Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

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Washington Auto Show 2022: Public Policy Day

Word count: 1240 (~7 minutes), Last modified: Sat, 29 Jan 2022 19:50:33 GMT

Buses, bikes, and cars, oh my!

Last week, I attended the public policy conference at the Washington Auto Show. Front and center were a number of new electrified vehicles, amid a vision of a sustainable, just world of tomorrow, and not unlike the cities of the future imagined by Tomorrowland, world's fairs, and film alike, this vision centers the private automobile. One question remains unanswered by the conference's many and varied speakers, however; is a car-centric vision the right one to take?

Transportation equity

Matthew Nelson of Electrify America talks about what he rightly calls an equity issue: 50% of cars don’t have access to electricity at night.

Given that the current user model of EVs appears to primarily rely on overnight charging in the garage of one's single family detached dwelling, the equity issue is clear; by this use case, a massive proportion of car owners simply cannot get an EV. Therefore, to achieve ideal market penetration, we need public charging, for the 50% of cars that won't get charged overnight. Nelson outlined the importance of rapid charging tech to make public charging practical; it is of course absurd to expect someone to hook their car up at the gas station for eight hours straight. The 50% of cars without access to overnight electricity are therefore demographically more likely to use public charging, and are therefore more likely to use rapid charging rather than slower overnight charging. Thusly, there is still a long-term effect on equity; keeping a Li-ion battery “topped up” depletes it less than recharging it most of the way, but wouldn’t obligate public charging users be motivated to use the service as infrequently as possible, and spend the least time doing it, maximizing the damage to their batteries? This means that charging infrastructure alone may not be enough to engineer out the equity issues inherent to EVs. In the hypothetical fast-charging future, those who are forced to use public fast-charging all the time will see their batteries degrade more rapidly. But then again, given that more expensive cars tend to have better safety features, and also tend to be larger and heavier, thusly balancing deadly crash incompatibilities in their favor, isn't inequity baked into cars from the start?

Environmental justice

Gina McCarthy, White House climate advisor, spoke about the potential of EVs to improve sustainability and environmental justice.

EVs have good potential for environmental justice. Reduction of tailpipe emissions means better air and water quality. It is true that point source emissions are often easier to locate, regulate, and measure than distributed emissions, but what about tire and brake particulates? Emissions analytics and Green Car Reports touch on this. Tire and brake particulates are not only very environmentally harmful, they are also very prevalent, and may be emitted in equal or greater quantities than tailpipe particulates. While switching to only EVs might significantly decrease tailpipe emissions, tire particulate emissions would likely be either weakly affected or might even increase, as EVs tend to be heavier than gas cars. Therefore, minimizing the number of vehicle miles traveled is crucial to address the questions of air and water quality as they pertain to road transportation. However, these pollution sources were neglected entirely in McCarthy's talk, which focused instead on tailpipe emissions. This is not all bad; point source pollution like powerplants is typically easier to measure, regulate, and control. However, McCarthy's vision of a universal switch to EV technology seems to rely on assumptions about the pricing of EVs and availability of raw materials that seem wildly optimistic at best. However, this speech was made in a venue that did not solely center cars; the stage was flanked by two new battery-electric buses, from Alexandria's DASH and WMATA. Currently, transit buses in the US don't make the most of their efficiency, given low ridership; however, more efficient electric drivetrains have the potential to help in this regard. However, the reluctance to adopt trackless trolley technology, which is currently performing with impressive reliability and capability in several US cities, is confusing and concerning. In addition, trolleybuses enjoy a significant cost advantage to battery buses, in addition to using lighter vehicles that can accelerate and brake faster and deteriorate roads more slowly, owing to the fact that they carry either no traction battery at all, or small battery packs to enable brief stints off of the overhead line. If WMATA is interested in affordably and economically switching to a reliable zero-emission fleet, they should look to the proven trolleybus networks of Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dayton.

Urban mobility

Arcimoto's Dilip Sundaram spoke on his company's "fun utility vehicle" electric motorcycles, and the place of nontraditional motor vehicles in the city of the future.

Arcimoto claims that their "fun utility vehicle" electric motorcycle vehicles are a solution to urban gridlock, traffic, and fuel waste. But as motor vehicles, Arcimoto's electric motorcycles still suffer from many of the same problems as cars. Despite their smaller footprint, they are still legally required to use the same lane width as full sized cars, and cannot take advantage of more space-efficient bike infrastructure like last-mile cargo bikes can, which also gives said bikes a notable speed advantage in last-mile situations. Arcimoto's vehicles are unlikely to provide a revolutionary improvement in urban gridlock, due to their space requirements. On the bright side, however, they are significantly smaller and lighter than conventional electric cars and vans, meaning that they will consume less energy in general, damage road surfaces less, and will likely even exhibit less tire and brake particulate emissions compared to conventional vehicles. There is certainly a case to be made for Arcimoto's products, but it may not be quite the revolution they seem to be hoping for, and convincing people to trade their comfortable, enclosed buses and cars for non-weatherproofed electric motorcycles, three wheels or no, might be tricky.


The public policy discussion that happened felt fundamentally limited, but in a sense, it had to. Given that this is an auto show, not a transportation expo, the solution has already been found: Selling more cars. More cars, whose technology and infrastructure are funded by the state, whose procurement is funded by rapidly ballooning loan terms, and whose operation is undertaken by passengers, or the nebulous and ever-evasive self driving technology that seems to have been just around the corner for some decades now. Transportation equity could be solved by better zoning policy to concentrate dwellings in more accessible locations, and more widespread and affordable public transit, that not only saves its users money, but also their lives; transit buses and trains are many times safer than driving. Environmental justice could be improved by increased reliance on zero-emission transit technologies that also minimize tire particulate emissions. Urban mobility goes hand in hand with the safety of pedestrians in the urban environment; without the ability to cross the street safely, how can we consider our cities to be accessible places? Better bike infrastructure and the deprioritization of the automobile in the urban core is the most logical choice. But in all these regards, the solution has already been decided, and it is to sell more cars, which will eventually all be electric, after an adoption period of undefined and likely extensive duration. Is it just me, or is it poor engineering practice to pick a solution first, and then make up a problem to answer with it?