Are we driving ourselves into oblivion? Or will new automobile technology save us from the environmental impact of the fossil-fuelled tanks we use to get around?
On the extreme end of the consequences of our auto-centric societies, we need only to look at the recent massive traffic jam in China that stretched for 100 kilometres and lasted almost two weeks. Apparently it's becoming a common occurrence in China, where use of the private automobile and truck transport are increasing.
On the brighter side, automobile technology has improved a lot over the past few years, partly in response to stricter fuel-emissions standards in countries including Canada and the U.S. But is it enough? We've had commercially available hybrid cars now for more than a decade, but they still use fossil fuels. Electric-car technology is picking up, but it doesn't resolve all of the issues, especially as the electricity still must come from somewhere, and in many places, that means coal-fired power plants. Car manufacturing is also energy-intensive.
To resolve some of these issues, an Alberta company has developed an electric car made out of hemp fibre. Beyond reductions in fossil-fuel use to power the car, the materials used to manufacture it are also more sustainable. Hemp grows easily outdoors with little water or pesticides, and it can be used in lightweight but durable composites to build the cars.
One invention that partly avoids the problem of charging electric car batteries using electricity sources that may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions is U.S. inventor Charles Greenwood's inexpensive HumanCar. It can operate as an exercise-based, human-powered vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric. Power can be generated by one to four people who "row" the car. It can reach speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Of course, it has its drawbacks, especially as one must be pretty healthy to operate it.
Cars powered by solar cells and hydrogen are also being developed, along with cars that use alternatives to fossil fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel.
The need for solutions is obvious. Cars not only contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but they also cause water pollution from fuel-storage leaks, improper disposal of oil, and runoff from roads that washes into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Noise pollution, death from road accidents, and the impact of cars on the shape of urban environment are all issues as well.
Technological developments are welcome, but maybe it's time we started rethinking our car culture as whole. The average car in North America carries 1.5 people, which means that most cars on the road only have a driver in them. Is it really efficient to use more than 1,000 kilograms of metal to transport 100 kilograms of human?
And, as an article on The Mark News website argues: "Requiring about 90 square metres for home storage, 90 square metres for storage at destination, 180 square metres while traveling and another 60 square metres for repairs, servicing, or sale, an automobile occupies more than 400 square metres altogether — more space than most apartments."
Using a life-cycle analysis, which takes into account manufacture and disposal, as well as operation, you find that cars are inefficient products.
We aren't likely to do away with private cars in the near future, especially in rural areas with low population density. But we can at least start to think differently about our "need" for them. That means improvements to public transit, urban design that is less car-centric, and other innovative ideas to reduce our reliance. Walking and cycling when possible is also great, and it improves health.
When we must drive, we should try to use cars that are fuel-efficient, and drive in ways that cut down on fuel use, such as combining trips and shutting the car off rather than idling when stopped.
Even in China, it's not all bad news. Although car culture is growing, the use of electric bikes is exploding. In 2008, people in China bought 21 million e-bikes, compared to 9.4 million autos. China now has 120 million electric bikes on the road, up from about 50,000 a decade ago.
We take our cars for granted, but really, they haven't been a part of our human culture for that long, and they needn't be an essential part forever.