America is an Automobile Society! Buses, trucks, vans, SUV’s, cars and motorcycles are what move Americans in and around US cities. Just as the southern US was historically a Slave Society, every aspect of our daily lives are dependent upon or made possible by automobiles. These modern day tools provide required mobility and a declaration of class that is uniquely American. It would not be farfetched to think a second Civil War could ensue between environmentalist and automobile enthusiast – as a result of governments attempting to take away personal vehicles.
This quintessential, American love affair with the personal automobile has fueled significant environmental problems. Respiratory issues, urban blight, and tainted water supplies. Most importantly automobiles are causing poor air quality in cities. During the summer months, the morning news will spend a few seconds covering that day’s air quality outlook. There is typically an on screen scale of 1 – 10, and each meteorologist alerts viewers to that day’s air quality ranking. Populations with respiratory issues will be more or less affected because of that day’s air quality index.
An advisement for those people to act accordingly will likely follow. If you have ever pondered the causes of such news worthy air quality variations, we now have an answer. Experts say “your automobiles” (Arkansas). According to the EPA, in typical urban areas, cars, buses, trucks, and off-highway mobile sources such as construction vehicles and boats produce at least half of the Hydrocarbons and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) expelled into the air (EPA 2). These Hydrocarbons and Nitrogen Oxides are two of many chemicals and particulate matter that make up air pollution.
Although automobiles do not account for 100% of these Hydrocarbon and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions, there ranking as a 50% contributor is quite significant. Automobiles are in fact the largest single producer of air pollution causing chemicals and particles. The fact that automobiles are a large producer of air pollutants is not a new discovery. Legislation from the 1970’s confirms that environmentalist and lawmakers have long known about automobiles harming effects on air quality (EPA 2).
The Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1970 were an attempt to reign in and control the level of harmful pollutants released by the operation of automobiles. 1970’s CAAA were the first time automakers were required to control emissions on the vehicles they manufactured. Three very important emission control devices and methods directly resulted from this legislation. Air Injection, Exhaust Gas Recirculation and Catalytic Conversion; most notably of those devices is the Catalytic Converter.
Catalytic converters convert Hydrocarbons, Carbon Monoxide and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) in the exhaust of an internal combustion engine into less noxious substances buy using a platinum, palladium, or rhodium catalyst (Catalytic). These converters commonly referred to as “CATS” were first required by the CAAA and are among the most efficient reduction method of reducing Hydrocarbon, Carbon Monoxide, and NOx emissions. Full automotive use of catalytic converters on new vehicles was not complete until 1975 (EPA 3).
This full incorporation of devices such as the “CAT”, EGR valves, and Air Pumps was not a voluntary change, but also a result of Legislation. Preventing the further spread of blight in American cities was one of the CAAA’s unspoken goals and a motivating factor for lawmakers who enacted the legislation. Imagine soot covered buildings facades. Dark sky’s, foul odors and the over whelming dreary conditions of the Industrial Revolution era Europe. US cities with a large number of vehicles in the 1960s and 1970s were starting to resemble cities of old Europe.
Smog and soot covering once beautiful areas became a common backdrop of inner cities. Half a century of automotive proliferation into the house holds of America is the largest contributor of that urban blight (Blank). During this 1960’s and 1970’s time frame it would be common to see parking lots full of five to nine thousand pound sedans as much as 21 feet long (Holstein). Put into perspective it’s is the size of a present day large suv or pickup truck. V8 engines are required to move such heft at any decent speed.
With the exception of mufflers for sound suppression many of these large, poor fuel economy vehicles were completely without emission controls (EPA 2). Sharing those same parking lots were air quality’s second nemesis, commuters. Commuters are vehicles driven several miles on the Eisenhower Interstate system (Wiki). The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, started in 1956 is the back bone of a highway system 90% of all vehicles travel on (Wiki). The Interstate System allows high speed vehicular access to other connected places.
This combination of personal automobile and efficient road system created the commuter lifestyle. 42% of Americans live in a suburb and commute at least 15 miles to their work place. (Wiki) Maintaining the ability to enjoying resources and conveniences major population centers offer, but not having to live in that population center are a key attraction between Americans and their automobiles. The Commuter, Suburbs and Sprawl are all recognizable byproducts of the Interstate System.
The lesser known and more sinister by product of the Interstate System and its offspring “The Commuter, Suburb and Sprawl” is greater air pollution. A combination of high emission vehicles coupled with commuting into US cities has been and is still an additional motivating factor for emission control legislation. Today, issues with automobile pollution causing poor air quality persist despite many efforts to lessen its impact. Many people do not agree that Air pollution caused by vehicles is significant.
They argue that attempts have been made over the last four decades to curtail the damaging effects of the automobile on our air quality (EPA 1). Automobile fuel efficiency has increased dramatically from 1960’s stats. The average fuel economy of a motor vehicle operated on the road today is 25mpg this is a 100% increase from the 12mpg average of 1965 (EPA 2). Emissions control devices such as catalytic converters, egr valves and cylinder deactivation have greatly reduced emissions (EPA 2). The hybrid movement has also resulted in vehicles that significantly stretch the distance drivable on a gallon of fuel.
Honda’s original Insight, which achieves 70 mpg, is the greatest example of such (Holstein). Other automakers have joined the hybrid movement. Toyota Prius is the most popular hybrid vehicle in the US market (Holstein). Every domestic automaker also offers hybrid versions in many of the vehicles they sale. Technological growth in the auto industry has undoubtedly created tremendous improvements in the efficiency of each vehicle produced and driven today. One major issue remains and lessens the significance of those improvements.
In the past four decades automobile use has more than tripled (EPA 2). When factoring in a 50% emissions reduction we have gained zero ground because we still are 25% ahead of the base line. Between 1980 and 2010 hydrocarbon emissions have increased by blank 40% (EPA 2) this essentially negates all gains because we simply drive more. American driving growth has simply outpaced efficiency gains. Until Americans can learn to break the cycle of driving more and more miles each year a simple fact will remain. Our Automobiles are Causing Poor Air Quality.
Courtney from Study Moose
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