by Rich Cromwell · March 16, 2017
You likely recognize “catalytic converter” as words that describe a thing that resides somewhere in your car. Like normal people discussing a Johnson Rod, though, it’s safe to presume you have no idea what the catalytic converter actually does. Maybe you assume it does something good, an example of technological advancement that improves car performance.
The truth is a little different. Catalytic converters became common in the 1970s in response to Environmental Protection Agency regulations, although they weren’t mandated until 2010. The agency wanted to reduce emissions, and the catalytic converter does so, at least on the micro level. The converter takes regular exhaust, mixes it with excess gasoline sent in by the fuel pump so it can burn, and burns it, thus eliminating most pollutants. The result is “harmless” emissions. So far, so good.
It starts getting trickier when examining how we get the materials to make them. Catalytic converters, you see, are made in variety of ways, but all those ways include precious metals. You know how you get precious metals? By mining them from deep under the surface of the earth. This wholly objective article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for just one example, examines all the ways this kind of mining is abjectly horrible, including its carbon footprint. You didn’t think those precious metals emerge from the earth to form a catalytic converter on their own, did you?
Are you seeing how this works? To reduce the amount of pollutants that a single automobile produces, we consume more fossil fuels and exude more emissions to get to the precious metals necessary to produce the thing that reduces emissions. Also, catalytic converters break, are popular targets with thieves, and are rather expensive to replace, what with the precious metals and all, which means more mining, shipping, manufacturing, and driving.
Outsourcing Our Mental Capital
Such is the price of outsourcing our mental capital. When “we have to do something,” we often make stupid choices. Rather, the people we lackadaisically defer to on such matters make stupid choices, albeit in some sort of official capacity. That’s because in making those choices they do not defer to people with greater knowledge.
I learned what a catalytic converter does when I bought a car, my third such piece of gloriously engineered equipment. I was in the market for third-row seating to haul the extra kids who sometimes come home with us from various activities. Eventually I’ll figure out where they come from and how they end up in my car, but I digress. I also wanted performance. I did not want a preponderance of extraneous stuff like cameras or other “safety” features. Jeremy Clarkson, a fellow father of three, had a solution: the Volvo XC90.
Now I love this vehicle, but she’s 10 years old and, perhaps due to some stubbornness on my part, my mechanic is slowly rebuilding her from the inside out. Eventually she’ll be all new and I’ll call her Joan Rivers. In the meantime, I get periodic opportunities to talk to said mechanic.
While Joe thinks I understand much more about internal combustion engines and how cars work than I do, I do tend to learn things when we talk. He turned me on to the ridiculousness of the catalytic converter. Before he explained it to me, I was like you. I didn’t really know what it did and assumed it was something good. Now I know the truth and I can’t handle the truth, but that’s not all of it.
Now Let’s Talk about V8 Engines
Somewhere on the back of most vehicles or, failing that, in the owner’s manual, you can find a letter, probably V, followed by a number divisible by two or by four. It refers to the number of cylinders in your engine. Generally, cars have between four and eight, with the V6 and V8 being the go-to options for most vehicles that aren’t of the small sedan variety.
For this discussion, we only need to know the basics about cylinders. Inside them are pistons, and those pistons pump oil into the crankshaft. The more cylinders, the more pistons, the more power. But to generate and transfer that power to the wheels, it takes a little more fuel.
In the quest to improve fleet fuel economy, we’ve gone smaller and shifted toward the V6. Whereas the standard for greatness used to be the V8—the most American number of cylinders—these days we’re more about the V6. Now, the V6 is great if equipped with some sort of turbo, which can break, or if you drive like a grandma. If you drive like an actual human being, perhaps even hurtling down the interstate at speeds just a smidge above the posted limits, with the plain V6 you quickly discover you’re gonna need to mash down that gas pedal to pass.
Now guess what that does. If we’re talking about my wife’s current V6 or previous V6, it means her fuel economy was and is worse than mine, and she doesn’t drive as fast as I do. Your own mileage may vary.
Perhaps you don’t need a V8, particularly if your vehicle isn’t heavy or you hate America, but that’s for you to decide. It definitely shouldn’t be in the purview of those who supposedly represent us. To them, it’s simple: bigger engines consume more resources—in a vacuum—so they must be worse out in the wild. They incentivize auto manufacturers to use smaller engines, they test them in a vacuum and, voila, fuel economy is better. Success!
Then I get behind the wheel and ruin everything, but if you’re not driving 85 miles per hour, you’re not living. There are alternatives. Green ones, of course, but don’t go counting your savings just yet.
To Paraphrase Hetfield: ‘Cannot Throw Away the Battery’
I am not an expert on any of this, I just know more than the average bear. I’m also not writing policy regarding automobiles. That is being handled by those who probably know less than the average bear. That’s why we’re obsessed with “green” cars, and I’m not talking about Uncle Jimbo’s green 1976 Chevy Impala.
So we’re chasing the car that is fueled solely by the electricity that comes out of our walls. That electricity is apparently generated by magic, never coal, so battery-powered options would reduce cars’ carbon footprint and create a more sustainable future.
Of course, storing the amount of energy necessary to power an electric car requires a whole lot of batteries, plus other things. In Teslas, a vaunted electric car, one of the other things is a weird blue liquid. My mechanic referred to its batteries as “500-pound toxic waste dumps.” He then added, “And how do you dispose of them when they wear out, which they do.”
So other than the facts that most batteries are charged via coal and are difficult to dispose of when they wear out, they’re perfect. Perfectly overhyped, that is. As Rob Tracinski noted at RealClearFuture:
Sure, if you drive a Tesla, you never have to pay for gasoline. But the average person drives somewhere around 15,000 miles each year. At a fairly normal fuel efficiency of 25 miles to the gallon, that’s 600 gallons per year. At $3.00 a gallon (a little higher than today’s rate), that will cost you $1,800 per year. Which means you would have to drive your Tesla for about 30 years to make up for the premium you paid when you bought a $90,000 Model S rather than a $45,000 Lexus. But the Tesla battery isn’t going to last anywhere near that long, even if the rest of the car does.
In other words, as Tracinski notes, the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, pronouncements from various “experts” notwithstanding.
The Death of Expertise
When I go to my mechanic, I don’t need to know any of these things. I’m paying him to apply his expertise. That he shares some knowledge with me is just bonus and a chance for me to pretend like I know that a .05mm evap leak is a regular leak and a .06mm evap leak is a gross leak. Just like I’m pretending right now that those are the numbers, or even the measurements used, when Joe was telling me why my check engine light was on.
When I go to my mechanic, I don’t need to know any of these things. I’m paying him to apply his expertise.
In case you don’t know, an evap leak means bad emissions are escaping somewhere and not being routed through that catalytic converter. Your check engine light is the primary means of knowing you have an evap leak, although the system will also label a loose gas cap as a leak.
In my case, it now seems it wasn’t a leak nor a loose gas cap. I got a software update, there was no record of an evap leak, and the check engine light is dark. I’m sure it will come back on soon enough—that’s what check engine lights do—but for now I see a void where my trusty warning used to glow warmly.
There is no way I ever would’ve figured that out on my own. That’s why I go to the expert. That’s why he, in turn, goes to the experts who designed the car and continue amassing data to tweak and fix their original design. Washington DC’s approach to problem-solving is the opposite of that. Tom Nichols, first in article and then in book form, refers to this trend as “the death of expertise.”
This Is Why Bureaucrats Need Less Power
None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy, sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence,” even though most people aren’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented.
Then we get to a point where we’ve just always done something that way and somebody somewhere, probably a junior bureaucrat, decides it’s time to mandate that henceforth all cars will come equipped with catalytic converters. One set of experts applauds the decision because of the “evidence” while the other derides it for the same reason. All of us get the benefit of having a stupid part come standard our vehicles.
It’s stupid, really, but until we put our feet down and demand that Joe gets his say in Congress, it’s going to continue.
In themselves, none of these things affect our lives much. Sure, replacing a catalytic converter isn’t the best use of resources, but its existence doesn’t change our relationship with our vehicles. We can still mash the pedal, oblivious to the amount of emissions rolling out of our tailpipes. The cameras make it easier to not realize that parallel parking is about using your mirrors and not about turning your head around. The incessant bells that go off when you try to drive 35 feet without a seatbelt can die in a fire—they do affect us.
On the macro level, though, we get Leviathan intruding on our freedom without even bothering to talk to Joe first. We get catalytic converters and VW bullied for caring more about consumers than bureaucrats. We get a whole slew of unintended consequences arising from our elected laymen’s myopic focus on the trees rather than on the forests, which is supposedly what most of these decisions are supposed to save.
It’s stupid, really, but until we put our feet down and demand that Joe gets his say in Congress, it’s going to continue. The first step is simple. When we put our feet down, we do so on the accelerator, we slide into the right lane, and we pass the gaggle on autopilot to our left. Despite their efforts to slow us down, we still have some horsepower left to unleash as we take the lead.