No. 95 - Heartland Policy Study Looks at Feasibility of Bush's Proposed Hydrogen Fueled Vehicles

January 29, 2003
Joseph L. Bast & Jay Lehr, PhD

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This study examines the sustainability of cars and trucks in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The authors find that private ownership of cars and trucks produces benefits that far exceed their costs to society. Moreover, concern over future shortages of oil, loss of farmland, air quality, and global warming does not justify restrictions on our freedom to travel. A survey of new automotive technologies and their expected rates of market penetration shows that advanced gasoline- and diesel-fueled internal combustion engines will comprise 90 percent of new car sales in 2020 due to their lower price and superior performance and safety. The authors urge that command-and-control regulations be replaced with a "peaceful means-protecting approach" in the areas of air pollution emissions, motor fuel taxes, land-use management, fuel economy standards, and alternative fuels mandates.


1. Cars and trucks produce tremendous benefits to individuals and to society.

The benefits of private ownership of cars and trucks are often overlooked because they are woven into warp and woof of our daily lives. They include:

  • Cars and trucks are generally faster and less expensive than alternatives because they provide uninterrupted door-to-door delivery of people and products. Short trips taken in private cars cost less than traveling by trains or buses when the value of travelers' time is taken into account.
  • Cars expand our choice of where to live and work by making travel faster and less expensive. Trucks made it possible to build homes far away from railroad tracks, ports, and canals.
  • Cars, trucks, and buses expand educational and shopping opportunities by putting a larger number of schools, shops, and markets within a convenient distance of our homes, thereby expanding our choices and inspiring innovation and efficiency among competing schools and stores.
  • Trucks and vans reduce the prices of virtually all consumer and producer goods by lowering shipping costs and by making it possible to deliver small amounts of products to retailers and manufacturers at frequent intervals (reducing the need for storage facilities) or directly to customers.
  • Automobility produces an important political benefit by empowering the individual against governments and others who would seek to limit his or her civil and economic freedoms.

2. The price of automobility is very modest compared to the benefits.

The costs associated with popular private ownership of trucks and cars include:

  • Traffic fatalities: Some 41,000 people died in traffic fatalities in 1999. Thankfully, traffic fatalities have been falling, both in absolute numbers and even more dramatically per mile traveled. The number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled was 1.5 in 1999.
  • Air pollution: Cars and trucks account for two-thirds of man-made carbon monoxide emissions, one-third of nitrogen oxide, and one-fifth of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter (soot). The threat this poses to public health is too small to accurately measure. Air pollution from all sources accounts at most for just 1 percent of all U.S. cancer deaths. Scientists have yet to find convincing evidence linking air pollution to asthma or particulate air pollution to human mortality.
  • "Sprawl" and loss of farmland: One popular estimate of the amount of farmland lost each year to "sprawl," 1.5 million acres, is only 0.16 percent of the total area devoted to farming and ranching in the lower 48 states. Rising per-acre crop yields and falling prices for many crops, not the number of cars and trucks, explain this change in land use.
  • Subsidies: Road users in 1992 paid $38 billion more in taxes than total government spending on roads that year (including law enforcement and administration). The existence of a net tax subsidy for suburbs is unproven and probably unprovable.

3. Private ownership of cars and trucks is increasingly sustainable as energy supplies grow more abundant and car and truck exhausts get cleaner.

Are there enough minerals and fossil fuels in the world to sustain the growing fleet of privately owned cars and trucks? Do trends in air quality require that we phase out the internal combustion engine?

  • Ample supplies of fossil fuels and other minerals exist: Supplies of petroleum are sufficient to last 114 years, and supplies of natural gas and coal, which can readily be converted into substitutes for oil, are sufficient to last 200 and 1,884 years, respectively. Even the Worldwatch Institute, long a source of doomsday forecasts, concluded in 1992 that "scarcity of mineral deposits does not appear likely to constrain the production of most important minerals in the foreseeable future."
  • Air quality is improving: Between 1987-1992 and 1994-1999, the number of "bad air days" (when air quality failed to meet federal standards) fell 82 percent in Newark, 54 percent in Los Angeles, 78 percent in Chicago, and 69 percent in Milwaukee. Total emissions are forecast to fall by 22 percent between 1997 and 2015, assuming no new air quality regulations.
  • Global warming is no reason to restrict automobility: Over 17,000 scientists have signed a petition saying "there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate." U.S. cars and trucks contribute an almost imperceptible 0.29 percent to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Advancements in car and truck technologies will ensure a smooth transition to cleaner and safer technologies when consumers are ready to accept them.

  • Conventional engines and non-engine features are steadily improving: Average fuel economy for cars in the U.S. rose from 14.2 miles per gallon (mpg) in 1974 to about 28 mpg in 1986 and stayed at slightly above 28 mpg since that time. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled has fallen from 15.5 in 1933-1937 to just 1.5 today. Emissions for most types of vehicles have fallen by 96 percent or more since 1978. Changes already "in the pipeline" promise still more progress in the years ahead.
  • Motor fuels are getting cleaner: Lead was phased out of gasoline in 1973, fuel volatility limits to reduce evaporation were implemented in 1989 and 1992, sulfur-content limits were imposed on diesel fuel in 1993, and reformulated gasoline was introduced in 1995. EPA is phasing in improved reformulated gasoline and reductions in gasoline and diesel sulfur levels.
  • The internal combustion engine will persevere: Only 10 percent of vehicles solid in the U.S. in 2020 will be powered by something other than a gasoline- or diesel-fueled internal combustion engine. The perseverance of conventional engines and fuels is due to advantages in purchase and operation cost, range, performance, and safety. Alternatives such as fuel cells and battery-powered electric engines face major technological challenges before becoming competitive.
  • Non-vehicle technologies: Changes taking place outside the vehicle, such as remote emissions testing, congestion pricing of roads, and "Intelligent Transportation Systems" all promise to improve driver safety and reduce car and truck emissions and congestion.

5. Policymakers should move away from "command and control" regulations and focus instead on preventing the use of force or fraud.

The "command-and-control approach" to regulating cars and trucks has produced negative unintended consequences, costs that far exceed benefits, and violations of individual rights and legitimate expectations. We recommend, instead, a peaceful means-protecting approach to policymaking, whereby the regulator only ensures that conduct does not involve coercion or fraud. In cases involving so-called public goods, the role of the policymaker might extend to reducing transaction costs and enforcing rules against free-riders, but no further. We recommend the following:

  • Air emissions control: Any further reductions in allowable emissions cannot be defended scientifically or legally. The energy and dollars invested in "chasing the last molecule" would produce far greater benefits if used to fund remote emission testing systems, building new roads and better maintaining existing ones, and implementing congestion-based tolls to reduce traffic jams.
  • Motor fuel taxes: Allow markets to set the price of gasoline and diesel fuels, just as we rely on markets to set prices for food, clothing, and other essentials of life. A tax on motor fuels is a tax on our freedom to travel, and can properly be resisted in the name of all the benefits and values that flow from automobility.
  • Responding to "sprawl": Avoid high impact fees, Portland-style "urban growth boundaries," and other schemes that involve replacing the voluntary actions and decisions of individuals with the decisions of planners and bureaucrats with far less at stake in the outcome of each decision.
  • Fuel economy standards: We have reached the end of our ability to mandate higher fuel economy through CAFÉ standards. Consumers are right to resist a government program that penalizes car and truck manufacturers for building products that reflect consumer demands. We recommend outright repeal of current CAFÉ requirements.
  • Alternative fuel mandates: Regulators, in their rush to encourage alternative fuels, as demonstrated by recent events in California, are coming perilously close to closing off some of the most promising avenues for further progress in green gasoline and green diesel technologies. They should stop attempting to second-guess consumers and producers and instead allow the market to decide when and how to replace current car and truck technologies.

Based on Heartland Policy Study #95, "The Future of Automobility: Cars and Trucks in the 21st Century," by Joseph L. Bast and Jay Lehr, Ph.D. Copies are available from The Heartland Institute for $20 each. You can also download the full text, free of charge, in Adobe's PDF format; click here.

Copyright 2000 The Heartland Institute. Nothing in this Executive Summary should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute, nor as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation. Permission is hereby given to reprint or quote from this Executive Summary; please send tearsheets to The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street #903, Chicago, Illinois 60603.

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