Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Go Green — Buy a Used Car. It’s Better Than a Hybrid

with 4 comments

Wired has a whole bunch of articles today that challenge the Green perceptions of our choices and suggest that reducing carbon emissions trumps all else. In some cases that not only challenges perceived wisdom but common sense too! (Hat tip to the bokashiman for this).

The championing of nuclear power is not exactly a ground breaking idea – but the superficial analysis ignores the incredible dangers of nuclear waste , which remains radioactive for centuries and longer, but also ignores the huge potential of amazing nuclear power station just 93 million miles away. Earth gets vast amounts of solar energy – but we humans use remarkably little of it. For a start, does your neighborhood allow you to dry your clothes on a line? Solar furnaces in places like Arizona could meet much of the US demand for electricity.

But the one I take most exception to is the claim that a used car is greener than a Prius – because of the energy used in making new cars. Obviously you are going to have to be a bit selective about which used car to buy – not just the make and model but the individual car itself. Second had car dealers replaced horse traders as the least trusted members of society (“would you buy a used car from this man?”) for very good reasons. Recent press stories here have highlighted how little consumer protection we have from importing US lemons to ICBC flogging people rebuilt wrecks.

If you are lucky you might find an old Geo Metro with low mileage and a complete maintenance record. But mostly people who now have such vehicles are hanging on to them. Far too many secondhand cars are not roadworthy and as we do not have compulsory testing for safety anymore – Van der Zalm got rid of it but we kept AirCare tests – you have to rely on some private sector service like the BCAA to check out your purchase. And the markup on used cars by dealers and the rate at which they fly through auctions and resellers is bewildering – quite deliberately – since most people in the used car business really do not care about you, they just want to make a quick sale and a profit. They are not in business for the sake of good works or saving the planet!

Cars are better built these days and last longer. Thank the Asian invasion for forcing the US makers to raise their game. But also think about spares availability when you buy an older car. One of the reasons that the archetypal older house in the burbs is surrounded by old cars is one is a runner and the others are for cannibalizing for spares. I think that land might be better used for growing veggies than allowing old Chevies to rot in peace.

One of the many things Avory Lovins got wrong is that by now cars were supposed to be built differently, using new materials like carbon fibres so that embedded energy in things like steel pressings would have been reduced. While there is more structural plastic in cars than say twenty years ago, we are still nowhere near the sort of cars that can be rebuilt continuously like the dear old Morris Minor, which could be kept going almost indefinitely by a home repair whiz with access to replacement parts makers. New cars are also technically much more complex as computers have replaced carburetors.

Morris Minor

Newer cars are also more fuel efficient – but most models use that to improve performance not fuel economy, as well as hitting ever tighter emissions standards. So my cautious conclusion is some old cars might be greener than a Prius – but it is not gong to be easy for an average car buyer to determine which one will be cheaper to keep going. Obviously joining a car coop and using your own power more often are better choices – and, if you do not live in Greater Vancouver, using transit might well be a viable option too.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 20, 2008 at 10:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. I think I saw a Morris Minor at the VanDusen Gardens on Saturday. I also saw a car from 1929 that cost 125 pounds (around $10,000 today?) that got 45 miles per gallon — it was small and light by today’s standards, weighing less than 1000 pounds.


    May 20, 2008 at 1:10 pm

  2. Which reminds me. Older cars are both less safe and dirtier. There have been considerable advances in technology in areas such as energy absorption in collisions, stability, road holding, braking (my Yaris has those smart brakes that don’t get locked up) as well as much reduced common air contaminants (CO, NOx and HC).

    Yes there were small fuel efficient cars (the Fiat 500 for example) but that does not mean that they are “good cars” for today

    Stephen Rees

    May 20, 2008 at 1:20 pm

  3. The Wired article seems like a fluff piece. Suggesting that a used Geo Metro or Firefly is good for anything but scrap is irresponsible. These cars take the Re-use out of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.
    The Co-op has served my needs for more than 10 years but if I had to have a car, considering what is currently available, I would buy a Yaris/Echo (used or new). I have nothing against the Prius, the Co-op has them and the Yaris, but I could not justify the cost of the Prius.
    Just my opinion. I don’t sell Toyotas and I’m not trying to get into Stephen’s good books.


    May 20, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  4. Sgt Tumeric: we may have crossed paths

    Not to be overly pedantic, but I’m pretty sure that the old vechicle inspection was scrapped by Biill Bennett, not the Zalm; it was gone by the time I moved my Rabbit to the Lower Mainland in ’83…. and that’s the thing, it was only mandatory here, not on Vancouver Island where the Rabbit went into service…. To this day, if you have a vehicle that chronicallly fails Air Care, you can unload it in Kelowna, or Kamloops, or Keremeous, or Kitwanga.

    That’s certainly true regarding most cars using tech. advances to boost HP, not economy; we may see that change in the coming years; as a fanatic Saturn owner for the past 14 years I have to admit I wasn’t impressed with the Saturn Vue Hybrid, 10% increase in fuel economy isn’t much to crow about when the standard model only gets ~25 mpg in the 1st place.

    (Why even consider a “SUV”? Well, one nice thing about driving the (eventually) 16 year old Rabbit was that you didn’t feel bad about taking it on some of the interesting gravel (or worse) side roads reachable within a day of the Lower Mainland; I just about shook Saturn #2 to bits travelling from Goldbridge to Pemberton on the Hurley Main a few years back…. _

    David Banks

    May 23, 2008 at 10:42 pm

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