Don't believe the hype. The GM Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is a threat to those who care about livability, equality and the planet.
For more than three years, General Motors has been touting the Volt and its ability to run for 64 kilometres on electricity before switching to a gasoline engine. In January 2007, the Financial Times concluded that the Volt was designed to counter the “halo effect that Toyota gained from the Prius, which rivals the iPod as an iconic product.” In fact, the Volt was originally named the iCar. “I admit,” said former vice-chairman of GM Bob Lutz, “that it [the Volt] has a secondary benefit of helping to re-establish credibility in technology.”
The lure of technological advancement has always been part of the automobile’s formidable ideological prowess. Popular journals, magazines and other media regularly portray the automotive sector as a forerunner of innovation.
While automakers spend huge sums on R&D the mode of transport is inherently inefficient. These 3000-pound metal boxes carry on average one and a half people, approximately 300 pounds – a mere ten percent of the vehicle’s weight. At the same, the car’s appetite for space is insatiable. Requiring 300 sq feet for home storage, 300 sq feet for storage at destination, 600 sq feet while traveling and another 200 sq feet for repairs, servicing or sale, an automobile occupies about 1,400 sq feet altogether – more space than most apartments.
Buses, trains, streetcars, bikes as well as pedestrians (and just about every other animal, plant or mineral) use space and infrastructure more efficiently than personal cars, whether moving or at a standstill. At approximately four meters across, road lanes are about the same width of railroad tracks, yet rail carries twenty times the number of passengers.
Despite the environmental fanfare, the Volt’s electric battery merely relocates tailpipe pollution to the source: power stations. Yet over half of all US electricity comes from coal, which produces more carbon emissions and pollutants than regular oil. If the goal of the electric car is to limit global warming, using carbon based fuels is puzzling.
Even with alternative fuels or better fuel efficiency the private car will continue to be an ecological catastrophe. From steel and aluminum, to paint and rubber production, to automotive assembly, manufacturing an average automobile generates enormous pollution. A Summer 2007 study titled, From Dust to Dust, concluded that half the energy a car uses in its lifecycle is in the production and destruction phases. Growing awareness of these energy costs prompted Norway to make it nearly impossible for car companies to advertise as “green”, “clean” or “environmentally friendly” without proving that this was the case in every aspect of the lifecycle from production to emissions to recycling.
The basic point is this: there is no such thing as a green car. It is not sustainable for individuals to hop into a two, four or eight thousand pound metal box for mobility.
Beyond ecological costs, car hegemony has a slew of negative side effects. Auto travel leads to significantly higher rates of injury or death than other forms of transportation. Additionally, infrastructure designed for the car undermines walking and biking, which are vital elements of a healthy lifestyle.
An incredibly expensive form of transportation, the amount of time devoted to the car is immense. It’s been calculated that the average person in the U.S. works from January 1st to March 31st to pay for their automobile(s). April 1st has been declared auto freedom day; the day people begin earning money for food, board, clothing, education and the other necessities of life.
When the automobile serves as the primary mode of mass transit, the poorest are hardest hit. Low-income U.S. families spend over a third of their take home pay on transportation, twice the proportion of affluent families. The Volt, which starts at $41, 000, will not alter that. But, it will give a boost to the image consciousness. Since the dawn of the auto age, the car has been a conspicuous symbol of status in a hyper materialist world.
North America’s transportation system, based on individual ownership of vehicles, is inefficient, environmentally destructive and dominates cultural, economic, and political systems in a wide variety of negative ways. Will the Volt revolutionize transportation or will its smoke and mirrors reinforce the dominance of the private car?
It may be time to look beyond private automobility.
Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay to be published in early 2011. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler (@) hotmail.com Yves Engler's most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid.