Petrochemical Chariots

So, the 20-year-old Saturn was finally on its last legs, and I was in the market for a new car. Being a responsible Druid, concerned with the environmental impacts of cars and driving, my knee-jerk assumption (based on all the lovely, green propaganda) was, of course: get an electric car, or at the very least, a hybrid! Right?

Well, if you look at the current research, and policy analyses, in depth…

Hawkins, et al. (2013). Journal_of_Industrial_Ecology, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles”

…it turns out that the decision is WAY more complicated than the propaganda suggests, and very much sensitive to one’s anticipated use-case.

My use case happens to be VERY low mileage, but LOTS of shortish trips with starts from cold, in hilly terrain. My last car, when retired due to the gradual engine gunking from oil and petrol (which happens to all cars over 20-odd years, given a very high number of starts from cold), had barely 90,000 miles on the odometer when she died. And sadly, since so many of the parts for an old Saturn were no longer made, it was not reasonable to consider rebuilding the engine at that point.

If one considered only the air-quality issues in one’s own backyard, during only the consumer-use phase of an automobile’s life, a case might be made for purchasing an EV or hybrid vehicle. However, when one considers the cradle-to-grave impacts of the manufacture, use, and end-of-life disposal of the automobile and all of its various maintenance/replacement parts, the calculus changes dramatically. The EVs do slightly better, over the lifetime of the car, when it comes to overall greenhouse gas emissions (about 10-20% better) – provided that you get at least 93,000 miles out of your car. If you drive your car fewer miles during its lifetime, that benefit decreases to only 9-14% better for a lifetime mileage of 62,000 miles. However, given the same automobile lifespan, EVs are nearly three times (300%) worse than combustion engines when it comes to the impacts on: human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, and freshwater eutrophication. If you consider people, flora, and fauna, the EV no longer looks so appealing!

So, very much to my amazement, it turned out that a traditional gasoline engine was still the option with lowest environmental impact, at least for me. It was really hard for me to wrap my brain around that one, but the science was right there. And the policy analysis cited above (based on my personal evaluation of the work, as a Ph.D. graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Engineering & Public Policy), is rock-solid.

My final decision: a manual transmission Honda Fit. A high gas mileage, base model to minimize the amount of manufacturing impact, with the intention to maintain it well, and drive it slowly into the ground. If I get 20 years out of this car, as well, then by the time I need another car, perhaps the battery manufacturing, toxicity, and longevity issues will have been addressed, and the calculus will look a bit different than it does today.

On the other hand, by that time I might have retired to a castle in the country, and be ready to trade in my car for a horse.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.