Let Sustainable Transportation Drive Your Buying Habits

Steve Heckeroth examines common misconceptions about sustainable transportation, and offers advice on how to make your commute more eco-friendly.


| May 19, 2014


When you wake up in any city in North America you hear the roar of hundreds or even thousands of internal combustion engines. There are over 200 million licensed drivers in the United States who each burn an average of 800 gallons of fuel annually to go a total of over 3 trillion miles. We seem to have forgotten that we have legs. The only walking many people do is to and from their car. Even many of the people who realize the critical importance of exercise — let alone sustainable transportation — get in their car to drive to the gym. To make matters worse, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the last 32 years is the Ford F Series pickup truck. In 2013, three out of the five top-selling autos in America were pickup trucks that get less than 18 miles per gallon. This may explain how America, with only 4 percent of the world population, burns about 25 percent of the oil consumed in the entire world.

The Loophole Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

According to federal regulations, light-duty trucks are supposed to be primarily designed for the transport of property or for off-road operation, and have a gross vehicle weight of less than 14,000 pounds. The "light truck" classification was created in the early 1970s to acknowledge the difficulty that vehicles used for work or on the farm would have meeting the same standards as cars. In 1978, Congress enacted the federal Gas Guzzler Tax and again exempted light trucks. The auto industry has exploited the fact that vehicles in this category do not need to meet the same safety, fuel economy or emission standards as cars by introducing luxury trucks, vans and four-wheel drive SUVs that are mainly used for the on-road transport of people. A study by Friends of the Earth found that, since 1999, automakers have avoided paying billions in Gas Guzzler taxes by calling passenger vehicles "light trucks." Because trucks don’t need to meet the same safety, emission or fuel economy standards, they are much cheaper to manufacture so the profit margin on these "light trucks" can be more than ten times greater than that of the more fuel efficient cars that serve the same purpose.

The billions of dollars that have gone into advertising these grossly inefficient vehicles has taken light truck sales from 30 percent of vehicle sales in 1990 to over 50 percent of the nearly 20 million vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2013. As a result, the fuel economy of the U.S. vehicle fleet as a whole has been declining over the same period, even though the fuel efficiency of cars has been increasing. Indeed, the advertising of utility vehicles has been so successful that many environmentalists drive four-wheel drive vehicles so (supposedly) they can get closer to nature. In fact, less than 10 percent of the vehicles in the light truck category ever get used for the off-road or utility use that allowed them to avoid the same safety, fuel economy, emission standards and taxes imposed on cars. Now, it is a common sight to see grocery store parking lots full of shiny big vans, four-wheel drive SUVs and even monstrous crew-cab pickups with dual rear wheels.

Please, join the Friends of the Earth in pushing to close this sustainable transportation loophole. If you are using a pickup truck, van or four-wheel drive vehicle as a daily driver and complaining about the high cost of fuel, you might want to consider whether your vehicle choice was your own or driven by corporate advertising.

The Fossil Fuel Timeline

“Our planet seen by extraterrestrials 3.9 billion years ago would have been a brown globe-girdling ocean with an atmosphere composed mostly of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. If they checked back 2.4 billion years ago the atmosphere would have been mostly nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane with blooms of blue-green algae in the ocean. A few hundred million years later photosynthesis started flooding the atmosphere with oxygen, paving the way for the evolution of oxygen dependent life forms starting about 500 million years ago."  — Lisa Kaltenegger, Time, January 2014

Our insatiable appetite for power at any cost, combined with worldwide deforestation, has already pushed many species to extinction and is quickly reversing the process that made life possible. The only reason free oxygen exists in the air is because carbon is safely buried in the ground. If we are able to extract and burn all the buried carbon, we will turn the Earth into a lifeless globe. Auto exhaust cannot support life.

Think of the 2 billion years of photosynthesis that it took to put oxygen in the air and hydrocarbons in the ground as 2 miles of distance. In relation to those 2 miles, the last hundred years is equal to the thickness of a piece of paper. Compared to real time use of energy from the sun, burning fossil fuel is trillions of times less efficient because of the billions of years of photosynthesis and rare geologic events it took to produce it.

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Michelle
7/24/2014 11:37:49 AM

Thank you for your article. Americans need to take a hard look at the wasteful vehicles they drive. I plan on purchasing a car later this year and will not be buying a "gas guzzler". It is disgusting how government lets big business get away with not paying taxes and then raises individual taxes to make up the deficit. I do agree with the one comment and would have liked a little more car buying help in the article. I think the other comment must have come from a person who works with car manufacturers. Again thank you.






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