America has had a love affair with the automobile since the turn of the last century.
No country on earth has embraced automotive technology as fully as the U.S.—as evidenced by the network of highways that criss-cross this country and the number of garages attached to each home.
But in the past several years, there has been a growing concern that cars and trucks are damaging the environment, are deadly monsters that wreak havoc on the highways and, in general, are ruining the quieter and simpler lifestyle so many of us cherish.
As a result, we have seen many proposals to restrict the use, fuels and emissions of cars and trucks at both the state and federal levels. In observing all of this activity, you have to wonder if cars and trucks can survive as we know them.
Not to worry.
A recently released study from the Heartland Institute indicates that private ownership of cars and trucks produces benefits that far exceed their costs to society. Moreover, concern over future oil shortages, loss of farmland, air quality and global warming does not justify restrictions on our freedom to travel and transport goods.
This study found that cars and trucks produce tremendous benefits to individuals and to society. Their benefits are often overlooked because they provide uninterrupted door-to-door delivery of people and products. Short trips taken in private cars cost less than traveling by trains or buses when the value of the traveler's time is taken into account.
Cars have expanded our choice of where to live and work by making travel faster and less expensive. Trucks, on the other hand, made it possible to build homes far away from railroad tracks, ports, and canals and virtually gave rise to new cities.
Today, cars, trucks, and buses expand educational and shopping opportunities by putting a larger number of schools, shops and markets within a convenient distance of our homes, thereby expanding our choices and encouraging innovation and efficiency among competing schools and stores.
Trucks reduce the prices of virtually all consumer and producer goods by lowering shipping costs and by making it possible to deliver small amounts of products to retailers and manufacturers at frequent intervals—or directly to customers without the need to warehouse them.
They also are enabling e-commerce and will haul the economy in the 21st century as more goods are purchased over the Internet.
Finally, having the ability to get up and go wherever and whenever you want in this country is a right that enhances our civil and economic freedoms. This is probably one benefit that is the most taken for granted.
The price of having cars and trucks in our society is very modest compared to the benefits. The first consequence that comes to mind is traffic fatalities. Some 41,000 people died in traffic fatalities in 1999.
Thankfully, traffic fatalities have been falling, both in absolute numbers and even more dramatically per mile traveled. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled has fallen from 15.5 in 1933-1937 to just 1.5 today.
Air pollution is another cost. Cars and trucks account for two-thirds of man-made carbon monoxide emissions, one-third of nitrogen oxide and one-fifth of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter (soot).
The threat this poses to public health is too small to accurately measure. Air pollution from all sources accounts at most for just 1 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths. According to the Heartland study, scientists have yet to find convincing evidence linking air pollution to asthma or particulate air pollution to human mortality.
For those of you who don't believe this, you should know that air quality is improving.
Between 1987-1992 and 1994-1999, the number of "bad air days" (when air quality failed to meet federal standards) fell 82 percent in Newark, N.J., 54 percent in Los Angeles, 78 percent in Chicago and 69 percent in Milwaukee. Total emissions are forecast to fall by 22 percent between 1997 and 2015, assuming no new air quality regulations are enacted.
That's because motor fuels are getting cleaner. Lead was phased out of gasoline in 1973, fuel volatility limits to reduce evaporation were implemented in 1989 and 1992, sulfur-content limits were imposed on diesel fuel in 1993 and reformulated gasoline was introduced in 1995.
And if that's not enough, the EPA is currently phasing in improved reformulated gasoline and reductions in gasoline and diesel sulfur levels.
According to the Heartland study, the issue of global warming has been greatly blown out of proportion. This Institute reports that more than 17,000 scientists have signed a petition stating: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate."
Further, U.S. cars and trucks contribute an almost imperceptible 0.29 percent to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Some people erroneously believe urban sprawl and loss of farmland is another drawback of cars and trucks.
One popular estimate of the amount of farmland lost each year to "sprawl" is 1.5 million acres. However, this is only 0.16 percent of the total area devoted to farming and ranching in the lower 48 states. Rising per-acre crop yields and falling prices for many crops—not the number of cars and trucks—explain this change in land use.
As far as natural resources go, ample supplies of fossil fuels and other minerals exist. The world's supply of petroleum is enough to last 114 years. Both natural gas and coal can be readily converted into substitutes for oil. It is estimated there is a sufficient supply of natural gas to last 200 years and coal won't run out for another 1,884 years.
Due to the continuing improvements that have been made in conventional engines and non-engine vehicle features, we have seen dramatic improvements in fuel economy of cars and trucks in the past few decades.
The average fuel economy for cars in the U.S. rose from 14.2 mpg in 1974 to about 28 mpg in 1986 and has stayed at slightly above 28 mpg since that time. Emissions for most types of vehicles have fallen by 96 percent or more since 1978. Changes already in the pipeline promise still more progress in the years ahead.
In the future, advancements in car and truck technologies will ensure a smooth transition to cleaner and safer technologies such as electric and natural gas powered engines when consumers are ready to accept them.
However, even with all of these changes taking place, the internal combustion engine will persevere. Only 10 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2020 will be powered by something other than a gasoline or diesel fuel internal combustion engine.
The longevity of conventional engines and fuels is due to advantages in purchase and operation cost, range, performance and safety. Alternatives such as fuel cells and battery powered electric engines face major technological challenges before becoming competitive.
With all these benefits, the high cost of alternatives and the enhanced capabilities that high-tech can bring to vehicles, cars and trucks equipped with tires will be around for years to come. Thank goodness.