By repeating the mistakes of the past by simply replacing dirty technologies with less polluting alternatives, we miss out on the real promise of evolving into a carbon-neutral society. Electric vehicles are touted as a guilt-free choice to reach a zero-emission future, but the types of vehicles and how we incorporate them into our daily lives – or live without them – will play a big role in how much of an improvement they will be. On the Media podcast host Brooke Gladstone and tech expert Paris Marx explore how the current rise in the production of electric SUVs might not be the panacea for the challenges of climate change.
- Electric cars are not the sole solution to the climate crisis.
- The flaky promises of bogus technologies have undermined public transportation projects.
- We must buck the trend towards ever more massive and deadly cars.
Electric cars are not the sole solution to the climate crisis.
Electric vehicles (EVs) seem to be on a home run. In 2022, EV sales shot up by 68% compared to 2021, and New York and California will effectively ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035. So, problems solved, conscience cleared?
“This is your no guilt purchase, right? You don’t need to feel guilty about anything anymore because you’re helping the environment.” (Paris Marx)
Not quite. EVs cause significant pollution. But while gas-powered cars emit most of their emissions while we use them, the lion’s share of EVs pollution occurs during production: Lithium, cobalt, graphite and many more rare minerals go into making batteries. Depending on the specifics of an electric car, you have to drive it for many miles before seeing an improvement in environmental impact. If you don’t drive a lot, it may make more environmental sense to keep your combustion-powered car going until the bitter end than to go electric.
The flaky promises of bogus technologies have undermined public transportation projects.
In 1859, the first vehicle with rechargeable batteries was invented. By the late 1800s, electric cars even had a leg up over their combustion engine competitors, because they were easier to drive and ran more smoothly. But then Henry Ford brought down the costs of fossil fuel vehicles by introducing the assembly line. World War I also entrenched their lead. Throughout the 20th century, EVs made some brief comebacks, for example during the oil shock in the 1970s.
Today they are presented as the only solution to the problems caused by fossil-fueled mobility, and they crowd out competing approaches to solving transportation challenges. Tesla CEO Elon Musk fully admitted that he invested in his Hyperloop project intending to keep the state of California from developing the high speed rail system it proposed a decade ago. Presently the rail system is still under construction and has run into huge cost overruns, but Musk’s Hyperloop – which would have involved building a vacuum tube from LA to San Francisco – never even started.
“Of course, there’s no sign anywhere in the world of an actual working Hyperloop right now, but it did become part of the ammunition used against the high speed rail project in California.” (Paris Marx)
Musk also toured US cities pushing his Boring Company, suggesting a tunnel-based transportation system for cars. Initially, Boring’s pilot was to be built under Los Angeles. In the end, a stripped-down version has been completed under Las Vegas, failing to deliver on just about every futuristic promise made. Still, Musk could claim victory: His lobbying disrupted plans for building or improving public transit systems across the United States.
Another promise that gets in the way of infrastructure projects is that of fully self-driving cars. For about a decade tech companies have been announcing that those were just around the corner, while interest groups funded by the fossil fuel and auto parts industry have been peddling that same idea in a joint effort to thwart new transit projects.
We must buck the trend towards ever more massive and deadly cars.
Today, the trend in vehicle design is undoing many of the benefits that electrification provides. By 2025, SUVs will make up 78% of all new vehicles sold. Even if a growing share will be electric, the bigger the vehicles, the larger and more energy-intensive the batteries have to be, which makes them even heavier, more demanding of power and therefore more polluting. They are also a lot more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. Accidents with trucks and SUVs tend to be two to three times more fatal.
“There is a cultural issue, though. Just in case you didn’t know, Americans really like to drive big cars.” (Brooke Gladstone)
Most American cities are built around cars. Yet this is the result of policy choices that aren’t set in stone. Automakers, mining and tech companies gaslight us into thinking that there is no alternative to private vehicles. Instead, we should use the necessary transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles as an opportunity to change the way we think about mobility, build more inclusive communities and improve our quality of life.
About the Podcast
Brooke Gladstone hosts the WNYC radio show and podcast On the Media. Guest Paris Marx is host of the podcast Tech Won’t Save Us and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation.