The car is the star. That’s been true for well over a century—unrivaled staying power for an industrial-age, pistons-and-brute-force machine in an era so dominated by silicon and software. Cars conquered the daily culture of American life back when top hats and child labor were in vogue, and well ahead of such other innovations as radio, plastic, refrigerators, the electrical grid, and women’s suffrage.
A big part of why they’ve stuck around is that they are the epitome of convenience. That’s the allure and the promise that’s kept drivers hooked, dating all the way back to the versatile, do-everything Ford Model T. Convenience (some might call it freedom) is not a selling point to be easily dismissed—this trusty conveyance, always there, always ready, on no schedule but its owner’s. Buses can’t do that. Trains can’t do that. Even Uber makes riders wait.
But convenience, along with American history, culture, rituals, and man-machine affection, hide the true cost and nature of cars. And what is that nature? Simply this: In almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.
What are the failings of cars? First and foremost, they are profligate wasters of money and fuel: More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline is squandered by the inherent inefficiencies of the modern internal combustion engine. No part of daily life wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile. While burning through all that fuel, cars and trucks spew toxins and particulate waste into the atmosphere that induce cancer, lung disease, and asthma. These emissions measurably decrease longevity—not by a matter of days, but years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that 53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution, losing 10 years of life on average compared to their lifespans in the absence of tailpipe emissions.