Monday, March 20, 2006


Question: is the availability of energy-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius a good thing, or a bad thing? It seems as if the answer should be pretty clear cut, right? The Prius gets 60mpg on the highway, 49 in the city, if I remember correctly. My father-in-law's Prius is sitting at 49.9 mpg right now, with mostly city driving. That's a damned sight better than most cars - our Honda Civic, which would once have been considered quite energy-efficient, gets ~34mpg on the highway, ~29 in the city.

So when we replace our Civic, we're probably going to buy a Prius, or something like it. We don't intend to replace our Civic until it's no fun for us to own it anymore, so we'll probably have used up most of its useful life. And unfortunately, much as we might wish otherwise, not replacing the Civic when it wears out is not an option. We have a need to be able to drive from time to time.

So it's a good trade, right? Instead of buying another Civic, which gets 34mpg, we'll buy a Prius, which gets 60mpg. Our energy footprint (at least for driving) is nearly cut in half. Well, you'd think this was a good thing, but there's a school of thought that says it's not.

The way the reasoning goes is that the reason that car manufacturers sell cars with high milage is so that they can bring their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) down. For every high-mileage car they sell, so the reasoning goes, they can sell a really low-mileage car to compensate. Or they can sell two medium-low-milage cars. So when I buy a Prius, thinking I'm saving energy, what's really happening is that I'm trading my energy savings against someone else' gluttony, for a net energy savings of zero.

This is a reasonable argument, and I can't really fault the people who make it, but it's essentially a pessimistic argument. The argument is generally presented as an argument in favor of raising CAFE standards. I'm all in favor of that. But the political climate doesn't seem to be there this year.

Anyway, let's do a little reductio ad absurdum. First of all, if it's true that I can't win by buying a more energy efficient car, I might as well buy a Hummer. It makes no difference, ultimately, right? Well, duh, of course it makes a difference: to me. I spend less money on gas. I consume less energy. If the averages don't work out, that's a shame, but it's still good for me, personally, to buy a Prius, because it benefits me, and it certainly does less harm than I would do if I bought a Hummer.

But there's another side to it. CAFE standards assume that there's no economic incentive to conserve energy. And that there's no societal incentive to appear not to be a complete glutton. But neither of these things is true. Even down here in Texas, the local paper has an article about how people who drive Hummers are increasingly being harrassed, and also that driving a Hummer, which was a very desirable thing three years ago, is now a clear marker of a person who is not part of the in crowd. And there's the $300/month spent on gas (which seems low, honestly), and the pain-in-the-neck factor. Apparently it's getting hard to sell gas guzzlers, for some reason. Reminds me of the seventies.

So in fact an optimist would hope that even though he or she bought a Prius, there might not be a buyer for the Hummer that would offset its better mileage. Even if not everybody buys a vehicle that's as efficient as the Prius, it might be the case that buying a Prius is good simply because the market is now demanding more efficient cars. It's a shame that some of the new hybrids that are coming out don't get the kind of mileage the Prius gets, but it's still a happy shift to see a Sport Utility Vehicle that gets mileage comparable to what our Civic gets.

I don't want to force a moral to this story down your throat. There are a lot of scary things happening in the world today, and global energy consumption and carbon pollution is one of the big scary things. It may be that the pessimistic view is right. But in fact, I think it's not.

So does that mean that if you want to save the world, you should buy a Prius? No. Being a consumer can't save the world. But to the extent that we are all stuck being consumers, we can at least consume less stupidly than we have been. And that is not impossible.


Blogger Jym said...

=v= My central concern is based on what we saw the last time the world was going to be saved by energy-efficient cars. There was a very temporary dip in energy consumption, but then people drove them greater distances, rationalizing that it was okay because their car was so good for the environment. This coincided with (and perhaps coenabled) and increase in sprawling suburban development.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 7:19:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

You mean the seventies? Yeah, I hear you. But at this point I think the only thing that's going to stop suburbanization is either people realizing that living in suburbs and exurbs sucks, or realizing that it's too expensive.

There is some evidence that people really don't like exurbs - when prices flattened and demand dropped in the Bay Area, people who could moved in from the exurbs, paying more money to shorten their commute. Nobody really *wants* a long commute - what people want is a place to live that satisfies their imagined needs.

And anyway, telecommuting is just as bad for infill development - look at me. I work hundreds of miles from the office.

I don't know what's going to happen with respect to gas prices and development in the next ten years, but I look forward to the number of Hummers on the road dropping.

The Prius isn't going to save the world, but I do think it's better than no Prius. Well, except for the whole silent running syndrome... :')

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 8:08:00 AM  

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