Speed Is Killing the Planet. Time to Focus on EfficiencyOctober 24, 2019
History may be cyclical, but for centuries it’s been an undisputed truth that with time things get faster. Humans have gone from their feet to bicycles, from the steam engine to the jet plane, always looking to boost their miles per hour. But especially since the turn of the millennium, this quest for quickness has hit some speed bumps.
The average American car may be capable of reaching triple-digit speeds, but the average American driver spent 97 hours sitting in traffic in 2018. Public transit systems in cities like New York and San Francisco are stuck in a miasma of delays. High-speed rail projects have plateaued in many nations as governments balk at their high costs.
American industry is cooking up ways to solve this slowness problem. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is working on networks of tunnels in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas; the idea is that cars and shared pods would zoom through them on skateboard-esque electric platforms. Companies with names like Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Transpod have spent millions pursuing the concept of the train-like hyperloop, arguing that whizzing through a tube is the fastest way to the future. Overhead, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, and startup Boom Supersonic are just some of the players working to revive supersonic passenger flight.
Here’s the thing: These ideas for accelerating the future fail to address a far more pressing problem than our stalled speedometers. In the US, transportation accounts for 27 percent of the carbon we release into the air, more than any other sector of the economy. Four-fifths of that comes from cars and trucks. The internal combustion engine is rocketing us deeper into a climate crisis that demands an immediate—and big—reduction in those emissions. Hyperloops might run on clean electricity, but it would take decades for them to become extensive enough to replace a significant number of cars. Supersonic flight requires engines that use much more fuel, and more carbon, than slower planes. These rosy renderings of effortless whooshing hither and yon distract us from what the problem demands: a way forward that prioritizes not thoughtless speed but calibrated efficiency.
OK, sure. We’ve been here before. In 1974, reeling from OPEC’s oil embargo, President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, creating a national speed limit at the gas-sipping speed of 55 mph. This plan stumbled. Incensed drivers ignored the new limits, and they were abetted by states that refused to enforce a rule they saw as federal overreach. Just short of 20 years on, Congress raised the limit to 65—then abandoned it altogether in 1995 and allowed states to set their own limits.
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We don’t have time to wait for Muskian fixes—or electric self-driving vehicles that move through the streets with the kinetic coordination of a school of fish. But there is (oddly) good news! While some firms were busy fixing other crises, they inadvertently created a jumble of climate-friendly—and voilà, efficient—solutions. To deal with sky-high jet fuel prices, airlines have ordered planes twice as efficient as their predecessors. Facing soul-crushing traffic, New York and Los Angeles are considering congestion pricing, which has drastically reduced the number of vehicles driving in London, Milan, Singapore, and Stockholm. Millennials uninterested in or incapable of owning cars get around in shared vehicles, while city dwellers have embraced scooters and bikes. By fixing one set of problems, we’ve created the makings of a cleaner future.
Still, Americans drive more than 3 trillion miles a year, almost all of them in vehicles that attack our lungs and our planet. We need to use all the weapons in our arsenal to get out of those carbon-burning cars: higher gas taxes, policies that encourage carpooling, lower city speed limits that curb emissions while making roads safer for biking and scootering. Enforce congestion pricing while painting the town red with bus lanes. Spur more scooters, more bikes, and more electric cars by increasing the incentives to buy them. It’s time to ditch our need for speed and embrace efficiency. But let’s be quick about it.
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ALEX DAVIES (@adavies47) is writing a book on the creation of the self-driving car, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2020.
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