The car was invented at the beginning of the 20th century to ensure fast and flexible transportation. At the time, the car was a symbol of status, and any talk of manmade climate change would have sounded far-fetched and even blasphemous. Today, the situation is different. Manmade climate change is broadly recognized, and we now know that the car produces about a third of all CO2 emissions.

By Søren Riis
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark
Member of the ISSP SAiNT working group

In Denmark, there are almost as many cars as adults – and in some other Western Countries the cars have outnumbered the adult population. While automobile engineers are still inventive, they cannot prevent increasing traffic congestion. In and around cities, drivers are routinely passed by cyclists. It is thus time to park the car, dump it, or thoroughly revise it.

According to the Danish Infrastructure Commission Report of 2008, Danes spend about 100,000 hours a day in traffic jams, for an annual earnings loss of €760 million. The commission forecasts the number of cars to rise 70% over the next 20 years. We face an expensive dilemma: We can either invest billions in new road construction or we can just forget billions in earnings. Neither option is economically or environmentally attractive. Thus our dilemma calls for new thinking and innovation.

Many innovations can circumvent or avoid this dilemma, and many of them will certainly be needed. Before long, we will see more cars reinvention 1running on biofuel, which is better for the environment. But these new cars do nothing to relieve congestion or infrastructure spending. Buses and trains can reduce the cost of new roads and relieve the burden of traffic on the environment, but if these technologies are to the same degree of mobility as cars, then the price is unaffordable. In lightly-populated areas, it is financially and environmentally better to use cars than to add buses and trains that run nearly empty. But a third way out of the dilemma exists, one that relieves congestion, is environment-friendly, and is virtually free.


The Car Pool

The innovation we will look at now has been available since the origin of the car and is based on its size and flexibility. This innovation does not necessarily affect the car’s design, its fuel or engine. What changes is how we use the car. It is a low-tech solution to the dilemma above, which is why it is virtually free. I’m talking about carpooling.

The idea of car-pooling is simple. The bottleneck is in our minds: The hardware works but the mental software is only just beginning to change. This change can take place in step with the “greening” of society. If two to four people drive the same route, and each drives a 1000kg vehicle, it harms the environment, adds to congestion and costs the individuals more. The simple solution to the dilemma has already been developed, since cars are designed to carry more than one person. The commuter tax deduction [a Danish tax break] is retained by all parties, no matter how many share the same ride. In other words, taxation in Denmark already supports the green car culture.

reinvention 2

If only a few people car-pool, it will obviously make little difference to the global environment balance sheet. But if many drivers change their behaviour, it can obviously have great benefits. If driver behaviour does not change, the prospects are bleak for the environment, congestion and the economy – and the future will probably look back at the car as a “vermin-technology.”

Until a few decades ago, we also thought that “throwing things away in the ocean” was not a problem – we believed the ocean could erase all traces. Scientists have now erased that belief. The currents of the Pacific Ocean have gathered and formed what scientists sometimes refer to as a “plastic soup” of waste that we have thrown out. This man-made garbage dump now covers an area larger than North America and threatens to destroy the ocean ecosystem.

Driving in our cars alone and not recycling our waste are analogous examples of a collectively-inappropriate, short-sighted behaviour. Even though few have heard of the “plastic soup”, a plastic bottle is still easier to see and is more tangible than car exhaust. One of the future’s great challenges is to raise awareness about what happens when individual behaviour and technological devices are reproduced by millions or even billions. Much new “green” technology will either not be able to be implemented or have a decisive effect if it is not developed in parallel with a sustainable consciousness. We need to build this awareness and culture at both the individual and collective levels.

Social tools for the future

Imagine that in a few years we have developed efficient electric cars, and that you can use GPS to see where these cars are and where they are going. Via a text message, you can arrange to be picked up at your door and dropped off at your destination. You may not have to buy a car at all, or at least not a second one. What if companies arranged carpools for their staff? They would not only help the environment and help the employee’s economy; they would also support employees’ social contacts and networks. Finally, though it might be difficult to implement, it is easy to imagine that most cars in the future will be rentals or “loaners.” In Denmark alone, two million cars sit idle most of the time. We could dispense with many of them if we just thought a little differently and coordinated car use in a smarter way.

reinvention 3We already have the technology needed to make these scenarios come true. The scenarios are all about reinventing the car with social tools that help affect our mental software: our values, traditions and objectives. Social cultural tools, such as education, public discussions and blogs, and incentives can help us make the car greener, and they might also lead to many other sustainable innovations throughout society. In order to bring this about, we need to learn to work more systematically with the social and asocial aspects embedded in our technologies and understand their potential. The companies and people who understand this will be role models of the future.

If we learn to reboot our mental software, we can pave the way for a truly comprehensive and sustainable green revolution. This revolution will turn our world upside down and change much that we now take for granted.