The automobile was not invented in Southern California, or, for that matter, in the United States. Though there is some debate on the issue, most would agree the first modern car was invented by Karl Benz, who obtained a patent to produce the vehicle in Mannheim, Germany, in 1885. America’s first significant contribution to the automotive industry was the Model T Ford. Manufactured on an assembly line with interchangeable parts, the Tin Lizzy was the first car affordable for the masses. From the time the first one was designed in 1908 until production ended in 1927, fifteen million had rolled off the assembly line and into American garages.
Since then an entire ‘car culture’ has evolved, and in Southern California, where owning a car is a must, what you drive has become an indicator of who you are. Minivan equals soccer mom, Volvo equals Berkeley-styled liberal circa 1969. Whether it’s a Honda Accord, customized Chevy, fancy sports car or expensive German sedan certain assumptions are made about the person behind the wheel, and a certain statement is being made by the driver.
But is the statement being made really the one intended? Is the guy in the Porsche saying “I’m rich and cool,” or is he saying “I’m a jerk with disposable income”? Is the guy in the Ferrari saying “I’m rich and a true automotive enthusiast”, or is he merely saying “I’m richer than the jerk with the Porsche”? The messages become even more mixed when we consider the ‘green’ driver.
There are numerous ‘green’ vehicles available these days, from hybrids to fully electric cars, but for the purposes of this discussion we will consider the two most ubiquitous in my particular neighborhood, the Prius and the Tesla. With both the cars speak volumes about their owners, but what they say is not, I think, what the owners believe they do.
Let’s start with the Prius. There are a few reasons commonly given for buying one of these but the most common is fuel efficiency. The buyer is tired of paying a small fortune at the gas station and wants a car that gets upwards of fifty MPG. Fine. What goes unsaid, though, is the fact that no actual money is being saved. The Prius has the gas savings built into its price. The buyer is paying more than the car is worth for the luxury of not having to spend a lot on gas.
Even this is understandable if the buyer has a profound animus towards oil companies and/or gas station owners. If giving the money to Toyota makes more sense than giving it to Chevron then mission accomplished. If, however, the buyer is unaware of this cost shifting, or, worse, is aware but chooses for some reason not to believe it, he is no longer the frugal shopper. He is instead a douche bag.
Another popular reason given for buying a Prius is concern for the environment. The buyer’s logic proceeds thusly: 1) Climate is changing. 2) Humans are responsible due to CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. 3) Buying a green vehicle will prevent climate change, or global warming, or climate chaos, or whatever the weather is being referred to at the moment by the Climate Crusaders.
Though it is considered heresy by many to say so, this logic is a bit specious. First, it is unclear whether or not climate is actually changing. There is a big difference between weather patterns and actual climate change, a la the Ice Age, and current science is inadequate to properly evaluate the question. All current models used to predict future climate conditions rely on a number of key assumptions that cannot be verified. The temptation has been to manipulate those variables to support a fore-drawn conclusion. That has in fact been done and was the basis of Climate-Gate.
If we concede that climate is indeed changing, (which we don’t), and that greenhouse gasses are the cause, (again, unclear), there is still the problem of scale. Light vehicles, cars and trucks, burning fossil fuels contribute less than 3% of the CO2 produced in this country. Given the number of cars in the U.S. versus other parts of the world it is likely that overall the percentage is even smaller.
So, eliminating all gas-burning vehicles from this country and replacing them with electric ones will have a negligible effect on total CO2 output. The buyer of the Prius is not saving the environment, he is engaging in eco-tokenism. He is not a hero. He is merely an eco-douche.
But it gets better, or worse, depending on your point of view. The latest craze among those in the dough in the tonier parts of SoCal is the Tesla. Though I’ve not driven one I’m told it handles quite well and has significant pep. Performance, though, is not what drives sales. What the Tesla buyer expects is respect and admiration.
The Tesla is fully electric. No emissions whatsoever. For the Climate Crusader this is the Holy Grail. The Tesla is also expensive. The person behind the wheel expects to be perceived as an enlightened, concerned citizen who also has the wherewithal to drop ninety grand on a car. Plus, ownership suggests you are in league with, or at least of similar mind to, other owners. In LA this elite group consist in large part of Hollywood types. In Hollywood, more than in most places, being in with the in-crowd is critical to a successful career. Nothing says, “I’m with you, man!” like owning a Tesla.
But as with the Prius it says other, unintended, things as well. The reason a Tesla can be sold for less than $100,000.00 is because the company making it gets a tax subsidy for every car sold. Ordinary people driving ordinary cars to ordinary jobs are being fleeced by the government to subsidize the movie producer’s ride. The Tesla owner is saying, “Too bad”.
The other problem is gauging the Tesla’s actual ‘greenness’. Take the batteries, for instance. Eventually they wear out and have to be disposed of. How and where this happens has raised a number of eco-concerns. Then there’s the problem of the electricity used to charge those batteries. Unless the Tesla owner has legions of gerbils locked in the garage running on treadmills, (in which case a call to the SPCA would be warranted), that electricity is coming off the grid. The production of that electricity involves a certain amount of CO2 generation, more or less depending on the mechanism.
At some point in the future we will likely discover or invent ways to generate energy that is clean, efficient and affordable. Until then we should be wary of those claiming the high ground by virtue of their green cars. They are not making a significant impact on the presumed problem. They are merely making statements. In the case of the Tesla owner it’s, “I’m rich, I’m green, and I’m in with the in-crowd”. Maybe, but from here it sounds more like, “I’m the eco uber-douche”.