OK, I'm sure you've seen the stats. There are 6 billion people on the face of the planet, and all of the demographic trends show it will hit 9 billion in the next 25 years. There are 700 million vehicles scurrying about on the world's roads, and that will top 1 billion by the end of the decade. If the rest of the world ever gets to the level of personal automobile ownership that we enjoy in the United States, we'll be trapped in gridlock from here to eternity.
It's not a pretty picture. We're already choking on emissions and shaking our fists at the bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling in front of us. Yet the situation is going to get worse. Much worse.
Studies show that even if the U.S. and Western Europe were to wave a magic wand and eliminate all their emissions, the growth in China, India and the rest of the developing world would triple today's pollution levels by 2025. You think people are up in arms about global warming now? Just wait. This is going to get ugly.
The solution is pretty obvious. We have to develop zero-emission cars and manufacture them in a way that is good for the environment. We have to invent the technology that enables us to manage traffic flow efficiently and effectively without a massive program to build more roads. And we have to make sure that we not only adopt this technology ASAP, but also transfer the know-how to the developing world so it doesn't replicate our mistakes.
That's why the U.S. position on the Kyoto Climate Treaty to reduce greenhouse gasses (GHGs) makes so much sense. The treaty requires the developed nations to reduce their GHGs to 10% under 1990 levels. The U.S. proposes to adopt a “pollution credit” system that would allow developed nations and corporations to buy credits from developing countries. We would continue to emit GHGs but would essentially pay off developing countries not to do so. Not only would this give the developed nations time to evolve out of their existing infrastructure, it would transfer huge amounts of wealth to the developing world so it could invest in the new green technology. It's an idea that is really starting to catch on with the developing countries.
Unfortunately, the European Union hates it. Those countries want to see us hurt. They want to see us experience the pain of immediately abandoning our freewheeling way of living and adopt a stingy, frugal lifestyle. They want to see us trade off economic growth in favor of lower GHGs. And that's why the latest round of climate treaty negotiations in Brussels collapsed. We just ain't gonna do it.
But what are we going to do? And how?
It's an issue that government, industry, academia and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are all starting to grapple with now. And their views are widely divergent. The NGOs are talking about limiting the use of the automobile, forcing people to walk and use mass transit. The government people are talking about charging motorists for each mile they drive, not by taxing each gallon of gas they buy. Academics are talking about redesigning cities and suburbs to create tight-knit communities instead of ever-expanding sprawl. The oil companies are talking about re-inventing themselves as energy companies and developing clean new fuels. And the automakers are preaching the short-term benefits of hybrids with the long-term promise of fuel cells.
Yet few people are raising the issue of addressing the entire automotive transportation system as a system. Numerous studies show there are immediate benefits to smoothing out the flow of traffic. If you can get away from stop-and-go driving and get cars to travel at a steady speed, the reduction in emissions and fuel consumption is enormous. What we need is the technology and planning to manage vehicular traffic on the same scale as air traffic control does with the nation's commercial jets. Come to think of it, this is where the Intelligent Highway people should be talking to the Sustainable Mobility people.
But even if we figure out what to do, how are we going to pay for it? Woe to anyone who proposes a new tax to the American taxpayer! Maybe you could sell the public on user-fees that are revenue-neutral, i.e., road taxes that are offset by reductions in the income tax. But one thing's for sure, it's going to take one hell of a sell job.
Of course this is something the auto industry used to be good at. Whether it was General Motors Corp.'s Motorama exhibits of the 1950s or Ford Motor Co.'s World's Fair Pavilion in the 1960s, they presented the public with a sparkling vision of what automotive transportation would offer in the future. Why not revive those displays? Why not whet the public's appetite for the products and services that sustainable mobility offers? Let's unveil it at the world's major auto shows. And let's get companies like Disney in there to make it fun.
There are enormous business opportunities for any company that jumps into this concept of sustainable mobility. There are enormous economic opportunities for any country that embraces it. I just wonder whether GM and Ford will play a leadership role with this issue, or if it will ever happen in the United States of America.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” and “American Driver” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.