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.
. . . 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.
. . . 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.
. . . 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.
It is very easy for us to get caught up in the efficient car movement and see it as the silver bullet to many of our environmental and economic issues, but as the author points out, what we need to be doing is not lessening our dependence on foreign oil or simply making new fuel efficient cars, but changing and re-organizing our infrastructure.
There is something to be said about the effect of suburban environments which are designed for driving. While some areas are attempting to retrofit many cannot ,without a massive overhaul, change. These are the areas which need to utilize higher fuel-efficient cars . But even so, their are options of public transit that can be implemented in the suburbs and potential re-zoning efforts that will, at least reduce, the car culture.
What we need is a complex transit culture, that has a cornerstone of walking – think about the health and social benefits of walking – mixed with bike travel, mass transit, and yes, efficient cars. We don’t need silver bullets, we need comprehensive plans.