"The Green Lantern" talks to readers about hybrids vs. used cars.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 10 2008 1:30 PM

Are Hybrids All Hype?

Brendan I. Koerner takes readers' questions about buying a new fuel-efficient car vs. a used gas-guzzler.

Slate columnist Brendan I. Koerner was online July 10 at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about his recent column pitting the energy-efficiency of buying a new hybrid vehicle vs. a used gas-guzzler. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Brendan Koerner: Hey, good morning to all. Thanks a mil for sitting in on this Slate "Green Lantern" chat. Let's get moving.

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New York: I've been waiting for the next generation of hybrids for about five years now, and they always have seemed to be two years away. The Prius's underlying technology basically hasn't improved since it was introduced. How much longer do we have to wait?

Brendan Koerner: Great question. I know that Toyota has a plug-in Prius in the works, and that it was initially promised for '09. But I think that might have been delayed. I think part of the problem may be the sheer complexity of the hybrid powertrain—Toyota will have to make huge investments to do meaningful upgrades. And they won't do that until they're convinced that there's money to be made, and fast.

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Chantilly, Va.: Good article about the used car vs. new Prius issue. However, you left out the main point of buying a Prius—namely, if you buy your car used, it probably is not obvious to the other people on the road, so they won't be able to tell how much better than them you are. If you have a Prius, though, it stands out, so everyone will know that you're superior to them. There's a reason the non-Prius hybrids don't sell well—it's harder for other people to tell that you're driving a hybrid.

Brendan Koerner: A lot of people wrote in with points along these lines. There's a general assumption that Prius owners are smug and self-satisfied, and want strangers to know how green they are. Is that true? I don't own a Prius (or any car, for that matter, as I live in New York), so I can't really say. But that strikes me as a really cynical viewpoint. Could it be that people buy Priuses because they simply want to save on gas? Or, perhaps, actually want to do something (however small) to aid the environment? I'd like to hear from some Prius owners about this.

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Burbank, Calif.: What is some of the progress being made in biofuels beyond ethanol? Why aren't we looking more at things like cane sugar and algae?

Brendan Koerner: Corn-based ethanol a real hot-potato issue nowadays, especially in light of recent claims that it's a net energy waster when everything is factored in. (Plus there was a recent study asserting that current biofuels production, most of it from corn, is responsible for a lot of the recent run-up in global food prices.) Corn is obviously a huge crop in the U.S., far bigger than either cane sugar or algae, so there are a lot of political considerations mixed in. Other countries, notably Brazil, are doing some promising things with sugar-based ethanol. But frankly, I need to see more data before I believe that such biofuels are viable at present.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: We need to replace the heating unit on our in ground spa. Which heater is most efficient, and does converting to salt water, rather than chlorine, make any sense environmentally?

Brendan Koerner: There is a good amount of transparency on heating units, so you should be able to just read the specs on the competing units. Are there any certified EnergyStar options? I'm tempted to recommend that you investigate solar panels, but I still have questions about their net impact, given the manufacturing cost. I hope to tackle that issue soon, so stay tuned.

I'll confess that I don't know anything about salt water vs. chlorine—sorry. But a salt-water soak sounds oddly refreshing, albeit rather bracing.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Re: The C02 comparison for used non-hybrid vs. new Prius: "Toyota estimated Prius C02 production costs as about 50 percent greater than an equivalent-sized regular vehicle. This data is from a PDF Toyota distributed on the Web. I don't have a URL, but I'm happy to email the PDF to anyone interested. My e-mail is abqDOTgold AT gmail.com." All very interesting, but your article assumes that the person who sold the used Corolla is not buying a replacement vehicle. We can only wish!

Brendan Koerner: I would love to see that PDF—can you please send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com?

I see your point re: the replacement vehicle for the person getting rid of the Corolla. Can we pretend he or she is replacing their car with a bicycle? Though I guess that raises the issue of producing enough food calories to power the bike. You can see why this is such a tough gig—so many factors to consider, so it's so easy to disappear down the rabbit hole.

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Hybrid cars...: are like the Laserdisc—sort of the the go-between invention between tapes and CDs (now MP3s). They are the go-between invention between gas cars and what lies ahead.

Brendan Koerner: I couldn't agree with you more. The big question, of course, is what that "Next" is going to be. I'm personally skeptical of hydrogen fuel cells—I can't see them going into mass production anytime soon, given the massive hydrogen infrastructure that will have to be created. Electric cars are a possibility, but there you have the complication of needing to clean up our power grids to make them truly green—if we're burning lots of coal to generate the requisite electricity, we've still got problems.

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