Driving away the devil under the hood: Towards 100% electric road transportation for Michigan

By Swapna Nelaballi

The devil under the hood = trouble in the air

It's hard to imagine modern life without sedans, SUVs, pickups, buses, or trucks. We have built our nation to be reliant on these  machines, from boosting our economy to helping us maintain our social connections. Yet, under their hoods, skulks a dangerous killer; an oil burning engine that poisons our air, water, and lungs. And, like other sinister beings, this killer preys on the most vulnerable; children, the elderly, the poor, and people of color, face the greatest risk from breathing air laden with soot, smog, and other toxic chemicals.

Motor vehicle pollution increases our risk of heart disease, asthma, impaired lung function, respiratory illness, cancer, and premature death. In 2015, ~385,000 premature deaths worldwide were caused by soot and smog from motor vehicle emissions. And 70% of these deaths occurred in four countries with the largest vehicle markets, including the US. Each year, more than 20,000 Americans die prematurely from tailpipe pollution, and millions more are affected by respiratory illnesses, lost work days, and lost school days.

Exhaust from tailpipes is also the leading source of climate pollution in the US. In 2020, 27% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US were produced by motor vehicles. Between 1990 & 2019, total GHG emissions from the transportation sector, surpassed emissions from all other sectors!

Michigan, the auto industry leader, has the highest auto production compared to any other state. Seventeen percent of production in the US happens here. Annually, a whopping 12 billion dollars are spent on research and development to support the auto industry. But, this growing transportation sector is also among the top sources of air pollution in Michigan, especially in Detroit and surrounding areas.

A significant number of Detroit residents live, and a large number of public schools are located, adjacent to choked roadways and large industries. Thus, while worrisome, it is no surprise that Detroit features on two separate lists of 25 most polluted US cities; those polluted by smog (#24) and those by soot (#16), as per the American Lung Association's recent ‘State of the Air’ report. The combined impact of pollution from point (industries) and mobile (vehicles) sources in this area, causes 721 premature deaths, 1500 hospitalizations, 500000 days of missed work, and more than 990,000 days of missed school, and costs the state 660 million dollars each year!

Tailpipe emissions from fuel burning vehicles. Photo source: AdobeStock_18298693
Tailpipe emissions from oil burning vehicles are detrimental to both human and environmental health. Photo source: AdobeStock_18298693

All is not lost

We can make a dent in these terrible numbers. For that, first, we must do away with the devil under the hood. We must wean off vehicles spewing toxic chemicals, to achieve Michigan’s Healthy Climate Plan (MIHCP) goals, for a greener future, where every child, grandparent, and Michigander can breathe clean air. One hundred percent electrification of road transport, powered by clean energy, is the best, most viable, and scalable solution to achieve this goal.

Accelerating the transition from industrial age tech to zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs), will positively impact every breath we take. EVs will help end tailpipe pollution and reduce - billions of tons of harmful emissions, disease burden, and health disparities, and will save hundreds of lives every year. High climate costs (amounting to trillions of dollars) from extracting and burning fossil fuels can also be avoided. Instead, transitioning to EVs can boost our economy, by creating new investment opportunities, and millions of job opportunities in manufacturing, developing and maintaining charging infrastructure, and other required services.

No wonder, consumers across the US are eager for this transition to happen. A 2019 survey of prospective buyers across regions and income groups, showed that 63% were interested in buying EVs. It is time for the auto industry to meet this demand. Some headway has been made with leading automakers committing to “all-electric line-ups” and increasing investments in developing new models of electric vehicles, many of which will be made here in Michigan.  But it is time to pick up the pace and Michigan, as the Motor City state, must lead the way.

We at the Ecology Center, in collaboration with MEVA and with support from other leading environmental and health organizations, are advocating for better EV-friendly policies in Michigan, and a speedy transition to EVs. We are encouraging the state to adopt a tangible goal for this transition i.e., achieve 100% EV sales by 2030, and develop a practical and comprehensive roadmap to help us get there. This is critical for Michigan to achieve its healthy climate goals and still maintain its position as the auto industry leader. Please visit our MI Clean Cars 2030 campaign page and join our fight for a healthier Michigan.