Fewer cars would aid nature even more than cleaner cars


Problems: If technology could create the perfect nonpolluting vehicle, it still would take up space, require more roads and cause congestion.

March 07, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IF YOU BELIEVE that what's good for General Motors is good for America, then you'll probably believe what Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development told The Wall Street Journal recently.

Speaking about development of a pollution-free automobile, fueled by hydrogen, that emits only water vapor from the exhaust, Burns said: "We think we can build a compelling and affordable car by 2010. It's a big challenge, but as a technologist, you have to be optimistic."

Where was GM's can-do spirit when it equated installing seat belts with the ruin of the auto industry, and later on, cried wolf over catalytic converters and air bags?

And where was the technological optimism last year when GM and other automakers successfully lobbied Congress to hold off requirements that they improve overall vehicle mileage, which has slipped below what it was 15 years ago?

If I seem skeptical, I'm hardly alone -- skeptics run the gamut from the conservative Cato Institute and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, to the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

They all suspect the hydrogen car (GM is making six available, at a million bucks apiece, for test drives on Capitol Hill) is a ploy to gain federal subsidies and keep the heat off to make today's vehicles less polluting and more fuel efficient.

President Bush's administration has bought into GM's plan. Bush has proposed spending $1.7 billion during the next five years on hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The money will go to developing a "Freedom Car" and "Freedom Fuel," finding ways to mass produce, store and deliver hydrogen and making vehicles that will run on it.

In fact, this is more about "freedom for the president not to support energy independence today," says Nathanael Greene of the NRDC.

"PR cars," the Cato Institute says, noting that nuclear power, synthetic fuels, clean coal and other "energy sources of the future" have all proven to be sinkholes for tax dollars and bonanzas only for well-connected industries.

But for all this, the lure of technological solutions just up the road remains powerful.

One problem is that we tend to evaluate technological solutions only on the basis of whether or not they are technologically possible.

In fact, we have technology now to make lots of affordable, safe, highly fuel-efficient and very low polluting vehicles -- for example, the gas-electric hybrids you see on the road a couple of times in an average week.

But instead we buy guzzling, polluting sport utility vehicles, which can use the same hybrid technology but mostly don't.

Why? Because there's more money in selling guzzlers for the auto and the oil industry. (Shell is co-sponsoring the hydrogen cars with GM.)

And our political leaders haven't the guts to stand up to Big Oil and Detroit and make them meet standards that would give us clean air and independence from foreign oil.

A larger problem is that we often see technological solutions only in the context of solving an immediate problem, such as air pollution.

Let's imagine, for example, that optimistic Larry Burns has underestimated GM's capability, and by 2010 we've got cars that don't pollute, don't require any energy to run or to manufacture, and when they wear out, they're not just recyclable, they're digestible -- you can serve 'em for dessert.

Problem solved? Well, not quite. Consider that population around the bay continues to grow, and per capita we continue to drive more cars more miles every year.

Even our perfect car still takes up space, still requires ever more road construction and creates traffic congestion that's no different from a dirty, gas-sucking, inedible model.

What researchers have dubbed "car habitat" -- the sum total of driveways, streets, garages and parking lots -- accounts for 55 percent to 75 percent of all paving of open space in towns and subdivisions in the Chesapeake watershed. So even with the perfect car, does anyone really want to double or triple the number of them?

Solutions exist, but they don't make much money for GM or Shell. They include vigorously pursuing Smart Growth strategies to limit sprawl development and revitalize existing cities and towns to the point where mass transit, biking and walking become practical alternatives to driving.

In addition to limiting our demands for roads and homes across the countryside, we need to start stabilizing our numbers, nationally and here in the bay's watershed. No car is less damaging to nature than one that is never needed or built.

Technological solutions are seductive, and the resources of the oil and auto industries, combined with federal subsidies, can produce some dazzling projects.

But you cannot evaluate such solutions outside the context of the economic structure that produces them. Expanding today's energy and auto industries is always going to take a bigger bite out of nature than they can ever offset through technological fillips.

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