Approximately 90 percent of the environmental impact associated with motor vehicles occurs as they’re being driven. Effects from the manufacturing of cars and the extraction and transport of fuel account for the rest.
Car Production Pollution
Making cars involves processes (like metal fabrication) and materials (like paints and solvents) that emit a variety of pollutants. Some degree of pollution is associated with every single auto component, from the car body and engine to the copper wiring and lead in batteries. Much of the pollution is due to energy consumption, air pollution, and releases of toxic substances when automobiles are manufactured and distributed.
For gasoline and diesel, the product lifecycle begins at the oil well and ends when the fuel is burned in the engine. Many studies, evaluating automobile fuel efficiency and emissions, refer to this as the “well-to-wheel” cycle.
Getting the oil out of the ground lays waste to many fragile ecosystems, from tropical rain forests in South America and deserts in the Middle East to the fragile arctic coastal plains of Alaska. Millions of gallons of oil are spilled every year, most often as unreported small spills in oceans, coastal waterways, bays, and rivers.
Pollution related to getting the oil from the well to the refinery and finally to your gas tank is often called upstream emissions. Oil refineries emit a long list of toxins, creating health problems, especially for nearby residents. For some pollutants, such as hydrocarbon and some particulate matter, the upstream emissions for an average vehicle are twice as much as the tailpipe emissions.
Better Fuel Efficiency and Lighter Weight Cars
A smaller, lighter car requires fewer materials to produce and decreases the in-use emissions. In fact, driving lighter weight cars helps ease the environmental impact associated with every step of the car manufacturing process—without any proven reduction of the vehicle’s safety.