For the last 100 years, virtually every automobile was an internal combustion vehicle (ICV) powered by either gasoline or diesel and mostly made from steel. Even as the ICV was identified as a source of serious environmental impact, it continued to outcompete others, arguably more environmentally benign, transportation modes. Banning lead from gasoline, requiring catalytic converters, and increasing powertrain efficiency allowed the ICV to respond to environmental criticism and continue its dominance over other transportation technologies. Today, well over one billion ICVs are in use worldwide. Since the turn of the last century, however, this dominance is beginning to be contested, not so much from other transportation modes but from alternative automotive designs and fuels, such as biofuels, lightweight materials, and fuel cell, hybrid, and battery electric powertrains. All of these alternatives are meant to decrease the environmental impacts of cars, but in all cases there is concern about trade-offs, unintended consequences, and regrettable substitutions. An industrial ecology perspective is necessary to determine the extent to which the emerging automotive technologies can genuinely reduce rather than simply shift the environmental impacts of automobiles.


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