Reading Mike’s post on how Elon Musk pleads for a “revenue-neutral carbon tax” during speech in Paris made me wonder, are electric cars like the Tesla (and self-driving cars) a help or a hindrance in our struggle to reduce carbon?
Years ago, Alex Steffen questioned the impact of the Tesla, and noted that “ the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we’re not going to find a bright green future by looking there.” He wrote:
There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.
Similarly, Will Adams of Chartwell points to an article by Jeff Speck and Andres Duany in the Washington Post, where they note the cost of the great suburban experience, the obesity crisis, the cost of health care and police and services, and note that “If we have learned one thing from the suburban experiment, it is that you can’t grow a green economy on blacktop.”
Adams is making the point, in his article What Elon Musk and Google got wrong, that it doesn’t matter what is powering your car, and that the low cost of driving an electric car is actually causing induced demand- owners of electric cars are driving farther than those who own gasoline cars, because the operating costs are so low. And while the car owners are saving money, the rest of us are subsidizing it.
According to the Wall Street Journal, car dependency has “hidden costs to the United States economy that come to more than $1 trillion a year.” That’s trillion with a T. Much of this is related to the significantly detrimental financial (public and private), health, safety and environmental consequences from driving. Making driving cheaper, easier and more accessible with increased fuel efficiency standards or with EVs could simply induce demand for more driving and potentially exacerbate all of these negative externalities.
And indeed, as miles driven have increased in the last year because it is so cheap right now, the number of traffic fatalities has spiked across North America.
In another recent article, Why a conservative Republican from northern Minnesota wants to kill the suburbs, looking at the work of Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, Peter Callaghan writes about how Marohn looks at planning through an economic lens:
It’s a perspective that has led Marohn to conclude that the nation’s 70-year experiment with suburban development is a failure — because it is economically unsustainable. That is, the lack of density does not produce tax revenue necessary to cover current services, let alone the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing those services. And because suburbs were built as fully developed places, they don’t have the flexibility to adapt, to become more dense in response to fiscal realities.
This is the root of the problem with the electric car; it deals with one aspect of the trouble with cars, which is what comes out the tailpipe, without dealing with all of the others. Make it self-driving and suddenly the suburbs look viable for kids and seniors and long commutes with a martini in your hand and everything is wonderful. But it’s not; you still need to pick up the garbage and maintain the roads and scrape the squished pedestrians and cyclists off the pavement.
A carbon tax might well speed the transition from gas to electric vehicles, which Mr. Musk will be happy to sell to us. But it won’t solve the fundamental problem of sprawl, the deaths of pedestrians, the collapsing infrastructure, the cost of servicing suburbia.
That's why we don’t need a carbon tax; we need a car tax to cover the cost of all of this and to fix it. Because Alex was right; the problem of the American car is not under the hood.