The End of Meat. And Driving. And Football.

Americans are great at giving up things—in emergencies, anyway. Under World War II rationing plans, U.S. citizens cut way back on their use of gasoline, nylon stockings, coffee, sugar, and everything made of steel or rubber. In the 1970s, in response to the Middle East oil embargoes, the federal government imposed odd-even gasoline rationing in many areas and lowered the speed limit to 55 miles per hour. We survived.

But in the present day, we don’t show as much discipline. Despite decades of post-embargo talk about fuel efficiency and the dangers of dependence on foreign oil, for instance, U.S. demand for petroleum has increased by about 33 percent since 1970. It peaked in 2007 at 20.7 million barrels a day; only the Great Recession has slowed our consumption.

The right to a full tank of gas, cheaply purchased, is one of those givens of American culture that no politician dares to question. But I’m not a politician, and today I’m going to call for an end to three similar traditions that are at the very center of life for hundreds of millions of consumers.

These aren’t the kinds of opinions you’ll find in any campaign stump speech, or in any political party’s platform. They’re so completely at odds with our habits and expectations that you could rightly call them un-American. But with the data we’re getting thanks to modern science and technology, I don’t think we’ll be able to ignore the human and environmental costs of these three activities for much longer. It’s time to start acknowledging the facts—and investing in alternatives.

What are these three scourges? Driving. Eating meat. And football.

Robots on the Roads

First up, cars. They’re not going away. I don’t think we can or should abolish automobiles. I’m just saying humans should stop driving them.

We lose 30,000 to 40,000 Americans every year to motor vehicle crashes. Thankfully, the number has been going down lately thanks to safer cars, increased seat belt use, and campaigns against drunk driving. Fatalities peaked in 2005 at 43,510, and declined to 32,885 in 2010. That’s about 1.09 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

But 33,000 deaths per year is still a horrifying, wholly unacceptable figure. It’s more than four times the number of soldiers killed in the battle of Gettysburg, and more than five times the total U.S. fatalities in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If we lost even a tenth as many people in airplane crashes, the world fleet of passenger jets would be grounded until the problem was fixed.

Yet somehow, we’ve become inured to the outrageous riskiness of driving. If your rationale for taking this risk every day is that you’re a “good driver,” ask yourself whether you believe that everyone else is too. And then consider that only half of the people who died in traffic accidents in 2010 were behind the wheel. The rest were passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin pose with a Google robot car.

Google's robot car

Fortunately, a solution is on the way: robot cars. No one really suspected it until a few years ago, but it turns out that driving safely—which is mainly a matter of sensing the environment, avoiding obstacles, and obeying traffic laws—is a problem machines can handle. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have now traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in California and Nevada without causing a single accident. (A fender-bender involving a robotic Prius attracted some press coverage last month, but Google said that one of its employees was in manual control at the time.)

Ford and other automakers are now rushing to put more sensors and automated intelligence into consumer models, and they say there’s no technological barrier to building fully autonomous vehicles. Using a combination of cameras, radar, digital maps, street-view image databases, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, path-planning software, and other technologies that are already available, these cars would zip down the road in a coordinated way that would ease congestion, increase fuel efficiency, and drastically reduce accident rates.

The big barrier, of course, is consumer acceptance. In a nation where wheels are equated with freedom and getting a driver’s license is seen as a major rite of passage, will travelers give up control in exchange for safety? I’m not sure it should be a choice. In my view, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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