The canoe is for aerodynamics

With fuel efficiency now a primary concern for automakers world wide, I’d like to gently remind my audience that your new hybrid takes a lot of energy and resources to build. That’s why used cars are almost always greener.

The Weekend Op-Ed is something new I am going to be trying out. Basically just a place a me to vent about cars, alternative fuels, and life in general. In other words, don’t take it too seriously…just think about it.

There’s a common phrase among environmentalists that the “greenest” building is already built. The idea is that building a more efficient structure would cost more energy and resources than it would save, and in certain cases that can be true. However, if you think about the long term, does that argument still hold weight? My current apartment is in a home that was built around 1900, and being on the third floor it is drafty enough that I had to seal off every window with shrink wrap to keep what precious little heat we have inside. I think over the next 110 years a greener building would save a ton of energy and resources (and money) while also creating jobs and leaving a foundation for future generations. In most cases, it probably is actually better to build a greener building, especially if it’s gonna be there a while.

Not so for cars. Many automobiles these days are capable of lasting 20 years and 200,000 miles before retiring to the scrap heap, which is a long time for a product that gets so much use. Yet modern technology has made many vehicles more fuel efficient (again) and with gas prices on the rise (again) many people think buying a newer, more efficient car is the “responsible” thing to do. I think these people are lazy and wrong.

There have already been studies saying that to cover the extra cost of a hybrid vehicles often takes five or more years to recover versus buying a cheaper, non-hybrid. That’s not what I’m arguing here. What I am saying is that people are only scratching the surface by comparing MPG’s. Consider instead how much energy went into building, designing, and shipping that hybrid. A whole lot more energy than went into building a car say, 20 years ago, I betcha.

Is 50 MPG really THAT impressive?

Once upon a time, Americans mostly bought American cars, and they took care of them. Everybody changed their own oil, and most people kept a screwdriver in the glovebox just in case the carburetor started acting up Sure, Toyota, Porsche, and other foreign brands have been here for decades, but prior to 1970 85% of all automobile purchases came from the Big Three (plus AMC.) These American cars were built in America, with American steel, and parts from smaller American companies. Do you know why Detroit became the epicenter of the auto industry? Simply put, logistics. Detroit’s proximity to Lake Erie meant getting materials in and vehicles out was easy, especially given that the steel foundries of Pittsburgh were just a few hours away. It worked well for a long time.

Yes, this was an era before the EPA and environmental protections, so technically these factories, and the cars they produced, were huge contributors to pollution in and around major metro areas. Yet at the same time, there was no global supply system set up like we have today, with different parts of cars circling the globe multiple times before final assembly. Now we have tires and steel coming from China with onboard computers engineered in Germany, before final assembly happens in Mexico. Imagine if today’s high-mpg American cars were still built with American steel by American workers and were sold mostly to Americans. All of the sudden, a lot of huge container ships have nothing to ship across 6,000 miles of ocean. Shipping is a huge contributor to pollution, especially along coastlines, and every time you buy a car new car you’re basically buying a million different parts from a million different places around the planet. Scale that up on the order of tens of millions of automobiles, and maybe you see what I’m saying, and I haven’t even touched the actual manufacturing processes, which have been cleaned up quite a bit. Yet imagine if America bought 5 million vehicles a year, instead of 10 million? A lot less pollution…and a lot less jobs too, though not necessarily fewer American jobs.

35 MPG in 1976 and nothing that can’t be fixed with pliers and a screwdriver

Everything the automakers are doing today has pretty much been done before. The 50 mpg Prius isn’t any better than the Ford Escort diesel built in the 1980’s that was rated at over 50 mpg when it first came out (and still has a 40 mpg rating under the new EPA system.) During the last gas crisis, the 45 mpg Geo Metro was going for three times their book value on eBay. In 1976 Chevy Chevette could get upwards of 35 mpg on the highway. Sure, it lacks all the awesome features of the modern Chevy Cruze and its 40 mpg rating, but if you’re really looking for a green car, then I don’t have to tell you that the already-built Chevette is a better investment for the environment in the long run. In over 35 years we’ve managed to improve fuel economy by all of 15 mpg, while complicated cars and the manufacturing process on a global scale. Do we really need fancy hybrid systems to bolster fuel economy ratings?

I guess what I am trying to say is that, after all is said and done, a car that is already built won’t be “unbuilt” unless it is wrecked and scrapped. A lot more time, energy, and resources goes into building modern cars then the vehicles the preceded them, and every time you buy a new car, another new one must be built. Yes, manufacturing processes are more efficient, more streamlined and less energy intensive, but what’s been done, cannot be undone. So sure, my Toldeo, Ohio-built Wrangler is lucky to get 20 mpg  and it has power nothing, no air conditioning, a five-speed manual transmission that slowly leaks fluid from the slave cylinder and the engine design dates back to the days of hippies and muscle cars. Yet the 50 mpg Prius is still imported from Japan (though Toyota has been promising to rectify that) and it is built with parts that literally come from all over the world necessitating a complicated and energy intensive supply network that spans the farthest reaches of our planet. And at the end of the day with their better fuel efficiency and fancy computers, hybrids still need oil-based gasoline to go anywhere.

Does that make my simple old Jeep greener than your hybrid? I like to think so. So next time you look at a new car, maybe consider something older instead. It’s a great chance to reacquaint yourself with the automobile without having to take a college course on computer diagnostics, and Mother Earth will thank you for it.

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMI’s. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.

P.S. I fully expect some hybrid owners to come out and disagree with me and tell me what a horrible person I am for hating on hybrids. That’s what the comments section is for. So unleash your well-written (or not) diatribes and defend your hybrid if you dare.