99% Undesigned (but still evil)

Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: You may not want to waste energy or burn fossil fuels, but the deck is stacked against you.
Lisa Margonelli (LM): Everything is designed to just use more and more fuel.
RM: And as you’ll see, Lisa Margonelli argues that “designed” might not be the right word, but let’s just say “designed” for now.
LM: My name is Lisa Margonelli and I wrote a book called Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.
RM: First, a metaphor. We are on a tugboat.
LM: A couple months ago I was on a tugboat race and we were looking at an old tugboat from when they used to be powered by coal. And it was beautiful. It was shaped like a canoe on the bottom.
RM: And the house on top was rounded and aerodynamic.
LM: Just like it is in the Popeye cartoons. It was gorgeous. It was all very streamlined to slip through the water and the air on top.
RM: But there’s also a newer diesel tugboat.
LM: And the hull is relatively square-ish. I mean it’s shaped to go through the water, but things are not scooped the way they were in the other one. And the top is just straight, flat pieces of steel. They don’t even bother to shape them. They just skimp on all the corners. And the reason is is that when you have a coal-fired tugboat, every bit of coal that you have to put on that tugboat has to convert to power, and you want to reduce the amount of extra fuel that you need to have there. With diesel fuel, it’s very easy, it’s very plentiful now, it’s much easier to just design the tugboat to use more fuel, to waste fuel essentially than to shape the steel and design that tugboat to use less fuel. So fuel is our expendable in our economy right now.
RM: And the whole world is designed as a big diesel, square-bottomed tugboat.
LM: The biggest waste of energy is the whole system.
RM: And the most wasteful component of that whole system in the US is the way we drive to and from work.
LM: The whole process of selling mortgages and selling houses over the last fifteen years or so is based on this concept of drive til you qualify. So you drove as far out into the countryside as you could stand, to the place where you could get a decent rate on a mortgage and a house with a low enough down payment that you could make that payment and at the same time you would get more square footage in your house. And what supported that was that you were going to drive further to get into the city to do your job. And then what supported that was that there were discounts on really big cars. So if you had been making that trip in a really small car you might have felt a little unsafe, but you could buy this like palatial car at a great discount.
RM: And those big cars had horrible gas mileage, but that’s not all. Everything along the way asks to burn more gas.
LM: Just stopping at a stop light uses an enormous amount of energy.
RM: But it’s not just the obstacles. Even barreling down the highway at top speed is a problem.
LM: Cars were tuned to be most efficient around 55 to 60.
RM: That’s the speed the government used to test for fuel efficiency.
LM: So they were essentially designed to be less efficient at the speeds we really drive them because we really drive around 65 to 70.
RM: It’s as if some evil genius designed a system so that we will waste gasoline.
LM: How evil is this?
RM: Yeah.
LM: It’s much more banal than evil. If someone sat down to consciously design this thing, I don’t know that they could do such a good job of making a mess of things.
RM: It’s the tyranny of the lack of design. That tragedy of building a bad idea on a thoughtless notion on careless plan
LM: Another dumb thing piles on to another dumb thing and pretty soon we’ve got just a huge tangle of dumb. All based on buying gasoline fairly cheaply.
RM: And speaking of buying gasoline cheaply, there is something designed- actually designed- to make you more comfortable with all of this when you buy gas.
LM: We don’t like to be in gas stations, we feel like they’re dangerous and we don’t like to be paying money for gasoline to the oil companies. And we always feel that gas is too expensive no matter what the price is. So gas pumps had been specifically designed to sort of diffuse that anger. So they did some market research and they found that people have warm feelings towards ATM machines and they had bad feelings toward gas pumps. So they re-designed the gas pumps to look a little more like ATM machines so you felt like you were having sort of an intimate, warm experience when you were at the gas pump, as opposed to thinking about hating the oil companies.
RM: Because we want an experience in tune with our values. Even if what we’re doing isn’t.
RM: 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org

Comments (1)


  1. Lanie Hei

    2:42: Lisa mentions that cars are tuned to be most efficient around 55 to 60 mph. The National Maximum Speed Law (see below)
    was created as a result of the oil shortages due to the oil embargo. At the time, car’s engines were most efficient at that speed, and so the law was put in place to conserve fuel and keep costs on gas from going through the roof.

    You state that cars were actually “tuned” to be most efficient at 55-60, and that it was a deliberate act to waste gas due to the speed that most Americans would like to drive on the highway at, but I believe that that is just the way that most gas engines work (or at least worked at the time) to account for maximum efficiency with both highway and city driving. Please let me know if I’m incorrect, and what sources you have supporting your data.

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