Greener Cars

A few years ago, California passed a law saying that some percentage of vehicles sold had to produce “zero emissions” by a given year. The law underwent numerous revisions. The original law, while having good intentions, was obviously broken. It’s much better to have 10 percent of the cars be low emission (let’s say half of the emissions of a normal vehicle), than to have 5 percent of the vehicles be zero emission vehicles. The environmental impact is the same either way (the same amount of emissions), but the sociological impact is vastly different by doubling the number of people who think of themselves as driving “green cars”.

From my very brief reading, it looks like the new laws (to go in effect model year 2005 — later this year) are better than the original 1990 laws. They allow for partial credits depending on how clean a car is, and they probably won’t be shut down by the courts. Unfortunately, I don’t think they do enough, not that we should expect laws to fix the problem anyway.

So, what can be done to clean our air, and reduce our dependence on a non-renewable resource? Electric vehicles are nice, but that electricity has to come from somewhere, and today the bulk of it doesn’t come from clean sources like wind and solar. Actually, less than two percent of US electricity is clean. There has been a lot of talk lately about a Hydrogen economy saving us, but guess where that hydrogen will come from. Electricity, that same dirty electricity that would power electric cars. Hydrogen is obtained by splitting it from the oxygen in water by applying an electrical current to the water. While it’s probably true that the dirty sources of electricity production are cleaner than gas guzzling SUVs, it also isn’t a solution.

I’m sure you will be disappointed, but hopefully not surprised to find out that I don’t have a perfect solution; I doubt anybody does. Laws go a long way to encourage the automakers to do the basic research required for greener cars, but they’re too slow to adapt to new technologies. Cultural changes put people in the right mindset to buy greener cars, but they require the population to be educated enough to know that zero emission isn’t. Maybe biofuels are the way to go. At least when they are burned, they only put as much carbon into the atmosphere as was pulled out of it when the fuel was created. Solutions are definitely in the works, but we’re not there yet.