Academic Series: People are Living Longer, so Why Shouldn’t Our Cars?

By: Sydney Rushing

This week, GreenHawks Media presents its first Academic Series, a feature of written pieces from Miami students interested in sustainability. These students were all enrolled in Professor Scott Johnston’s IES 274 class, Introduction to the Environment and Sustainability, in the fall. See the bottom of each article to learn more about its author. Enjoy!

The Rise of the Automobile

 The average American will own up to 9.4 cars in his or her lifetime. This may come as a surprise to some, and for others it may be an understatement. For many Americans, cars are a source of pride and an indicator of affluence and success. Beginning in the 1950s, cars became more affordable for the typical American family and have since become a staple of the American Dream. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2017, there were 1.88 vehicles per American household. 

Personal vehicles have revolutionized transportation, allowing individuals to travel where they want, when they want to. Interstates and highways have connected people and places efficiently, just as GPS systems have simplified navigation. According to HISTORY, both of these advancements have led to an increase in car sales over time, and a subsequent increase in cars on the road. Americans rely on their personal vehicles as a primary source of transportation, which puts consumers at the mercy of manufacturers. Consumers have little control over what cars are being produced: they essentially must buy what is on the market or choose to go without.

The Cuban Example 

Cuba was once a hub for top-of-the line American cars, with thousands of vehicles already on the road by the early 1950s. In 1962, the United States placed an embargo on Cuba that prohibited all trade. This meant that Cuba would not receive any new cars from the U.S.,  so Cubans had to make do with what they had. Car mechanics quickly learned how to retrofit deteriorating cars and update their internal parts while still maintaining the outer shell. Today, vintage cars continue to coast down the streets of the capital, Havana, in seemingly perfect condition. Cuba demonstrates an important lesson to the United States, for their “old cars adapted to the new times and moved on.” Today, this approach is worth considering. In order to limit the amount of materials wasted manufacturing new cars, vehicles could be designed in a way that allows for replacement of internal parts and implementation of new technologies while still maintaining the same external shell.

Turning Vehicles into Lifelong Investments 

In recent years, the auto industry has shifted its focus towards the production of more environmentally conscious ‘green vehicles.’ Such advancements include better fuel economy, investing in electric cars and the sourcing and implementation of more sustainable materials. Still, issues endure. When a car’s life cycle ends, it is taken to the junkyard, where “plastics, toxic battery acids, and other products may stay in the environment.” Rather than continuing to produce new cars each year, the solution may lie in maintaining those already in use. 

Currently, cars have a relatively short lifespan, as their health and value depreciate quickly. Cars only last a fraction of the time people need them. According to CNBC, “On average, new buyers hold onto their vehicle for 6.5 years,” and buyers of used vehicles hold onto their cars for an average of 5.3 years. The materials and energy used to produce, transport and dispose of vehicles produces unnecessary waste and is not sustainable. Consumers, as well as car manufacturers, must begin to view vehicles as a lifelong investment rather than a disposable product in order to reduce the clear impact cars have on the environment. 

An Informed Consumer 

 The appeal of buying new rather than maintaining what we already have can be attributed to uninformed consumers and car manufacturers who design purely for profit. Currently, consumers have little control over what cars are being produced or where vehicles go after they are no longer usable. It is up to consumers to demand change, specifically change that results in longer lasting and more sustainable cars. National Geographic estimates that “About three-quarters of today’s average car, including the bulk of a steel frame, can be recycled,” yet many junkyards fail to do so because they are not being held accountable.

The question now becomes: what are we designing cars for? Simple transportation? Looks? Speed? Sustainability? Innovative thinkers must work together to create a vehicle model that addresses these issues and is welcomed by all parties. Because transportation by way of personal vehicle is here to stay, it is critical that manufacturers take a new approach and begin designing ‘forever cars’ for consumers. 


Sydney Rushing is currently a sophomore at Miami University. She is from Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is an architecture student and loves that she gets to be creative in her major every day. Recently, Sydney has become more interested in the intersection between design and sustainability and how the two might inform one another. She is a member of the Chi Omega sorority and the American Institute of Architecture Students, a professional club on campus. One of Sydney’s favorite places in Oxford is Kofenya: you can pretty much find her there every Saturday sipping a latte and doing homework. She feels so lucky to be a student at Miami and is grateful for all of the wonderful friendships and opportunities it has given her.


Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay

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