The Other Big Reason To Decarbonize The Way We Drive

Tailpipe emissions are gnarly, awful, health-wrecking pollution — dumped right into our neighborhoods

Clive Thompson
5 min readApr 30


Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash

When we talk about the need to electrify vehicles, it’s often posed as a very global issue. We need to power cars and trucks with renewable energy so we can curtail greenhouse gases, right?

But there’s another big reason to electrify the way we drive, and it’s not global. It’s super local:

Vehicle exhaust.

It is gnarly, nasty stuff, and it can seriously mess with our health.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the last four days, because I’ve begun cycling cross-country, from Brooklyn to the Pacific coast. I’m spending six or seven hours a day riding (most often) alongside cars and trucks. So I’m getting a very close-up, intimate sample of the pollution that tailpipes dump into our local environments.

Every time I stop at a light in a town, I get stewed in an acrid cloud of exhaust. Even while riding down bucolic country roads, if several vehicles in a row drive by, the lovely field-scented air becomes temporarily clotted with fumes.

Your body keeps the score on this. When I was passing through New Jersey down to Philadelphia, my eyes were stinging and tears were streaming down my cheeks. I wear protective sunglasses while I ride, but they can’t keep everything out.

These problems aren’t as noticeable to car drivers. When I’m driving around in my 2010 Hyundai, I generally don’t notice exhaust at all. Why would I? Most often I’ve got the windows rolled up.

This is why I’ve often called cars “rolling buckets of externalities”: They impose all manner of danger and inconvenience on the people outside the vehicle, while frequently insulating the drivers themselves from noticing any ill effects. When I honk my horn, I only hear a quiet beep from inside my insulated cocoon — but any pedestrian nearby hears a loud blast, jumping out of their skin. I am in a blissful bubble.

Outside that bubble, though? Wow, vehicle exhaust is a loathsome mess. It’s where the problems of fossil fuels first become immediately felt. When emissions are pouring out…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.