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The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine

June 1, 2000

This study examines the sustainability of cars and trucks in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The authors find that private ownership of cars and trucks produces benefits that far exceed their costs to society.

Automobile engine

In his 1993 book, Earth in the Balance, then-Senator Al Gore wrote of automobiles, “We now know that their cumulative impact on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront.” He called for a “globally coordinated program to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five-year period.”

In the foreword to a new edition of Earth in the Balance released in 2000, Vice President Gore says he “was calling not for an end to the car industry but for new types of cars.” (p. xviii). But in the book itself, in the paragraph following the one with the now-infamous “mortal threat” line, Gore calls popular reliance on cars and trucks “an absurd state of affairs.” (p. 326) Gore, his book makes clear, dislikes cars, trucks, and the internal combustion engine.

Gore hasn’t changed his views over the past seven years. Also in the foreword to the new edition, Gore says of his call to eliminate the internal combustion engine, “I’m proud that I wrote those words in 1992, and I reaffirm them today.” (p. xxiv) Should he be proud of those words? Is the Vice President right to call for “eliminating the internal combustion engine” during the next 25 years? Is our reliance on cars and trucks truly “absurd”?

The purpose of this policy study is to examine the sustainability of cars and trucks in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Do impending shortages of gasoline justify restricting our freedom to travel and require a faster (government-subsidized) transition to alternative technologies than the marketplace will provide? Do tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks threaten to suffocate our cities? Will managing the environmental and social impacts of “sprawl” require encouraging (or even forcing) people to trade in their cars and trucks for train tickets, or to move closer to where they work?

Parts 1 and 2 survey the benefits and costs of automobility in the U.S. Although the benefits are many, the “dark side” of cars and trucks seems more widely discussed: traffic fatalities, congestion, air pollution, loss of farmland, and negative effects on cities and neighborhoods. These private and social costs are real, though often exaggerated.

Part 3 asks if cars, trucks, and conventionally fueled internal combustion engines represent sustainable technology. For example, when will we run out of fossil fuels? Shortages of other natural resources, trends in air quality, loss of farmland, and disposal and recycling of old cars and trucks are also popular concerns that we address.

Part 4 examines changes in automotive and truck technology expected to occur during the next 20 years. We describe the new generation of cleaner diesel and gasoline engines that are being sold today and the “hybrids” – cars and trucks with small electric engines paired with diesel-, gasoline-, or natural gas-fueled internal combustion engines – expected to emerge as their principal competitors in the next few years. We discuss why fuel cells and other alternatives to the internal combustion engine are unlikely to capture more than a small share of the automotive engine market in the foreseeable future, even in the year 2030.

Part 5 describes the public policy implications of the previous four sections. What does recent experience with regulating cars and trucks teach us about the best way to regulate them in the future? What policies are, or soon will be, obsolete and unnecessary? What new policies will be needed in light of expected technological changes? Part 6 presents a brief summary and conclusion.

The authors frequently use the word “automobility,” coined (we believe) by philosopher Loren E. Lomasky, to describe the autonomy or individual freedom made possible by mobility. The word is shorthand for the freedom of movement made possible by private ownership of automobiles and trucks.

Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast
Jay Lehr is an internationally renowned speaker, scientist, and author