The Prius Bad for the Environment?
This may or may not come as some shock to you, but many scientists are saying that Toyota's best-selling hybrid, the Prius, is actually bad for the environment. Some are even asserting that it has a worse impact on our world than the widely-hated Hummer.
With such universal concern (whether genuine or a desire to be "hip") to live a "greener" lifestyle, it's no surprise that this argument has become quite heated, though surprisingly quiet.
After all, if Toyota says that it's created a car that gets excellent gas mileage and is therefore better for the environment than other cars are, the consumer wants to believe this. So what are these new, conflicting reports?
Is the Prius or is it not good for the environment?
The first I heard of any of this was in March 2007. My conservative Republican father snidely directed me to an article in Central Connecticut State University's school newspaper, The Recorder, that claimed that the Prius "outdoes" the Hummer in damage to the environment (link at the bottom of the page).
This is based on a CNW Marketing Research report called "Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal." But I thought the Prius was supposed to be great for the environment. It can get up to 60 miles per gallon of gas (though Toyota officials admit that most users will get more like 45 mpg on the highway).
As it turns out, burning gas is not the only (or even the major) factor in a car's impact on the environment. News to me!
The Other Factors
Apparently, when considering how "good" (or bad) a car is for the environment, gas mileage is one of the last factors to weigh. It's actually the production of the car that matters. The raw materials' sources, the manufacturing effort, and the shipping costs all have an impact on the environment. And apparently, those of the Toyota Prius are not having a positive impact.
The Prius' battery contains nickel, which is mined in Ontario Canada. The plant that smelts this nickel is apparently nicknamed "the Superstack" because of the amount of pollution it puts out; the area for miles around it is a wasteland because of acid rain and air pollution.
But the main problem that the "Dust to Dust" study has with the Prius' impact on the environment comes next.
That smelted nickel then has to travel (via container ship) to Europe to be refined, then to China to be made into "nickel foam," then to Japan for assembly, and finally to the United States. All this shipment for each tiny step in the production process costs a great deal, both in dollars and in pollution.
The study then concludes that -- all the production costs in mind -- the Prius costs about $3.25 per mile and is expected to last about 100,000 miles. The Hummer, on the other hand, with all the same factors counted, costs about $1.95 per mile and is expected to last about 300,000 miles.
The Other Side
The Pacific Institute points out the holes in the argument of "Dust to Dust" quite eloquently, and to be quite honest, I'm not sure who to believe. They've written an entire article debunking the study.
They argue that the study bases its conclusions on "faulty methods of analysis, untenable assumptions, selective use and presentation of data, and a complete lack of peer review." As I'm not a scientist, I can't particularly argue against any of these things; I can only report both sides.
An article in Wired's car blog Autopia covered this topic quite eloquently, concluding, "You might feel better driving a hybrid, but you won't necessarily be greener."
That's because each Prius consumes the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of fuel before its odometer clicks to 1. As we saw above, this is due to the manufacturing and shipping costs associated with the Prius. So while the Prius may not be worse for the environment than a Hummer is, it certainly would be given a run for its money when put head-to-head with a used car with reasonable fuel economy.
The Autopia article and the original article in Wired Magazine both agree that buying a used car that gets great gas mileage is the best option for having less of a negative impact on the environment. In fact, many cars receive up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway, which is almost as high as the Prius' 45 highway mpg, and those other cars aren't killing the environment quite as much in their manufacturing process.
Let the Market Decide
Ultimately, new technologies will always come under all types of scrutinies. Hybrid automobile technology is no different, and surely scientists and marketing executives will continue to argue about this for years.
The moral of the story, to me, seems to be to do your research instead of listening to media hype. Don't believe at face-value the hype a company gives you when selling its product. Don't read just one article and let it change your decision to buy a car.
The market will decide whether or not the Prius and other hybrid vehicles help us feel better about our impact on the environment until we can unlock Hydrogen-powered vehicles (or a similarly efficient fuel).