Cars are a real dichotomy. On one side, they provide a step toward a better standard of living -- jobs farther afield are reachable by car. They provide opportunities for recreation, access to better stores and markets and the freedom to move where we want, when we want.
On the other side, some claim they rob us of our health, make us dependent on them for our freedom and produce a huge amount of pollution. It's this last part that worries many people. Not only do cars produce a large portion of the world's pollution, in excess of several billion tons per year in the United States alone, but boats, trucks, trains and buses also contribute to the pollution whole.
Yet cars remain one of the worst of the offenders. But there are a few possible solutions to the car pollution issue, and it's not just a change of fuel. To really bring about change, humans have to change their attitude toward cars and rethink their role in our lives, and that may be a harder change than any other.
Most importantly, there is no one magic solution. Each small step is integrated with a larger whole; each one is a part of the other, and no one single step can move ahead significantly without help from the others.
Over the next several pages, we've compiled a list of 10 possible solutions that we think might have an impact. Have a look and see what you think.
Effective hydrogen fuel cells are the Holy Grail of alternative fuel technologies. The best known fuel cell is hydrogen-based. This technology uses hydrogen gas to create electricity. The electricity is then converted to mechanical energy in an electric motor to get the car, truck, bus, boat or any other form of transport run by an engine moving.
The only emission from the cell is water, pure H2O, clean enough to drink and a far cry from the hydrocarbons, CO2 and oxides of nitrogen produce by the cleanest car today.
Technology is currently struggling with finding an absolutely pure form of fuel cell, one that emits no harmful pollutants, as well as using renewable energy to produce or supply the raw materials for the fuel cells. Indeed, the easiest way to produce the needed supply of hydrogen gas at this point is using fossil fuels, though this may change in the future.
On May 10, 2011, Toyota Motor Sales, in cooperation with Shell Oil, announced that they had opened the first hydrogen filling station fed by an industrial pipeline. This opening signals what could be the first step in building a hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure. The hydrogen will be produced using bacteria and biomass waste.
Electric cars are not as new as most drivers realize. They were among the first prototype cars created in the late 1890s, and more electric cars were manufactured than petroleum-powered cars at the turn of the last century.
Today, the electric car is going main stream. The Nissan LEAF has opened up a new market for consumers, allowing urban driving without the guilt of tail-pipe emissions. Electric vehicles receive their fuel from a linked collection of batteries. The batteries are lead, nickel-metal hydrides and lithium concoctions storing energy provided from home electrical outlets or the soon-to-be-introduced electric recharging station. Like fuel cells, electric cars lack a reliable infrastructure, as well as a way of reliably using renewable sources -- like solar, wind or geothermal -- to generate their fuel. Instead, they rely on fossil fuel-burning electric plants to supply their needs.
The EPA estimates there are more than 4,000 all-electric vehicles traveling the country's roads, though this estimate was made before the introduction of Nissan's LEAF. While fuel cell cars are few in numbers due to technological challenges, electric cars remain few in number because they simply don't have the same range as a petroleum-fueled vehicle and are harder to "fill up." However, once those hurdles are cleared, and a renewable source of electrical energy ensured, electric cars may be the primary form of transportation for the world.
Alternative fuels provide one road to reducing pollutions, but they're far from perfect at this point. However, there are a few steps that can be taken now to help reduce tail pipe emissions. One of the most effective is to reduce idle time for vehicles. According to the California Energy Commission, your car idles anywhere from five to 10 minutes a day on average, depending on driving conditions. Idling your car for two minutes uses about the same amount of gas as going one mile. If you're sitting longer than 10 seconds, it's wise to turn off your car as those 10 seconds will use the same amount of fuel as it would take to restart the engine after being shut down. Many hybrid cars and electric cars now have an automatic start and stop system that shuts down the engine when speed is zero. Stepping on the gas, rather than turning the key, gets the car rolling again.
How much this feature will reduce pollution is the subject of debate. Some emissions systems work well at idle; others don't. Larger vehicles, including trucks and buses, as well as diesel engines, can produce more emissions at idle than when running. However, when the numbers are crunched, using less fuel means producing less emissions and pollution.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), vehicles account for almost one-third of smog-forming emissions, and every year, more people take to the road and drive farther distances, an increase of more than 120 percent since 1970. Driving fewer miles would, therefore, decrease the amount of pollution produced by cars.
How to do this is easy. Various sites make the same general suggestions:
- Combine errands into one trip
- Take public transportation
- Shop by phone, mail or Internet
- Telecommute, if possible
However, this is just the tip of the transportation iceberg. Transportation engineers and urban planners are looking at how to reduce traffic congestion so vehicles spend less time on the road. Think of the infamous Los Angeles traffic where the average commute time can exceed more than an hour. As people sit in traffic, inching forward, their cars are releasing a steady stream of pollution that, when combined with the geography of the LA basin, creates some of the worst smog in the country. Better roads, better traffic light timing and access to better public transportation would go a long way to reducing the pollution.
As engineers and planners struggle with how to reduce driving time and idle time, they're indirectly shaping how the country is settling and evolving. The press of fuel prices has yet to result in a direct change in how Americans settle, but more Americans are settling closer to where they work and play in an effort to reduce their fuel consumption -- or turning to technology to increase telecommuting and work-from-home opportunities.
By reducing commutes -- the United States Census Bureau tallied the average commute time at about 30 minutes -- cars would produce fewer pollutants. The new trend in urban planning has become "walkable communities." The idea is to mix residential, business and industrial concerns together so people who live in the area could walk to their work, a store or even to their doctor's office without ever needing a car. The incentive here is not only to reduce pollution and use less fuel, but to increase the quality of life for the residents and promote local businesses.
But people will still need to travel. Many of the community plans integrated public transportation, ride-sharing programs or hourly car rental programs such as Zipcar into the overall planning.
Seen from the outside, these communities almost seem unworkable, but whether they come to pass successfully or not, they do spur ideas for immediate ways -- like better public transportation -- to reduce pollution.
Your car is designed to run at optimal efficiency; however, time, distance, weather and a host of other factors all contribute to decreasing that efficiency. Routine maintenance and care can reduce the amount of fuel a car consumes -- and reduce the amount of pollution it puts out, too.
These are just a few of the components and systems to check if you want to keep your car running its best:
- Keep your engine properly tuned. This means changing the oil, air filter and checking the fluids on a routine basis. It also means changing the spark plus, spark plug wires and cleaning the fuel system at the manufacturer's scheduled interval. Doing this can improve mileage by more than 4 percent. If your check engine light is on, (depending on the root cause) fixing that problem right away can sometimes improve mileage by more than 30 percent.
- Keep your tires properly inflated. Under- and over-inflated tires have an effect on the rolling resistance of the car. Properly inflated tires can improve gas mileage by more than 3 percent.
- Reduce the weight in your car. Every 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) reduces fuel efficiency by 1 to 2 percent.
- Remove the roof rack. Doing this can add about 5 percent to your miles per gallon rating
- Drive steady. Fast acceleration and inconsistent speed can reduce your car's overall efficiency by more than 4 percent.
This makes good common sense, right? No matter how well-kept a car is, it becomes less efficient and therefore, more polluting with time. If possible, trade an older car in for a newer, more fuel-efficient model. Today's emissions controls are almost three times better than cars made a decade ago and pollute that much less, too. There's also a much greater variety of efficient cars on the market today than there was just 10 years ago.
The EPA offers a Green Vehicle Guide, which rates newer cars by how much they pollute and contribute to the overall smog problem. The same ratings are on all new car window tags. While the issue of whether producing a new, less polluting car creates more pollutants during the manufacturing process than during the new car's lifetime is still unsettled, it remains true that a newer car will pollute less and use less fuel.
The United States, as a whole, does not have a well-developed public transportation system. If the car is a symbol of freedom, a public bus is just about the opposite. Bus or train schedules rarely seem to follow work or errand needs. The systems are often slow and inefficient.
But from the standpoint of reducing transportation-related pollution, using public transportation is one of the most effective and immediate changes the country can make.
According to PublicTransportation.org, public transportation -- mainly buses and subways -- saves about 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Additionally, if an individual switches a 20-mile (32.2-kilometer) daily roundtrip commute to public transportation, their annual CO2 emissions will decrease by about 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) per year.
Combining an increase in public transportation with better road engineering, land use and other factors could help reduce transportation-related pollution by more than 20 percent.
Private concerns can also help with public transportation. Companies are often encouraged to provide a shuttle bus for their employees or post ride-share boards. Car cooperatives are making in-roads in the United States. These services allow a member to rent a car from a central location and pay a small fee for use. The system is ideal for inner-city dwellers that only occasionally need a car, allowing them access to a vehicle without needing to buy one. By using public transportation for their primary needs and a regular car for the odd trip where it was necessary, one Swiss study indicated car cooperative owners drove more than 60 percent less than they would have if they owned a car.
These obvious choices are (by far) the best way reduce pollution as they produce no emissions. Many cities are experimenting with bike share programs similar to car cooperatives. While something of a challenge for a regular driver, most experts suggest not replacing a car with a bike in most cases, but rather parking the car and using a bike or walking to do errands. Most errands within about a mile (1.6 kilometers) are comfortable by foot, and anything up to 5 miles (8.1 kilometers) is doable by bike. And, in addition to polluting less, the person gets the benefit of exercise.
Making the switch isn't easy. Many streets and cities are not particularly bike- or pedestrian-friendly. Experts suggest starting small and easing into an alternate car routine. In essence, they suggest you have some experience before biking or walking in traffic.
There are several Internet sites with tips, tricks and links to maps and mapping software for pedestrians and bicyclists to avoid the worst of the pitfalls.
If a person can't bike because of bad knees or other health issues, companies now produce electric motor kits that significantly reduce the physical power needed to ride a bike.
All solutions to transportation pollution ultimately rely on humans. Ask a European about Americans, and they will likely portray us as a little spoiled and a little too freewheeling with our transportation freedoms. The truth is, most of the solutions listed in this article will only work if there's a fundamental shift in thinking.
We'll have to adjust to smaller, more efficient cars. We'll also have to adjust to using more public transportation. And to use either of those, we'll have to change the way we live, move closer to our place of business, cram into a car with more people, take vacations closer to home, camp instead of RV -- overall, do more with less.
Is it possible? Probably. At the turn of the century people criticized automobiles as unreliable -- a fad and something that would never catch on. People got by with trains and horses, and no one really needed to live more than 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) from where they worked. Why would you want a car? People now have the same attitude toward electric cars, fuel cells, public transportation and walking to work.
And will it work? Well, only you can say.
For more information about transportation, pollution and possible solutions, follow the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at what the cleanest cities are doing to avoid a 'bad air day.'
- American Public Transportation Association. (May 7, 2011) http://www.publictransportation.org/benefits/environment.asp
- Bike Commuters. (May 12, 2011) http://www.bikecommuters.com/
- Bridging the Gap. "Alternate Transportation Guide for the Greater Kansas City Area." (May 9, 2011) http://www.bridgingthegap.org/media_vault/documents/1243351866.pdf
- California Energy Center. "Should I Shut Off My Motor When I'm Idling My Car?" (May 10, 2011) http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/myths/idling.html
- Car Talk. "Car Talk's Guide To Better Fuel Economy." (May 9, 2011) http://www.cartalk.com/content/features/fueleconomy/
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Green Vehicle Guide." (May 11, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/Index.do
- Environmental Protection Agency. "SmartWay Program." (May 1, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/smartway/index.htm
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Transportation and Climate." (May 8, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/publications.htm#basic
- Murphy, Samantha. "Toyota, Shell Open First U.S. Hydrogen Fueling Station from Pipeline." TechNewsDaily. (May 10, 2011) http://www.livescience.com/14099-toyota-shell-open-hydrogen-fueling-station-pipeline.html
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Keeping Your Car In Shape." (May 8, 2011) http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/maintain.shtml