Moving Target

The United States had only 8,000 registered cars and trucks in 1900 and almost 200 million in 1995. We are literally choking to death on our enduring love affair with the gasoline-powered car.

In a typical U.S. city, automobile exhaust accounts for up to 60 percent of the nitrogen oxide and up to 90 percent of the carbon monoxide in the air. Cars and light trucks are to blame for about 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest contributor to global warming. To add insult to injury, the average automobile in the United States operates at only 15 percent efficiency. Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks, some of the least efficient and most polluting vehicles on the road, now claim 50 percent of the automotive market.

Credit: Donald Bewster / Bruce Coleman Inc.

Since 1969, the U.S. vehicle population has grown six times faster than the human population, 2.5 times faster than the number of households and double the rate of new drivers. As Matthew L. Wald put it in The New York Times, “They bid fair to become the dominant life form.” Despite being only five percent of the world’s population, Americans own 34 percent of the planet’s cars and drive an estimated two trillion miles annually. Over the past 30 years, vehicle miles traveled have gone up 116 percent. Motor vehicles account for nearly 90 percent of the energy consumed for travel.

Today, we are as addicted to automobiles as a gambler is to dice, and the love affair has had striking consequences. Public transportation in the U.S. is declining everywhere, with less than three percent of Americans using it to get to work. Our private cars, convenient though they may be, are pollution factories. In one year, the average gas-powered car produces five tons of carbon dioxide, which as it slowly builds up in the atmosphere causes global warming. Every gallon of gasoline burned up in an automobile engine sends 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, containing five pounds of pure carbon, into the atmosphere.

“It’s like tossing a five-pound bag of charcoal briquettes out my window every 20 miles or so,” writes John Ryan in his book Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate. He adds that cars and trucks produce by far the biggest share of fossil-fuel emissions (47 percent by one measure) . Auto plants are also a significant source of emissions, particularly from their paint shops, though some manufacturers have switched to cleaner water-based paints. According to 1996 EPA data, a single Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois produced 21.6 pounds of toxic chemicals per vehicle.

The auto industry is skilled at deflecting blame for all of this. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association (which has now merged into the international Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers) claims that today’s automobiles are 90 to 96 percent less polluting than their counterparts 35 years ago, and that “a 1996 model car can be driven about 60 miles and still give off less smog-forming emissions than a 1965 model parked in the driveway all day with its engine off.”

There are hopeful signs. Federal “Tier 2” emissions standards, if fully implemented, will do much to clean up auto exhaust in the next 10 years. Carmakers are developing zero-emission fuel-cell cars, and the fuel-efficient hybrids (with both gas and electric motors) that will be on the U.S. market next year are a positive step. But automakers are also fighting to eliminate the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which impose fines on manufacturers that don’t achieve mandated gas mileage. Since cars going into junkyards today are more fuel-efficient than the new ones in the showrooms, a retreat on federal legislation would be a retrograde step.