With the introduction of the Chevy Volt (estimated fuel efficiency – 230 mpg) and the Nissan Leaf (estimated fuel efficiency – 367 mpg), we can begin to see the emergence of a new automotive industry. Eventually, when the Volt and the Leaf and their competitors’ models replace existing Accords, Camrys, and Civics, we will wind up with new vehicle fleets that are 100% gas-free. And with the passage of time, eventually every car on the road will be electric.
However, on its own, this isn’t going to solve America’s problems with oil and CO2 emissions.
The Problem with Cars:
To be fair, if all personal cars were to become gas-free, it would make a huge difference in the fight against climate change. To begin with, CO2 emissions would decrease by at least 5.5% (I’m using industry data because it’s likely to be the most conservative estimate; demand for gas would drop by something less than 2/3rds (data doesn’t break down passenger vs. trucks).
Another important step is to push the same advances in technology and regulation towards trucks and other commercial transport vehicles, which would push CO2 emissions down by another 6% and complete the 2/3rds reduction in oil use. This is something we have yet to really push, either technologically or politically. This doesn’t make much sense, given that trucks are the dominant mode of transporting goods in the U.S, employing 10 million workers, including about 2 million heavy truck drivers. And yet, we see shiny new hybrid sedans or convertibles, but the drive for fuel efficiency has barely penetrated the light truck market, let alone the long-haul heavy truck market.
In context, reducing CO2 emissions by 11.5% would meet Waxman-Markey’s 2012 goals for reductions nearly four times over, and nearly meet the 2020 goals in this one step. Moreover, reducing our oil demand by 2/3rds would save 3.285 billion barrels of oil and $230 billion a year. This is enormously important for both the future of the American economy, and the global environment.
The Reason for High-Speed Rail:
Even moving to a gas-free automotive industry, we’d still have to deal with 88.5% of our CO2 emissions, mostly concentrated in industrial and power-production sources. Moreover, even if cars are no longer burning oil or emitting CO2, there are still other environmental issues that have to be confronted.
Similarly, the current recession has shown an inherent vulnerability in an automotive industry whose survival in its current state requires the production and sale of 16 million cars a year, when there might only be demand for say, 10 million or so in a non-bubble economic situation. To be fair, the Cash For Clunkers program was far more successful than we’ve given it credit for. According to the U.S Treasury, the $3 billion spent on the program produced 42,000 jobs, sold 700,000 cars, and created .3-4% worth of GDP. A longer term program – Clunkers for Electrics? – that further emphasizes not just more fuel efficiency but also moving from internal-combustion to hybrid or electric cars could conceivably fill the gap for a while. However, after a certain point, there is a time limit to how long this can be viewed as a valuable use of resources.
To that end, we will need a national High-Speed Rail system, even if technology reduces automotive travel to carbon neutrality. Expanding the diversity of clean transportation options provides advantages: first, it reduces wear and tear on any one system, and ensures that systems are not overloaded – thus, reducing congestion and increasing speed of movement. Second, high-speed rail will work in complement to gas-free automotive transport, as high-speed rail is plainly preferable for longer trips of 100-300 miles, whereas the average commute is 40 miles or less (and in densely-populated areas, high speed commuter rail and mass transit will be more efficient); moreover, high-speed rail will rebound to the advantage of drivers, by luring a significant amount of the traffic off of the road, thus reducing time spent idling in traffic, which is good both for drivers and the environment (idling engines produce a huge amount of CO2 emissions).
Finally, High Speed Rail will have another, critically important effect – it will shift development towards transportation corridors, encouraging in-fill building around the “spines” of major HSR lines, making the built-up corridors more livable by expanding mobility, and making denser residential patterns commercially preferable as well as environmentally friendly. In the long run, plans for HSR corridors envision further knitting together the Boston-Atlanta axis, establishing a Chicago-based Midwestern cluster, and similar connections between Texas’ and California’s urban centers. What this means is that we will begin to move towards something like the “super-cities” of futurist imagination. This has huge environmental implications; it suggests the possibility that the extremely efficient and low-impact spatial organization of New York City will grow as a proportion of the population, making our collective environmental footprint that much lower. Moreover, it means that reduced commutes will expand the affordability of metropolitan living, by expanding the boundaries of commutability, without harming the enviroment or creating large time losses.
Consider that, with a system of true High Speed Rail, the commute between New York and Philadelphia or between Chicago and Milwaukee becomes only a half hour, and even New York to Boston or Washington D.C becomes about an hour and a half. What this means is that, with a national HSR network, it now becomes possible to live in one major metropolitan area and work in another with a short commute that’s virtually emission-less. If people can pay rent in Detroit while working in Chicago, then two things happen: first, the bounds of sustainability expand, such that “being able to live where you work” dramatically expands in scope; second, it means that economically-depressed urban areas can now spread their tax base by hundreds of miles, and overcrowded urban areas become affordable to more and more people.
Technology is not enough to solve our problems as a society, and never has been. On the other side of the ledger, technology is not the cause of our woes. The introduction of mechanization and later automation into industrial manufacturing did not necessarily mean that the workforce or the level of wages and benefits had to decline. A choice was made between using these technologies to expand production, drop prices, and sell even more cars (thus embracing the logic of higher volume, lower margins) and using these technologies to replace human laborers. Lower labor costs meant higher profit margins, and thus a decision was made again and again on economic logic, not technological grounds.
The same thing is true of the gas-free car. Ultimately, it is not the technological advances that will be the deciding factor in how our lives change. It is the social organization of technology that matters, how we choose to make use of progress.
So as we dream of a future of electric cars zipping down open freeways from one mega-city to the next, we must not forget the reality beneath our feet.