We Should Encourage People to Drive Less

Incentives for buying electric cars always felt a bit weird to me and I never thought through why. I finally thought through it this week and settled on what gives me that feeling.
me while talking through this with a younger coworker


Pollution from vehicles is terrible. Electric cars appear to lower this pollution. I'm not arguing that gas-powered vehicles are better than electric vehicles or that electric vehicles are not an improvement.


We currently emit way too much CO2. We need to greatly reduce our emissions and actually get to below zero emissions, and we need to do it in the very near future. While electric cars emit less overall than an equivalent gas-powered car, they still emit something.

Further, emissions don't just come from the car production and recharging of the batteries. Things like mining of materials and road maintenance also result in more emissions.

A projection that I often see is that we'll double the number of cars on the road and total miles driven by 2040. Since electric cars likely emit roughly 50% of what a gas-powered car emits (UCS link above), we wouldn't actually be in a much better position. Even if we made them ultra-clean and sourced them with solar so that the emissions were 15-25% of a gas-powered car, the total emissions would still be roughly 30-50% of current annual ones. I've already posted detailed info on why that's not sufficient.

Another idea I often see is that we'll have self-driving cars that act like Uber drivers and go around picking everyone up as needed. While that could theoretically reduce manufacturing emissions as fewer people would need cars, it would greatly increase energy used for driving and road maintenance, so it's unclear if it would actually help anything.

Finally, we need to rapidly switch to nuclear, wind, and solar for electricity production. We will almost certainly not do that in time. We will already have to increase supply dramatically for air conditioning. It seems likely that we will further increase it for water supplies. Additional strains on the grid from electric cars can make that harder. This can be mitigated to some degree by charging in off-peak hours and using car batteries themselves as backups to power during peak hours. The energy they use has to come from somewhere though, so this can't be completely discounted as an issue.

Basically, my gut dislike of the push for us to 'just switch to electric cars' is that it perpetuates the myth that we can maintain our current lifestyles, keep growing, and be ok as long as people use solar and drive electric cars. We can't. Electric cars make many people incorrectly think that we can, and I fear that it will result in little changing.

Instead, we should be encouraging people to drive less and to use lightweight, electric vehicles when they do. There are many ways to do this that I would prefer that we switch to. Some examples:
  • roll out a realistic carbon tax; it's unclear exactly how much it should cost, but starting small (e.g., $35/ton) and increasing the cost each year (e.g., by $10/ton each year) seems reasonable
  • incentivize telecommuting and/or 4-day work weeks
  • tax miles driven; I've thought least about this, but this could be levied when cars go in for annual inspections in areas that require that. It's the first idea that came to mind to directly incentivize shortening your commute, biking, telecommuting, and using mass-transit
Much smarter people than me should have better ideas for how to do this. However, the general idea holds I think. Instead of incentives for switching to electric cars and doing everything else like we do now, we should also strongly encourage people to drive less overall.

The only real counter I've heard to this is https://www.reddit.com/r/pavetheearth/.

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