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Exhaust Note #4: Does the Green Car Really Exist?

It seems that everywhere you look, America’s gone green. Products and their packaging proudly announce their sustainability. Recycling bins are prominently placed in public places. And of course, those hybrid vehicles seem to be just about everywhere. There are countless good reasons to think about environmental sensitivity, but it should also be said that it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the hype too. What am I implying here? I’m suggesting that it’s pretty easy to do small token acts – and then feel like you’re helping the environment a lot more than you really are.
I’ll come back to this is a moment. I think it should first be said that there is a universal truth about automobiles. This universal truth is that people tend to buy vehicles that make them feel good. What makes people feel good varies with the times. Back in the 1950s, big cars with tailfins and jet-exhaust lamp clusters reflected the progress and optimism of the era; these attributes on vehicles made drivers feel good to be alive at that time. In the 1990s, gas was cheap and the economy was strong. These factors helped spur the growth of SUVs, which made owners feel independent and strong – and of course feel good.


Fast forward to today, where fuel is expensive and buzzwords such as “global warming”, “carbon emissions”, and “sustainability” abound. So what kind of a vehicle makes its driver feel good today? Green cars, of course! And I have to admit, the first time I drove a hybrid, I felt pretty damn good about polluting less and sending fewer dollars into the coffers of various unscrupulous characters both here and abroad.
But just how green is a hybrid? Let’s see…the batteries are made from toxic materials that have to be shipped across the world to Japan, and then there’s the energy used and pollution created in simply building any new vehicle (maybe the best Green car is a used car?), and then there’s the energy and pollution associated with shipping the car to the US. Oh yeah, and then later on when the car is through with its lifecycle, that toxic battery needs to be disposed. That seems like a lot of trouble to get a 46 mpg combined fuel economy rating. Plus, it’s still using the same non-renewable gasoline that every other vehicle uses – just a little bit less of it. Certainly it’s a step forward, but in the grand scheme of things, is it really that significant, especially when taking its energy intensive manufacture and disposal into account?


Those upcoming plug-in hybrids and electrics have their issues too. Remember, that electricity is ultimately coming from a power plant. Those power plants have to work harder and pollute more to create the energy needed for these plug-ins and electrics. Again, it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s no cure-all by any means.
Which brings me back to my original point. People buy vehicles that make them feel good, and in today’s times, it sure feels good to feel like one is part of the solution rather than the problem. It can thus be argued that Green cars are really about making the owner feel good more than anything else. Ultimately then, going green is (at least to a large degree) a marketing and brand positioning decision to appeal to the market’s current sensibilities.
I’m not puking on environmental sensitivity – far from it. I want energy independence, and I want future sources of energy to be clean, safe, and ethically produced. But I also feel that truly going green is going to take a heck of a lot more than drivers saving a few miles per gallon and feeling really good about it.

1 Comment

  • Derek Allen| March 16, 2008 at 11:58 am

    This Ed Kim guy is a nut. The toxic materials he references do not enter the atmosphere or affect the air we breath. And, it isn’t about the mileage, it’s about the emissions. This must be your first job in the auto industry, as you don’t have a clue about what drives it or how it is evolving. I’m done with this blog.

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