Search the Site

Consuming More Energy in the Pursuit of Saving Energy

Next week, we’ll be putting out a Freakonomics Radio podcast called “The Cobra Effect.” Without spilling the details now, I’ll tell you that it’s about unintended consequences, the kind of stuff that happens when clever-seeming incentives are let loose on an even cleverer public.

With that in mind, I was intrigued by the following e-mail from a reader named Eugene Kim:

My locality in Virginia has mandated biennial emissions inspections for automobiles before registrations can be renewed on those years. Since mine is expiring at the end of this month and it’s been two years since my last emissions test, I took my car to the service station this morning. They don’t seem to actually measure any emissions; they merely check the OBD computer for stored readings.

Here’s where it gets stupid. I don’t drive a lot. I take the train to work so I only drive on weekends, if that. (If you’re wondering why I even have a car, I bought it when I lived in the Midwest and needed it, but moved to the East Coast shortly thereafter and was upside-down on my loan. Plus I feel strangely vulnerable without a car.) Anyway, my car is idle a lot while the battery charge depletes slowly. And apparently, if it drops to a certain point the computer loses all those readings. I didn’t think it had gotten that low since the car hasn’t had any problems starting.

Accordingly, the guy at the service station tells me that my computer is not ready to return any results, and what I need to do is drive around for 150(!) miles so the computer can collect enough readings. So by driving around aimlessly, I’m wasting money, wasting gas, and polluting the environment more so I can comply with this law. My 2005 model car has 9,200 miles on it. Even if it’s the worst-polluting car in the world, how much damage am I doing with that little driving? There’s got to be a better way to penalize emissions, right?

First of all: any suggestions for how this emissions program can be improved?

Second: it would be churlish to suggest that a few stories here and there about the unintended consequences of right-minded legislation invalidate the idea of trying to better our world. But these recurring stories do suggest that when you pursue a goal, no matter how right-minded it may be, with the zeal of an advocate rather than the pragmatism of a skeptic, it’s easy to misfire.