"The Green Lantern" talks to readers about hybrids vs. used cars.

"The Green Lantern" talks to readers about hybrids vs. used cars.

"The Green Lantern" talks to readers about hybrids vs. used cars.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 10 2008 1:30 PM

Are Hybrids All Hype?

Brendan I. Koerner takes readers' questions about buying a new fuel-efficient car vs. a used gas-guzzler.

Slate columnist Brendan I. Koerner was online July 10 at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about his recent column pitting the energy-efficiency of buying a new hybrid vehicle vs. a used gas-guzzler. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Brendan Koerner: Hey, good morning to all. Thanks a mil for sitting in on this Slate "Green Lantern" chat. Let's get moving.

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New York: I've been waiting for the next generation of hybrids for about five years now, and they always have seemed to be two years away. The Prius's underlying technology basically hasn't improved since it was introduced. How much longer do we have to wait?

Brendan Koerner: Great question. I know that Toyota has a plug-in Prius in the works, and that it was initially promised for '09. But I think that might have been delayed. I think part of the problem may be the sheer complexity of the hybrid powertrain—Toyota will have to make huge investments to do meaningful upgrades. And they won't do that until they're convinced that there's money to be made, and fast.

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Chantilly, Va.: Good article about the used car vs. new Prius issue. However, you left out the main point of buying a Prius—namely, if you buy your car used, it probably is not obvious to the other people on the road, so they won't be able to tell how much better than them you are. If you have a Prius, though, it stands out, so everyone will know that you're superior to them. There's a reason the non-Prius hybrids don't sell well—it's harder for other people to tell that you're driving a hybrid.

Brendan Koerner: A lot of people wrote in with points along these lines. There's a general assumption that Prius owners are smug and self-satisfied, and want strangers to know how green they are. Is that true? I don't own a Prius (or any car, for that matter, as I live in New York), so I can't really say. But that strikes me as a really cynical viewpoint. Could it be that people buy Priuses because they simply want to save on gas? Or, perhaps, actually want to do something (however small) to aid the environment? I'd like to hear from some Prius owners about this.

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Burbank, Calif.: What is some of the progress being made in biofuels beyond ethanol? Why aren't we looking more at things like cane sugar and algae?

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Brendan Koerner: Corn-based ethanol a real hot-potato issue nowadays, especially in light of recent claims that it's a net energy waster when everything is factored in. (Plus there was a recent study asserting that current biofuels production, most of it from corn, is responsible for a lot of the recent run-up in global food prices.) Corn is obviously a huge crop in the U.S., far bigger than either cane sugar or algae, so there are a lot of political considerations mixed in. Other countries, notably Brazil, are doing some promising things with sugar-based ethanol. But frankly, I need to see more data before I believe that such biofuels are viable at present.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: We need to replace the heating unit on our in ground spa. Which heater is most efficient, and does converting to salt water, rather than chlorine, make any sense environmentally?

Brendan Koerner: There is a good amount of transparency on heating units, so you should be able to just read the specs on the competing units. Are there any certified EnergyStar options? I'm tempted to recommend that you investigate solar panels, but I still have questions about their net impact, given the manufacturing cost. I hope to tackle that issue soon, so stay tuned.

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I'll confess that I don't know anything about salt water vs. chlorine—sorry. But a salt-water soak sounds oddly refreshing, albeit rather bracing.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Re: The C02 comparison for used non-hybrid vs. new Prius: "Toyota estimated Prius C02 production costs as about 50 percent greater than an equivalent-sized regular vehicle. This data is from a PDF Toyota distributed on the Web. I don't have a URL, but I'm happy to email the PDF to anyone interested. My e-mail is abqDOTgold AT gmail.com." All very interesting, but your article assumes that the person who sold the used Corolla is not buying a replacement vehicle. We can only wish!

Brendan Koerner: I would love to see that PDF—can you please send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com?

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I see your point re: the replacement vehicle for the person getting rid of the Corolla. Can we pretend he or she is replacing their car with a bicycle? Though I guess that raises the issue of producing enough food calories to power the bike. You can see why this is such a tough gig—so many factors to consider, so it's so easy to disappear down the rabbit hole.

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Hybrid cars...: are like the Laserdisc—sort of the the go-between invention between tapes and CDs (now MP3s). They are the go-between invention between gas cars and what lies ahead.

Brendan Koerner: I couldn't agree with you more. The big question, of course, is what that "Next" is going to be. I'm personally skeptical of hydrogen fuel cells—I can't see them going into mass production anytime soon, given the massive hydrogen infrastructure that will have to be created. Electric cars are a possibility, but there you have the complication of needing to clean up our power grids to make them truly green—if we're burning lots of coal to generate the requisite electricity, we've still got problems.

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There are so many other options on the table—natural gas, biofuels, etc. I think there will have to be some consensus among both automakers and government for that Next Big Thing to emerge. But can that consensus really be developed? I'm skeptical—there are so many vested interests in keeping fossil fuels at the top of the heap.

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Styrofoam vs. Paper/Ecotainer: Have you looked at Styrofoam cups versus paper cups, reusbale mugs/glasses, or biodegradable/compostable cups? I've done a bit of research for my office, but only have come across one semi-helpful study that is a bit dated. On the same vein, do you predict the price of Styrofoam cups will increase because of increased petroleum prices?

Brendan Koerner: I get asked this question quite a bit, and I suspect the answer may be that Styrofoam is less harmful than it looks and feels. Let's face it, if something appears really artificial—like disposable diapers—then we're prone to assume that it's just awful for the environment as compared to more natural options. But that isn't always the case, since there are so many inputs to consider—for example, how much energy goes into farming the corn that produces those eco-cups? And how much energy is required over a lifetime to wash those mugs?

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I'm not saying Styrofoam is going to win this comparison. But it's probably a tighter race than one might think. I hope to tackle the issue soon.

As for the second part of your question—I'd assume the answer is yes. The days of cheap oil seem behind us, so prepare for prices to increase across the board.

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Jeff180: Both choices are wrong. The true way to be "green" is to do nothing. If you sell your old car and buy another, new or used, your old car will be bought and return to the road. Your new car will add one more polluting vehicle to the equation.

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Brendan Koerner: I see your point here. My general advice with product-related questions is to use things until they can't be used anymore, then dispose of them in the sagest manner possible. But the person who asked the Prius vs. CPO car sounded as if they'd already made up their mind about getting a new vehicle. I have to play the cards I'm dealt every week.

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Alberquerque, N.M.: Smug: With more than 1,000,000 hybrid owners these day, all types of people are bound to be found. But for every smug, annoying Prius owner, how many SUV owners are there who "own the road" and expect people to get out of their way? If 50 miles per gallon is smug, what is 15 miles per gallon? Personally, I checked out the Honda Hybrid first, but chose Prius because I thought it was a better car in terms of technology, finish, gas mileage and design (I love hatchbacks).

Brendan Koerner: Thanks for the feedback. I get a LOT of e-mail from Prius owners every time I write about the car. They've always struck me as genuinely enthusiastic about their vehicles, rather than smug. The Prius also scores very, very high on consumer satisfaction surveys. It just strikes me as bizarre to label Prius owners as smug (or worse) based solely on their consumer choice. Why are people so irritated by this car?

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nelsonal : The biggest emissions reduction is probably to buy a higher-milage Hummer or Escalade from it's first owner (who will buy a more efficient vehicle) and drive it as little as possible. But that won't win any status points when you pick up little Madison from swim practice or park at the local farmer's market.

Brendan Koerner: Case in point.

Also, it's a big assumption you're making there. How would you verify that the Hummer owner is going to upgrade to a more efficient vehicle? Though I am for driving less miles, if possible.

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The Real RML : It is fair to look at the Prius in terms of its green numbers, but the fact remains that there is no such thing as an old Prius, nor do we know what long-term issues they may have. Another fair question the green folks don't like to discuss is the cost. The Prius costs more to buy initially, and its parts also are all more costly than their nongreen counterparts. Brakes and batteries are all significantly more, for instance. So any money saved on gas may well be spent on repairs and the up-front premium costs associated with any vehicle with a waiting list for purchases.

But as anyone who bought a first- or second-year car model can tell you, the worst is what you don't know. An early model car is far more likely to be recalled—and the reasons that cause that are discovered by those lucky first buyers. Overall I would say it is a wash costwise, and a risk too.

Brendan Koerner: This is a fair point. We don't yet have tons of data about the performance of older Priuses. And I'd like to point out that I did discuss the cost differential in my column—it's certainly nothing to sneeze at.

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As previously stated, however, consumer satisfaction with the Prius is really high. And the warranty is pretty generous—in some states, I believe the battery is covered for 150,000 miles. While I agree with you that there probably isn't much difference, costwise, over the long term, there's something to be said for the vehicle's other attributes.

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Recycling Issues: Why is there no incentive in the D.C. metro area to recycle? I know that in Seattle people will go around and randomly sample trash, and if there are recycleables in it they issue a fine. There is no deposit for bottles or cans either. This might make people value what they throw in the trash and think twice about tossing plastic.

Brendan Koerner: Recycling is a local issue in the U.S., which means that towns and cities are responsible for both organization and enforcement. For whatever reason—cost, perhaps?—the District's elders haven't been on top of this. They probably need to be convinced that there's a strong financial incentive, and that will mean higher prices for post-consumer products—something that is actually happening as oil prices rise and metals become more valuable.

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Smug, obsolete hybrid owner here...: I bought my Honda Civic hybrid when they first came out in 2003 ... I've had five very happy years of owning it. Have I felt smug as my Hummer-driving neighbors in Fairfax County have been anguishing about gas prices, as they idle in the drive-thru Starbucks lane in the morning? Yup. But I've also felt smug on my 10-mile counter-traffic commute—I might have given up the "status" job in Washington to work in Northern Virginia, but man oh man, I sure don't miss the 90-minute commutes. Nope, give me 20 minutes door-to-door any day.

And as for the current class of hybrids' obsolescence: I can't even begin to count the number of vain—and yes, smug—people I know who "trade in" their cars every few years for the latest model. By the time my 40 mpg hybrid dies or needs that expensive new battery (have you priced any replacements on, say, Volvos lately?) it will have paid for itself in gas savings, initial tax credit, etc.—mainly because I bought it before hybrids were "cool." Oh, and yes, I am a bit smug about being just a bit more green than my neighbors when it comes to emissions—but not just on account of the hybrid. We also bought a nice, smaller, more-affordable home that doesn't cost hundreds to heat and cool every year, instead of a McMansion to house our Hummer.

Brendan Koerner: Thanks for the personal feedback. You raise an interesting ancillary issue—how will rising gas prices affect our commuting culture? It seems we've been hearing about telecommuting for two decades now, but now may finally be its moment. I'm still amazed by the number of companies that feel compelled to rent expensive office space in urban downtowns, when their employees could be just as effective working from home. One idea: shared offices, where you just call in your team for one day a week of meetings, then let folks work from home the rest of the time. It won't work for every profession, of course, but it will for a lot of 'em (including my own).

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Alberquerque, N.M.: I hope you tackle biofuels in a future article—the entire subject is sooo awash with misinformation, almost as bad as the "hydrogen economy." For instance, how many people realize that modern Western agriculture is dependent on natural gas to make the fertilizer that allows the intensive farming we expect? That is Brazil's secret, by the way—they are just turning natural gas into ethanol using sugar beets as the engine, courtesy of cheap gas from their neighbor (Bolivia, I think). It also is high time everybody understood that hydrogen must be produced—it is not mined. It's cost- and energy-expensive and inefficient to create with water hydrolysis, or relatively cheap but counterproductive to create by cracking fossil fuels.

Brendan Koerner: Yeah, it's topics like these for which my column was created. There are so many inputs that go into manufacturing any kind of energy source, whether it's ethanol or diesel or what-have-you. If you follow the trail all the way back to the source, one often finds that our intuition was all wrong, and that the seemingly "dirty" option is actually cleaner in the long run.

I definitely need to take a closer look at the Brazilian situation. I've heard good things from people I trust, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some smoke-and-mirrors at work here. We all want green technologies to work, so we can be hoodwinked on occasion.

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Rockville, Md.:"Why are people so irritated by this car?" It changed the paradigm—before then, people expected to be feared and/or admired for having the big Suburban or Hummer. What a disappointment. Not even the bigger SUV got any respect.

Brendan Koerner: The bottom line is that, as a car culture, we have a lot of ego bound up in our vehicles. Strange, since a vehicle's core purpose is to get us from Point A to Point B, not serve as a personal statement. But that's just human nature, I reckon.

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Richmond, Va.: Geez, why are people so snarky about Prius drivers? We all make choices and stand behind those choices. Ridiculing people's efforts to make positive change only politicizes something that should be cultural, not political. We all want easy healthy breathing. I have a 10-year-old Honda, get good mileage, drive as little as I can and take personal responsibiliy for my own acts rather than cracking on Hummers. I act to solve problems rather than trying to pull other people down. Stop talking and act.

Brendan Koerner: Amen.

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Recycling Facts: Do you have or know of a good list of recycling facts to hang up in public places like office kitchens and condo mailbox bulletin boards? I'm thinking things like "recycling one plastic bottle saves enough electricity to run a TV for an hour," "recycling junk mail saves this many trees," "recycling cans prevents the digging of strip mines," etc.

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Brendan Koerner: There are several such lists, but I'm dubious on them. Such simplistic comparisons are never accurate, given the complexities of recycling (as well as the fact that savings vary according to a huge host of factors). So such lists are too easily criticized, and those critiques can cause people to assume that recycling is entirely pointless.

That said, I do believe in recycling many items, especially metals. Paper is a tougher call, but when I looked at the topic a few weeks back, I concluded that it was generally a net positive. Check out my archives for some more detailed breakdowns on recycling.

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Washington: Regarding the previous statement that "there's a reason the non-Prius hybrids don't sell well—it's harder for other people to tell that you're driving a hybrid," in my opinion this is simply untrue. As a Prius owner, I can tell you that the reason that the Prius outsells other hybrids is that it is a much better car—and it isn't even close.

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The only other car that compares based on miles per gallon is the Honda Civic—but the Civic has one killer flaw in that it lacks a folding rear seat. That is just a deal-killer for a small car. There just isn't any other hybrid vehicle available at this time that compares favorably to it (although I could see buying the Escape if you needed the extra space).

Brendan Koerner: Yeah, I just want to reiterate that the Prius isn't just a good hyrbid—it's a good car, period. It's not the perfect car for every family, and there's a price premium, but it's remarkably well-designed and provides a truly enjoyable ride. I'm not saying that we should all be driving Priuses, but I'd encourage the knee-jerk critics to take one for a test drive. I think most honest car enthusiasts will admit that it provides a good driving experience, whatever they think of the car's appearance, etc.

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Rockville, Md.: It is easy to see if one has a "big" vehicle or a small one. That should be enough to see who uses the most fuel. My ride is a '91 Mazda—still runs very well. Hybrid or not is splitting hairs—I live at a Metro stop, and last year my gas cost less than $15 a month.

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Brendan Koerner: Access to mass transit is always key. But I'm curious about how long it takes for light-rail projects, in particular, to pay off environmentally. I'm originally from Los Angeles, where untold billions were spent on a light-rail system that enjoys, at best, modest ridership. I'd be curious to know the environmental payoff of all that capital—the system certainly hasn't stopped gridlock on the freeways. (It has made it easier for me to attend Clippers games, though.)

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Washington: I know this isn't your area, but a number of bills in Congress that would encourage states to plan for the effects of global warming on their coastlines are stuck in the Senate, primarily Sen. Maria Cantwell's Climate Change Awareness Act and Sen. Olympia Snowe's Coastal Zone Management Act reauthorization. Can't we move those bills?

Brendan Koerner: My hunch is that these might take awhile, given that Congress seems somewhat atrophied as we await the outcome of the presidential race. I actually need to read these bills in detail, and find out exactly what they say. It seems like a smart idea on the surface, but the devil could be in the details.

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Portland, Ore.: 'Smug' Prius owners ... please. I was considering buying a Prius last month when I lost my head thinking gas would reach $7 by Christmas—it had nothing to do with any sense of superiority, just my sense of being a tightwad. In fact, outside of my glee at the gas savings and a deliberate energy conservation measure on my part, I was depressed about how unattractive I think the car is and how limited the color choices were ... I was not excited in any way about getting a new toy. So there may be owners of Priuses who buy because of a sense of status, but you can say that about anything.

Brendan Koerner: I'm convinced that gas prices are only going to inch up in the coming months and years, to get more in line with those in other parts of the developed world. It will be interesting to see how, say, $5 or $6 per gallon gas really starts to affect consumer choices—as well as the R&D of automakers and others.

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Alberquerque, N.M.: What are some of your favorite Web watering holes (places you hang out, or go to get information)?

Brendan Koerner: Aside from the usual eco-suspects, I do my best to keep apprised of scientific and technological innovation on sites such as Scienceblogs.com and Wired.com. (Full disclosure: I'm a contributing editor at Wired.) I also keep track of all the major peer-reviewed journals, which have increasingly started tackling eco-topics.

I also enjoy Andrew C. Revkin's "Dot Earth" blog at the New York Times.

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Boston: So how smug should I feel about taking the bus most days? I usually think the bus is zero-emission for myself—it would be driving the route whether I was on it or not, so my presence adds nothing. Should I really try to bike instead, or would the extra energy from heating water for a shower offset that?

Brendan Koerner: Excellent question about mass transit. A reader recently asked how many passengers a bus has to carry in order to "break even" with the planet. I hope to tackle that question soon.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it economical to throw a bunch of solar cells on the top of my house in order to fuel an electric commuter car?

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Brendan Koerner: Solar power is a topic I've yet to tackle in the column, for reasons I can't possibly explain. I've recently read that solar-panel production is shockingly energy-intensive, but I'll have to investigate that claim. My hunch is that, in the particular scenario you propose, the car may require so much power that the solar panels will be a net energy loser—at least for the several years. But that's just a hunch, and I promise to take a closer look in the coming months.

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Washington: Yesterday another daily paper praised the destruction of an old building downtown and the construction of a new, "greener" one. The author did not mention anything about a green roof. My question is, is destruction-construction really greener than retrofitting an existing building? Thanks!

Brendan Koerner: I've looked into green roofs, and I'm always amazed by how much energy savings they provide. That said, the answer to your question will depend a lot on the specifics of the older building's power plant. Again, so many variables to consider...

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Re: Prius reliability, the best data is from the large fleet of Prius taxis in Vancouver. Read about them starting from the executive summary: 66 percent less cost in maintenaince and repairs compared to no-Prius fleet; 250,000 miles no problem; no hybrid powertrain related repairs to date (amazing).

Brendan Koerner: Yeah, everything I've seen about the Prius adds credence to the viewpoint that it's a very reliable car. But I still get e-mails everyday from readers who've heard that Priuses are little devil machines that electrocute mechanics, require new batteries every few thousand miles, and use more energy than Hummers. So many urban legends surrounding the car—again, I'm baffled why it attracts so much ire.

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Rockville, Md.:"But I'm curious about how long it takes for light-rail projects, in particular, to pay off environmentally..." The key parts of a transit system are the downtown connectors and stops. Those are the expensive parts. The suburbs can be above ground if needed. If you have that, you can expand to meet greatly enhanced ridership. So the most expensive part in Los Angeles is now in the ground. Now if Washington only had gone for four tracks...

Brendan Koerner: Good points. Different cities have developed differently, and so some will be more amenable to light-rail solutions than others. Geography, of course, plays a role, too. L.A. was a real challenge given its hilliness—I know the red line, for example, cuts right through the Hollywood Hills. Anytime you start digging into the ground, costs skyrocket.

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Falls Church, Va.: I am keeping my old gas guzzler (a Benz with a five-liter V8 engine). Although it gets about 28 mpg on the highway going 80 mph, it only gets about 13-14 mpg commuting to the city because the car is so heavy to stop and start. My solution: I bike to work downtown from Falls Church, and save the gas guzzler for comfortable road trips. Buying a Prius probably would be less green than my solution, because more energy would be needed to manufacture the additional car than would be saved by my biking to work and using the gas guzzler for road trips.

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Brendan Koerner: Interesting solution—thanks for sharing. Watch out for those highway speed traps when you're cranking the Benz at 80, though.

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If I were an inventor: I'd make a car that ran on something we all produce ... a byproduct of metabolic cellular respiraton. It is know simply as No. 1.

Brendan Koerner: If you did that, I believe the Nobel Prize would await. And Mountain Dew's sales would skyrocket.

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Brendan Koerner: Hey, I gotta jet—apologies to those whose questions I couldn't get to. Thanks a million to everyone, and I hope you'll check out both "The Green Lantern" on Slate and my new book, "Now the Hell Will Start."

'Til next time, y'all. Cheers.