produced 95 million tons of cement by burning fossil fuels and, according to the EPA, is the third largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. (Scientific America, August 7, 2008) The production of asphalt – a petroleum product – also creates carbon. As does the production of motor oil, tires, and on and on.
And there’s another intractable problem: the very thing that makes tires so useful – comfort, stability, adhesion – also produces immense rolling friction. In order for us to makes cars that are maneuverable and relatively safe, they have to grip the road, which takes buckets of energy to overcome. One reason trains are able to transport people using far less energy per passenger mile is that there are fewer wheels per person and steel wheels have much less rolling friction.
Without divine intervention – which seems to be the basis for most energy reduction schemes – there is simply no way to maintain both the atmosphere and personal transportation. Even if the population were frozen at its present level, even if economic growth stopped the sheer number of people wanting – and under the present regime, need – personal transportation makes any plan to reduce car pollution by increasing efficiency is futile. The personal automobile must be abandoned, and quickly.
It would be better to do this in a measured and humane way, easing both automobile workers and users into a post-car world. It needs a societal consensus, requiring major shifts of goals and expectations, and few of us will take these steps on our own. But this change will eventually happen to us whether we like it or not, perhaps in time to stave off climactic disaster.
There are already attempts at designing a post-car future. City planners have been pushing the “20-minute neighborhood,” where home, work, shopping and recreation are all within a 20 minute walk. Places like Portland, Oregon, are encouraging this kind of development with planning codes and tax breaks. These more compact, walkable neighborhoods would seem to point us in the right direction, but so far they’re extremely limited. Most people prefer car culture. And that includes Europe, and certainly Asia, as well. Unless the various governments enact explicit and enforceable sprawl restrictions, growth will trump any specific increases in efficiencies.
The one step we ought to take right now is to withdraw our support – financial, political and emotional – from the pursuit of an energy-efficient car. We'd have better luck creating a perpetual motion machine.
Alec Dubro is a veteran Washington DC-based writer specializing in labor and nonprofits. He also publishes The Washington Pox (www.dcpox.com).
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