I nearly got into an accident the other day. I wanted to go forward and two cars - one in front of me and one beside me - were trying to turn and go around me. We were pretty close to each other; close enough for me to see that the other cars were gasoline-electric hybrids. I drive a hybrid too. There I was, part of a 21st century traffic jam.
My car is a Honda Civic while the others were a Toyota Prius and a Nissan Altima. All of us probably get about 45 mpg. But hybrids aren't just about fuel efficiency. A compact car with a regular gasoline engine likely gets close to the same mileage. But the gas-only engine emits far more greenhouse gases than a hybrid does. So for us wacky environmentalists, it's not just about fuel efficiency, it's also about reducing our carbon footprint.
Now I've got a friend who is one of the incredibly smart General Motors techno-geeks that designs and builds hybrid cars. I can't even tell you my friend's gender because like everybody else in this country right now, after three months of precipitous nationwide job losses, this person can't afford to lose his or her job. So let's call my friend Q, like the scientist in the Bond movies.
Q told me about a big celebration General Motors had last week because the Chairman's Award had been bestowed on the hybrid Chevrolet Tahoe-GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle.
Q calls it a sport brutality vehicle which always makes us enviro-nerds laugh.
See, we see a certain irony in building giant cars that will lull us into thinking we're making a difference, so we can keep driving bigger cars more places and never actually address our energy consumptive lifestyles. We compact hybrid users even scold ourselves for this, although we're at least willing to sacrifice roominess for the sake of the planet.
Anyway, Q said that the featured speaker at this fancy self-aggrandizing event, Terry J. Woychowski, General Motors' executive director of global vehicle chief engineers and North American chief engineers, told everybody that "a generation from now, there will be a billion vehicles on the road."
I know these people make cars for a living, but a billion vehicles. Doesn't that sound like we're going in the wrong direction?
Terry went on to say that "the plan is to anticipate the end of petroleum, be stingy with fuel in the short term and plan on using hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the long run."
Because this party was patting themselves on the back about a car that already existed, Terry didn't mention how that switch to hydrogen might happen. No, instead Terry discussed this giant hybrid that they recognized for "being stingy" on gas: a vehicle that, according to the Chevrolet Web site, gets a whopping 21 mpg.
Want to buy one? Got $50,490? That's $15,000 more than its counterpart with a conventional power train.
Now, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this hybrid option will save the typical driver $728 per year. If we apply the federal tax breaks allowed for the purchase of this hybrid, it'll take about 14 years to make up the difference.
But remember the traffic jam? It's not just about fuel efficiency, it's also about carbon footprints.
Terry wound up his speech with a few comments congratulating the engineers on developing such a fantastic vehicle and compared its cross-country environmental effects to someone mowing their lawn, or some such mumbo-jumbo. By this point Q had realized that there was cake and got completely distracted.
But as soon as Q finished licking green frosting from the disposable plate, Q started calculating the carbon dioxide produced while maneuvering this monstrosity across the U.S. Turns out, Q says, "Driving this brute from Boston to San Diego will create 1,400,000 grams of CO-two - almost equal to the weight of the vehicle itself."
And we never discussed how much energy it took to build the darn thing in the first place.
We need a realistic strategy. Even if it's a hybrid traffic jam - we're still in a jam.