Back in 1970, Kermit the Frog sang “it’s not easy bein’ green,” and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Consider the Toyota Prius: a hybrid electric car beloved of Hollywood celebrities as well as ordinary families. A fuel-efficient car must be the ‘green’ choice… right?
Nobody disputes that the Prius has been a commercial success, and it delivers reasonably good mileage for city dwellers… but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s good for the planet.
A key component of the Prius hybrid is the large battery pack that lurks behind the back seat; in most models it’s a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) type, featuring nickel mined in Ontario, Canada, shipped to Wales for refining, and undergoing manufacturing operations in China and Japan. When the car is brand new, the battery pack has already travelled something like ten thousand miles, critics say. Perhaps the most damaging critics have been CNW Marketing Research, the Oregon-based consultancy whose report investigated environmental impact through the measurement of energy usage per mile travelled. That isn’t just the energy paid for at the petrol pump, but the whole life cycle; materials extraction, manufacturing, driving, and end-of-life recycling or safe disposal. CNW came to the shocking conclusion that the emerging hybrid cars were actually using more energy per mile than the Hummer H2 or H3.
There are a number of factors that need to be understood here, including the relatively limited usage commonly made of hybrids (CNW found that they tend to be the second vehicle in the household) and their shorter life expectancy. The inevitable deterioration of the expensive battery pack leads in some cases to premature scrapping, or to the vehicle ceasing to be used as a hybrid. Meanwhile, the far sturdier gas-guzzling SUVs such as the Hummer soldier on for decades. Materials are also an issue: the exotic steels found in modern cars are more energy-intensive than those found in the low-tech Hummer, in both the manufacturing and reclamation stages – and the recycling of NiMH batteries is complicated, while it’s a problem that has long been solved for lead-acid batteries.
So was a Hummer ‘greener’ than a Prius? (I say ‘was’ because General Motors closed the division making the Hummer in May 2010, a victim of the economic downturn of 2008.) Well… yes and no: a grudging “yes” when considered purely in terms of lifetime energy efficiency (the metric that CNW used), and a resounding “Hell, no!” if you consider real issues that affect real people. Sustainability should be about communities as well as energy: people who have to share crowded roads and limited parking space with cars that are technically light trucks. People concerned about local air quality, safety in a collision, and so on: there are many grounds on which to consider a very large vehicle to be antisocial. (I wrote about this, among other things, in a paper for ICRM2010.)
In the Oscar Wilde sense, perhaps being talked about has done CNW a lot of good, even if their findings are often criticised by outraged ‘pale greens’ (many of whom own a hybrid car). Despite the controversy it’s useful because it gets people talking and thinking about sustainability, and the complex mix of issues that affect decision-making. Remember Futerra’s ten signs of greenwash? Number two is “clean products vs. dirty company”, and the Prius shows an interesting extension of that: a clean product from a company that are doing their best (Toyota’s action on waste is actually pretty good…) but the overall supply chain is letting them down badly, due in part to sheer distance covered.
Meanwhile, the best answer for increased sustainability in motoring is probably that people should extend the life of their current vehicle for longer, regardless of make and model. Of course, this is very seldom heard. Continuing to own a used car is not a ‘glamorous’ solution, it doesn’t keep motoring journalists, salesmen or automotive engineers in work and it doesn’t fill advertising space.
Maybe it’s not easy bein’ green… but it’s even harder sellin’ green.