The Automobile, Part Two: What Would Jesus Drive?

February 9, 2003

By Michael Jessen

Add an eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not drive a sport utility vehicle (SUV) or a pickup.

While the popularity of these vehicle models may be peaking, the protests against them are picking up. The gas-guzzling SUV is labelled by authors, journalists, environmental associations, National Public Radio, and even religious groups as the "axle of evil."

The Detroit Project's ( commercials equate driving an SUV with financing terrorism and Keith Bradsher's book High and Mighty describes SUVs as "the world's most dangerous vehicles". When Tom and Ray -- the Car Talk ( guys on NPR -- suggested not everyone needed an SUV and urged people to "Live Larger, Drive Smaller," some respondents called the guys "intolerant fascists."

America's top highway safety regulator Jeffrey W. Runge recently argued that SUV rollovers and their easy destruction of passenger cars are of increasing concern to his agency. "These two issues," he said, "must be addressed because they account for a large and growing share of the safety problem."

Since last November, an interfaith alliance of religious leaders has demanded that the top three American automakers -- Ford, GM and Chrysler -- create cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. At the same time, these leaders are calling upon their congregations to weigh fuel efficiency more heavily when they purchase a car.

According to the religious leaders, the question, "What Would Jesus Drive?," is a question that all Christians should ponder seriously. The question became the focus of their advertising campaign for cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles and a great T-shirt slogan.

The "What Would Jesus Drive?" (WWJD) campaign ( was initiated by the Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine ( The Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign ( is a partnership between the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life ( and the Eco-Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches

A copy of the meticulously documented "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign discussion paper can be downloaded from The paper provides overwhelming evidence of the impact of automobiles on health, safety, peace, justice and national and economic security issues. It might even convince readers to give up the car altogether and switch to walking, hitchhiking, and public transportation.

While Jesus undoubtedly walked or rode a donkey in his day, there are pretty persuasive reasons why Jesus wouldn't drive any kind of vehicle if He were alive today.

Consider just these ten facts:  Automobiles emit one-quarter of all US greenhouse gases;  The US sends $200,000 overseas each minute ($60 billion per year) for foreign oil;  Americans spend 8 billion hours per year stuck in traffic;  The leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14 in New York City is pedestrian automobile accidents;  Every single day in the US, an average of 121 people are killed in car accidents (equivalent to a mid-size jet crashing every day and killing all passengers and crew);  Fossil fuel-burning vehicles of every type kill a million wild animals per week in the US;  The US highway system has already paved over an area equal to all the arable land in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania and requires maintenance costing over $200 million a day;  The surreptitious cost of the car culture totals nearly $464 billion a year in the US alone, much of that going to sustain a military presence in the Persian Gulf;  Eight million barrels of oil per day is combusted in US cars, about 450 gallons per person per year;  Cars create 7 billion pounds of unrecycled scrap and waste annually.

On the Canadian side of the border, Environment Canada says every one of the 15 million cars and light trucks on Canada's roads pumps over 4 tonnes of pollutants into the air we breathe every year. One-third of the carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activities comes from transportation, and these emissions contribute to climate change and impact the health of Canadians. Studies show that more than 5,000 premature deaths across Canada can be attributed to air pollution and transportation is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Canada.

Still our society is highly mobile and needs to get quickly from point A to point B. Notwithstanding US President George Bush's pledge of more money for fuel cell car research, industry experts say it will take at least a decade or two before a host of technological, economic and political barriers are overcome, permitting these hydrogen-powered, non-polluting vehicles to proliferate on North American highways.

According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (, there are vehicles available today that can radically curb North America's appetite for oil. Hybrids, vehicles that save gasoline by combining electric motors with internal combustion engines, were introduced in the late 1990's and are gaining popularity with both consumers and automakers. A great web site explaining how hybrid vehicles work is

The UCS report says America's cars and trucks can reach an average of 60 miles per gallon by the end of the next decade if automakers use the best hybrid vehicle technologies and mass produce them fleet-wide. The full 70-page text of A New Road: The Technology and Potential of Hybrid Vehicles is available online at

"The hybrid revolution is underway," says report author David Friedman, an engineer and Senior Analyst at UCS. "More than 50,000 Americans drive hybrid cars. But if hybrid vehicles are going to deliver their full promise, automakers must make wise choices as they apply both conventional and hybrid technology in their vehicles."

The new study is the first independent assessment of the cost and performance of hybrid vehicles for all 5 major car and truck classes. It found that all passenger vehicles can benefit from hybridization, but SUVs, pickups, and minivans show the greatest promise for improvement with the technology.

The study finds that the sticker price of full hybrids will be about $4,000 more than a conventional vehicle, but drivers will save nearly $5,500 on gasoline over the life of the vehicle.

While the city and state of New York ordered 300 Toyota Prius hybrids in April 2001, some jurisdictions in BC are just starting to try them out. Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell will be testing one of two Toyota Prius cars as the city seeks ways of finding a more environmentally friendly fleet. The City of North Vancouver has purchased a Honda Civic Hybrid for City Hall staff to use on city business during regular business hours.

In Nelson, Pacific Insight has manufactured daytime running lights and other electronic products for the automotive industry for almost 20 years. The company is now poised to become a major supplier of components for hybrid vehicles. Last year, the award-winning company garnered a contract from Ford to manufacture a small component for the Ford Escape hybrid electric vehicle.

"How well the market takes off is up to companies like us and manufacturers who can come up with vehicles that are friendly to the environment yet still allow people to carry on with their daily lives," company president and CEO Brad Smithson told the Nelson Daily News.

In the UCS report, the Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid ( are characterized as "mild" hybrids because they use a downsized engine along with an electric motor. A regenerative braking system, which enables the electric drive motor to assist the brakes, saves wasted energy.

The Toyota Prius ( in Canada and in the US) is defined as a "full" hybrid because it takes the additional step of using its electric motor and battery pack to drive the vehicle at low speeds with the conventional engine turned off, providing added fuel economy benefits.

The ultimate performance of a hybrid is not just determined by whether it is a mild or full hybrid. According to the UCS report, hybrids that use the best available conventional technology (e.g., more efficient engines and transmissions, and high-strength steel or aluminum components) will provide superior fuel economy and pollution performance. Hybrids that do not make the necessary conventional technology investments will fall short of what conventional technology can do alone.

"Automakers will waste money if they cut corners and slap weaker hybrid technology on today's average car or truck," said Friedman. "Ford's soon-to-be-released full hybrid SUV is a good first example of how the technology can improve a truck, but they can go further by incorporating better conventional technology as well."

"Over half of the nearly 20 million barrels of oil products the United States burns each day comes from other countries, including 500,000 barrels from Iraq," Friedman said. "Well-designed hybrids can reduce oil consumption and also bring environmental benefits by cutting heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks to below their 1990 levels."

The Union of Concerned Scientists says just six companies are responsible for over 90 percent of emissions from America's most polluting product, the automobile. The executive summary of the UCS report Automaker Rankings: The Environmental Performance of Car Companies can be found at

According to UCS, Honda is the cleanest car company by a large margin while Toyota is firmly in second place. Nissan, Ford, General Motors rank three to five, while DaimlerChrysler continues its last place ranking.

This latest ranking of the car companies (evaluating vehicles sold in the 2001 model year) found the average MY01 truck emitted 2.4 times more smog-forming pollution and 1.4 times more global warming gases than the average MY01 car. Companies with sales dominated by trucks (like DaimlerChrysler) are generally dirtier, but the report also found that high truck sales do not have to be an environmental liability. Both Nissan and Ford ranked above GM in the UCS analysis -- despite the fact that they sell more trucks than cars -- because their trucks have lower smog-forming emissions.

The report notes that policymakers have moved slowly to address both the global warming gas emissions and oil consumption of motor vehicles. "Loopholes persist in current rules that must immediately be closed, but new policies need to be put in place to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available through existing and future automotive technologies to improve the industry's environmental performance," states the report.

So perhaps, transportation is a moral issue as the WWJD campaign claims. Just as we are what we eat, we are what we drive. It may be time for a twelfth Commandment: Thou shalt drive a hybrid. At least, Jesus would probably be a willing passenger.

In The Automobile, Part Three, I'll deal with issues like idling and what drivers can do with their current vehicles to both improve performance and reduce environmental impacts.

RESOURCES - An excellent site for new information on hybrids is at Scroll down their news stories and you'll even find info on the van that runs on vegetable oil. For more information on cleaner cars and the action campaigns of a coalition of environmental groups, see The January 2003 issue of the Driving Forward newsletter can be accessed on the site and focuses on an analysis of the corporate carbon burdens of automakers. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has a web site about hybrids at Some information about its Green Book listing of vehicles is available free, but detailed info is only available for a fee. Natural Resources Canada has a free Fuel Consumption Guide for 2003 and information can be found at More information about hybrid electric vehicles can be found at The ctNOW web site at,0,5830.htmlstory?coll=hc-big-headlines-breaking has a story by Bill Heald with excellent links and graphics to the problems caused by SUVs. Some books about alternative fuel vehicles include Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future by Jim Motavalli; The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle by Michael Shnayerson; and Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World by Tom Koppel.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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