Cars, Trucks, Air Pollution and Health
Driving a car, truck and bus are the most air polluting acts an average
citizen commits. Air pollution is not a good idea for a variety of
reasons, large and small. The right ideas for remediation of
environmental degradations involve unselfish and compassionate behavior,
a scarce commodity. The right ideas involve long-term planning,
conservation and a deep commitment to preserving the natural world.
Without a healthy natural environment, there will be few or no healthy
The year 2008 will be remembered as the near-collapse of capitalist
economies. Among the corporations in trouble in the US and Canada were
General Motors and Chrysler. All the US/Canada car and truck
manufacturers had promoted their larger vehicles on customers by
exploiting the innate human tendency to seek domination over others.
Bigger is better.
Ford appeared to be unscathed by the recession. US car and truck
manufacturers continue to build very large vehicles (e.g. SUVs, pickup trucks)
for the domestic market.
The explosion of a a deep sea oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is a
reminder that gas and diesel consumers are partners in causing
environmental degradation and disasters. While BP gets most of the
blame, two US companies who built and operated the oil rig actually
caused the problem. Among the most angry BP critics are consumers of BP
products. Surely the blame should be widely distributed and must include
the consumers of petroleum products.
Car exhaust is toxic at ground level Exhaust from all
combustion engines combine to produce local adverse effects on the
health of car users and all innocent bystanders. Cities have become
islands of toxic chemicals from the unrestrained use of vehicles burning
fossil fuels. Cars are noisy, ugly, often dangerous and dominate the
experience of modern living. We are now used to the carnage on roads and
highways- attempts to reduce death and disability from our motorized
containers have not substantially altered the negative impact on
society. The adverse health effects of car exhaust are pervasive and
difficult to measure. See
When cars and trucks are the focus, manufacturers are the chosen
culprits, but the people who buy and drive vehicles are really
responsible for creating a better future for themselves and their
children. The immediate challenge for vehicle users is not to replace
existing vehicles with more fuel efficient versions, but to reduce use
and participate in a new vision of car-free living environments.
Citizens and not governments must end the madness of traffic, gridlock,
superhighways, smog and lethal accidents.
The only certainty is that the future should look very different from
the past. When we consider air pollution in cities from burning fossil
fuels as the main source of energy for electricity production,
transportation, home heating and industrial production, then the entire
infrastructure of industrial countries must change.
To understand air pollution you can consider a simple
schematic that divides a big problem into components.
1. Local effects -e.g. poisoning humans breathing bad air.
2. Regional effects - fallout from airborne pathogens - infections,
3. Global effects - changing interactions between the atmosphere,
oceans and the sun, weather effects, effects on plants and the ocean
Developments in the media made "go green" the slogan for action to
limit the adverse effects of air pollution. Green refers to the color of
chlorophyll in plants. Chlorophyll is the basis of photosynthesis that
allows plants to turn the sun's energy into life energy. Human action
destroys plants and replaces healthy ecosystems with concrete and
asphalt. Another slogan that emerged was "save planet earth." Humans
will not save the planet. The task for humans is to stop destroying the
environments that sustain themselves. If we fail, the planet will do
just fine without humans.
The deepest problem for humans is that we cannot predict the
future with any accuracy. Even the best informed scientist with the
most recent data cannot know what is going to happen next. When we talk
about prudence, we refer to methods of minimizing risk and preparing to
deal with events beyond our control which can injure or kill us.
Recovery from extreme weather events, earthquakes, natural catastrophes,
injury and disease will consume an increasingly large chunk of our
resources. Smart humans notice adverse changes and take action to
minimize adverse consequences. But not all human are smart or prudent.
Friendly or Lethal? Cars have two opposite personalities. One
is friendly and attractive the other is destructive and can be lethal.
The desire to own a car is linked to pleasure, sexuality, convenience
and freedom. Men lust for big, prestigious cars they way they lust for
women and women desire men with big, prestigious cars. Men are also
interested in power, performance and want to know something about the
engine, although modern engines are sufficiently complex to discourage
even the professional mechanic. Some of the engine complexity involves
electronic monitoring and adjustment of engine performance under
different operating conditions. Several devices are added to the engine
to handle air flow in, fuel delivery and exhaust out. Computers have
been added to monitor and control engine, brake and transmission
operation. The design of new hybrid vehicles involves even more
complexity with electronic sensors feeding data to computers that manage
every system. The cost of repairs will increase as will the demand for
new sophistication from mechanics. The most advanced designs use only
black box modules that cannot be repaired at the local garage but can be
replaced with new or rebuild modules. This might be a wonderful
solution, but only if you can afford it.
Extravagant Car Use Emissions from passenger vehicles
increased in Canada and the US despite attempts to make engines more
fuel efficient and despite the addition of antipollution devices. The
two main reasons were: 1. vehicle use increased; 2. in the US and
Canada, cars got bigger; pick-up trucks, vans and sports vehicles often
replaced smaller, lighter passenger cars. An average new vehicle in 2003
consumed more fuel that its counterpart in 1988. In the USA in 1987 cars
averaged 25.9 miles to the gallon. Fuel efficiency dropped to 24.6
miles/gallon by 1998 and it dropped further as larger vehicles replace
smaller ones. The decision to drive cars long distances to work was
common among people in North America and Europe in the past 60 years. In
retrospect, it is clear that commuters made a mistake. They should now
stop commuting by cars. Their mistake had health and economic
consequences for them personally and for every other inhabitant of
Despite compelling evidence of climate change, governments in
many affluent countries have avoided their responsibility to reduce
emissions of greenhouse gases. The USA is the biggest emitter of
greenhouse gases worldwide. US emissions increased to 7 billion tones of
CO2 in 2004, 16% higher than emissions in the late 90's. The
UK did better reducing their emissions to about 0.6 billion tons, 14%
below 1990 levels. An accurate analysis of total greenhouse gas emission
is difficult or impossible to achieve since there many variable and
unknowns. Take the US estimates, for example, and pursue the argument
that the US is also responsible for some emissions from other countries,
which provide raw materials and manufacturing for the US economy.
Romm argued: businesses have off-shored more and more of the U.S.
economy’s and CO2 emissions to parts of the world where the carbon
intensity is higher but labor is cheaper. The U.S. has essentially
off-shored its emission problem to the rest of the world, turning their
economies into dumping grounds for our own air pollution. "
Advertising and Delusions Television Ads for sports and
recreation vehicles show solitary, impeccable machines in wilderness
locations. One TV ad shows a couple making a mad dash to escape the city
core in their expensive, luxury upholstered clone of the land-rover. The
ads are selling a fantasy of wilderness, fresh air and escape. Is the
consumer is completely deluded? These vehicles are mostly found in
suburban driveways and in the traffic jams of polluted cities. They have
nowhere to go to escape the environmental degradation they help to
create: 4x4 drives and large tires are rarely useful in cities and are
not suited to highway driving. You see these machines, submerged in
suburban driveways by the floods they helped to create. The latest car
advertising has switched to styling, crash protection, interior comforts
and fuel efficiency as selling points. While these improvements are
welcome, reduced vehicle use
is the most essential remedy and is seldom mentioned.
Ethanol Combustion engines contribute to greenhouse gas
accumulation in the atmosphere and are responsible for climate changes.
A sane, sober revision of vehicle use is long overdue. While ethanol has
been championed as an alternative to petroleum fuels, it mainly helps to
reduce dependency on oil producing countries. The promised ethanol
revolution has not occurred and probably will never become and important
fuel. Ethanol or methanol can be blended with gasoline to reduce
petroleum dependency. Gasoline engines can use up to 10% ethanol without
modification. New "flex" engines can use higher percentages of ethanol
up to 100%. North American and European flex-fuel vehicles are optimized
to run on a maximum blend of 15% gasoline with 85% ethanol (E85 fuel).
The production of flex engine vehicles increased, but the supply of
flex fuel is limited.
When ethanol is made from corn, some its energy value (up to 70% in the
least efficient plants) must be spent on its production. While innovations in
production technologies continue, there will be an ongoing requirement to invent
new methods of production. Investment in new technologies will require
government policy changes, subsidies and research grants. Climate change with
extreme weather events may reduce corn production in the US, where for decades
corn surpluses were common. The new competition between ethanol plants and food
production became an international
issue. Other non-food vegetable sources of carbon will become alternative
sources of raw materials (See Biofuels).
Hydrogen The ultimate cars burn hydrogen in fuel cells, but
despite working prototypes, a hydrogen fuel infrastructure is a distant
fantasy. One problem is the low energy density of liquefied hydrogen
that requires larger tanks than the equivalent gasoline tank. Another
problem is that producing hydrogen requires a large amount of energy. In
Canada, there are opportunities to dam more rivers and produce
electricity with falling water, a non polluting, renewable energy
resource. A science fiction fantasy might include a novel way of
splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen with less energy consumed but
no-one has invented a novel solution. Even if new non-polluting energy
sources are developed, hydrogen storage and distribution requires
investment in a very expensive infrastructure.
An innovative use of hydrogen added in small quantities to gasoline
and diesel engines-has been achieved by the h2gogo HRN3 Hydrogen
Generator The generator produces hydrogen from distilled water and is
retro-fitted to regular engines. The hydrogen input results in more
efficient fuel burn, in reduced emissions and improved engine efficiency
and power output. The Heathrow Airport in England retrofitted hydrogen
generator units to a range of vehicles and reported up to 40% reduction
in carbon dioxide, particulates, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon
Electric Cars are on the road, under development and promise
to become vehicles of choice for urban transportation. Tesla is the best
known electric car company that is addressing the need for local battery
manufacturing and is building charging stations that are essential for
long distance travel in their cars. The new cars represent advances in
technology that link computers, electric motors and batteries into
systems that drive well, self-regulate, and require little maintenance.
The main components are modules that are removed to be refurbished in
specialized factories and recycled. One limitation is battery
technology. Batteries are heavy, wear out quickly with repeated
recharging and require expensive, rather scarce materials such as
lithium. Another more severe limitation is obtaining electricity from a
non-polluting power source. Even if all the technical problems of
building reliable electric cars were solved, there remains a daunting
list of infrastructure problems yet to be solved. While electric cars
produce little air pollution, generating electricity continues to be
a major source of air pollution. If an electric car is recharged
with electricity produced by a coal-burning generator, there is no
net benefit to the atmosphere. A real solution for car technology would
reduce air pollution beginning at source materials and would continue
through the use cycle of the vehicle. While is it feasible to use fossil
fuels in generation plants with all the latest techniques of emission
control and C02 recycling, these plants are uncommon . Before more
people plug in electric vehicles, a new infrastructure of non-polluting,
affordable electricity production will have to be built.
Cloete summarized the limitations of electric vehicle use:" My general
concern with electric cars is that they will end up with a very low value to
hype ratio compared to other pathways towards a sustainable future. Cars have
always been able to stir emotions and electric cars can further augment this
natural emotional response with all the emotion involved in the green movement.
Given our massive 21st century sustainability challenge of quadrupling the size
of the global economy without killing our planet, we simply cannot afford
misplaced electric vehicle hype on such a large scale. Compared to
gasoline-powered cars, the only unquestionable direct advantages of electric
cars are a reduced dependence on oil and lower tailpipe emissions in cities. It
is often stated that electric cars are cheaper
to fuel and emit fewer greenhouse gasses than regular cars, but this is not
generally true. The actual fuel costs of future technologically mature electric
cars will be similar to that of gasoline cars. An optimistic estimate for the
potential advantages that 100% electric cars can bring to the global economy is
about $386/year per car. For perspective, this is about one-third of the cost
disadvantage calculated earlier for a future mass market electric car with an 80
kWh battery pack costing $100/kWh. It is, therefore, clear that, on a global
scale, the potential positive impact of electric cars is marginal at best.
Alternative technological pathways also exist through which this positive impact
can arguably be achieved in a cheaper and much more practical manner. (Electric
Cars: Massive Hype, Limited Value. July 25, 2016 by Schalk Cloete.
What Can I do? Drive Less Both local and global pollution
would be reduced if each car-driving person pledged to use their car 30%
less starting immediately. This is a responsible, individual
contribution to a global problem. At least 30% of vehicle use is
optional - either recreational or lazy driving when walking, cycling or
public transit would be a better choice.
Cities can reduce vehicular traffic by more than 30% over the
next 3 to 5 years by improving public transportation. Commuter trains
are a model of urban access for suburban residents who drive their cars
short distances, park in terminal lots and ride the train into town.
Cities can create car free zones and develop park-like corridors that
would allow movement through the city by walking, cycling and limited
use of small, light electric vehicles in vehicle corridors specially
designed to be safe and efficient.
The rising cost of crude oil is altering driving habits and big auto
companies closed plants that produced SUVs and pickup trucks. If you are
interested in longer term human survival, then high cost oil is a real
benefit. With or without higher fuel prices, each person can drive less
and resist the temptation to buy larger, heavier cars, trucks and sports
vehicles. If you really need a 4x4 to drive off-roads in wilderness
settings, you need a rugged clunker that's already got scratches, dents
and mud on the tires. Carry a shovel, axe, chain saw, and a come-along
in the back. If you can afford it, add a heavy duty winch up front. Stay
off city streets and highways. See Disease
Effects, Car Exhaust
Reduce Air Pollution by changing the design and use of
- The use of cars must be re-defined. Car use has to be considered a
privilege, not a right. The cost of environmental damage and reclamation
has to be added to the cost of owning and operating a car. Vehicle use
should no longer be subsidized.
Reduce number of Vehicles - Urban areas need to set vehicular quotas
and issue permits to limit the number of vehicles to control regional
traffic congestion and air pollution.
Small hybrid or 100% electric cars are desirable, but make their
occupants specially vulnerable when they collide with much larger
vehicles. A sane city would separate small, efficient passenger vehicles
from buses and trucks.
Improve efficiency of vehicles - reverse the trend to larger vehicles;
engineering solutions to emissions of combustion engines. Flex fuel and hybrid
cars are a step in the right direction but in small numbers will not have a
significant impact on air pollution.
Reduced vehicle use and traffic reform can be a bigger and more
immediate remedy for urban air pollution. Improved efficiency of traffic
is important. Examples are: dedicated bus lanes and priority for
car-pools and vehicles with 3 or more passengers. Traffic can be
scheduled to optimize road usage; e.g. commercial traffic at night;
large companies can stagger working hours and decentralize
administrative operations. Commuting long distances in cars to work
needs to be phased out. Single passenger commuting to work should be
The best measure of air pollution contribution is the
amount of fossil fuel burned.
Recreational driving can be reduced immediately. Car owners need to
pay for miles driven and fuel burned on an escalating scale. Each person
can have a "free driving" allotment per year and pay increasing
insurance and/or taxes on fuel consumption beyond this limit.
Governments can encourage the reduction of vehicular use by:
Long term solutions require that vehicles use less polluting
energy sources such biofuels, propane and natural gas. I am sorry to say
that the marketing of "green solutions" to global warming is becoming
yet another scam. One problem is that producing alternate fuels and
hybrid cars often requires CO2 emissions that offset or
cancel the benefits of improve vehicular design.
You might imagine new residential and commercial buildings that
conserve energy and generate their own electricity with solar panels and
wind generators that also charge their own electric vehicles. The cost
of constructing new, more autonomous buildings is so great that only the
wealthiest citizens can afford the capital costs.
In the immediate future reduced car use is the best solution.
A gas-inefficient clunker driven twice a week for 20 km is a better
choice than a new expensive hybrid car driven everyday for 100 Km. No
solution is better than fewer vehicles and reduced vehicle use.
Limited Funds for Change
With once rich countries such as the USA with enormous debt, facing the extensive repairs of already aging, derelict
infrastructures, adding new, unprecedented development costs seems
unlikely. Unless, of course the priorities in many countries shift
dramatically. The US, for example, could adopt a sane, smart strategy,
reduce its military budget by >50% and invest the money and skills in
rebuilding the country's infrastructure with new sustainable energy
Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth.
That is all you need to know.