Skip to content

Cars and Ethics

The cars we use are an ethical concern. Whether we’re driving down the road emitting harmful gasses that will linger for hundreds of years or not – matters. When I’m using my Taurus V-6 I’m guilty of fouling our earth a bit. When I use my electric bike instead, the overall impact of my ride is improved dramatically for my part of the “bit.”

Of course, what I or any single person does or doesn’t do matters very little to our collective predicament. Yet, a million unconscious acts of our energy use for the last few hundred years (especially recently when fossil-fuel engines do most of what we want) all contributed little bits to the eventual overheating we’re now enduring. Our little acts add up one way or the other. Individually and collectively, it’s an ethical issue.

Is it right or wrong to fart in the face of Mother Nature (not just as a metaphor, but an actuality of the faces of all living now and for the next few hundred years)? We’re caught in systems far beyond us, but we have some personal and political responsibility here.

About a third of the carbon pollution overheating our atmosphere comes from transportation. Cars make up most of that. Now that we can make and use electric cars such as pictured above we can begin to stop fouling our nest in the old way. Electrics are much cleaner than gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicles. As we build, buy, and use battery electrics, the predicament humanity has stumbled into will be partly ameliorated. It’s one of the solutions we need.

(Electrics are also quieter, quicker, and stronger than our former technologies. I’m from Pontiac, near Detroit, and grew up liking fast cars. The best and most expensive of the fossil fuel cars can’t come close to the acceleration, power, and elegant fun of the electrics.)

We don’t need shame and guilt for using regular cars, just some creative care in us for what they do.

I’ll post here some of what I posted on various forums regarding the ethics of cars.

Here’s what I posted at Cleantechnica (a site dedicated to technical innovations regarding climate, agriculture, social trends, and especially cars):

I had a 56 VW Bug. Loved it. Someone stole my front seats!

This was in that era when Detroit ignored the Bugs and wouldn’t admit people like small, simple, economical cars. Nor would they market them. Detroit went on to give us the Grand Torino, as it went into bankruptcy. (I wrote about it as a metaphor, “Edsel“)

At the New York Times I posted this to an Ezra Klein article on Possible Futures:

We need cars that get us and our stuff around conveniently, safely, and with less resource exhaustion.  Smaller cars do that well, but they’re vulnerable to big cars in accidents. (Plus can’t see around big cars and trucks, plus they take up more road and parking space, plus they pollute more.)   But defending oneself with an equally huge car exacerbates a car version of the arms race.  Should we all drive tanks to stay safe? 

There should be an exponentially greater cost for license and insurance for big cars, based on size and weight, to compensate for the menace they are.

Disincentives and incentives should encourage the usual use of simple, easy, human-scale transport, both individualized and collective, that meets our needs without threatening each other. 

As for what that would do to our industries – we’d stop building so many bigger-than-needed vehicles and build more adaptively adequate ones.  Save the big cars for high speeds and heavy loads.  Use smaller ones to meet most of our local frequent needs.     

Treehugger considers all sorts of appropriate technology, especially towards small houses. Here’s what I sent in regarding a cute, new Chinese electric car costing under $5000. Someone suggested the little car would be crashed by a bigger SUV:

Which is why the license and insurance fees should be exponentially higher for large cars based on their height, width, and weight. Otherwise, we create the car version of the arms race, everyone having to buy armored tanks to protect themselves.

I’d gladly use this affordable vehicle rather than my electric bike around town. Safer and out of the weather. It also doesn’t pollute as much, block the view, take up too much parking, and threaten everyone around with mass and weight as a big SUV would.

We just need lightweight vehicles that get us and a few packages around town, not vehicles that could haul 6 people and pull a boat over the pass at 70 MPH as our usual cars.

Finally, I’ll paste in here my entry back at Cleantechnica asking the question “Do we need so many cars?” The consideration had devolved into the old dispute between disliked cars and favored busses and trains. (I also go on to consider electric vehicles smaller than bikes and an idea towards making train tracks bi-directional.)

It isn’t either/or. My Taurus V-6 gathers cobwebs as I use my electric bike around town, gladly. But if I need to travel far or carry big objects, I can use it. It doesn’t wear out in the driveway. Rarely used, it could last decades. Meanwhile, I still get around town for far less cost of money to me or pollution to our environment.

I notice more and more rideables smaller than my bike. Lots of those one-wheel skateboards with one, fat electric wheel. I’ve seen teens using them to climb hills for fun. They can be easily carried into an office or a store. They’ll go about 15 or more miles.

Public transit makes sense only where lots of people travel the same route. Otherwise, they’re often a distance away from access (though those little one-wheel boards could become more common getting to them). I see too many big busses traveling around, mostly empty, often stopping. It helps a few, but I doubt those spread out from the main route will fill them. Not everyone lives in congested cities.

An idea worthy of some innovation would be to convert unused train tracks to two bi-directional lanes of traffic, each riding on a single rail. There’d have to be periodic turn-around places to get the north-running side over to the south-running side. Steel rails have such low rolling resistance, seems a potential redesign would have low energy needs for quiet, smooth, rapid transport.

Beyond what we drive I could go on to consider the ethics of how we drive around, road rage, etc. (I would also take on the silly law that makes us have to stop at all stop signs and red lights even when we can clearly see there is no one in the right-of-way to have to stop for. Oregon has changed the “You Must Always Stop” old law to “Stop If You Must” for bicycles. I legally roll through clear intersections. It is so easy and superior, smoother and it’s both more efficient and safer. Perhaps we’ll discover it could be applied to cars too.)

But that’s too frightening for some, so I’ll just leave it mentioned here. Thanks for reading this unusual take on the ethics of what and how we drive.

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Another innovative change of policy, which might help justify and balance the impact of imposing higher fees on heavy vehicles, would be to give them the right of way. It would save a lot of energy and material costs (brakes) if a truck were allowed to pass through an intersection without slowing, while pedestrians and bicyclists stop and wait. Current policies would be reversed, making low-energy travelers liable for getting in the way of the heavier rigs that serve greater numbers (and which would then pay for such privilege). And I like your idea to convert unused rails to 2-way… Read more »

Back To Top