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I’d like to offer some thoughts to both sides of the dialogue on hybrids and plugin hybrids. Wintercow is correct to highlight that a primary driver of Prius ownership is the “warm glow” of feeling like a responsible global citizen–and perhaps even more importantly, to be seen in public acting in such a way. Hence the appellations of smugness.

He’s right about that. If we really want to reduce transportation-sourced air pollution, we should ideally move to a dense enough walkable city to give up a car altogether. If we still need one, we should get a certified used hatchback fitted with a car window shade (Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Mazda3 etc.) that averages ~40MPG combined when driven reasonably**. Then donate the money saved to the highest marginal-net-impact environmental charity. But people don’t do this. We want to be seen standing up for our values, even if it renders our stand less effective.

Despite this, I must speak in defense of Prius buyers. Sure, the Prius and especially the Chevy Volt might be purchased in part as a positional good motivated by status-seeking. But hybrid critics tend to be silent on all the exorbitantly priced luxury clones of normal brands purchased for similar status reasons. They bear no quarrel with customers of Acura (Honda), Lexus (Toyota), Cadillac (GM), Audi (Volkswagen), Lincoln (Ford). Heck, the Acura “A” moniker is actually a bent Honda “H”. Look at it! So you’re paying for a gussied-up Honda Accord with different plastic fascia just so you can say you have an Acura TSX whose base trim costs more than a comparably-equipped Accord . Where are the smugness accusations over the branding? Maybe we only criticize the people from a different ideological tribe  (i.e. environmentalists) instead of the very wealthy in our tribe who indulge in much more conspicuous consumption. Sure, the Prius buyers are suggesting they’re superior people. But the wealthy have disdained the unwashed masses through tinted Rolls-Royce windows far longer than Prius owners have sported irritating bumper stickers.

In the end, all the status-haters (both hybrid critics and critics of “the 1%”) should be more discerning. Humans will always be motivated by cynical status arms-races. Supporters of free institutions should focus their praise and blame on shaping the direction of these arms-races in a positive-sum direction. People will always have pissing contests, so why not water some flowers while we’re at it? Bundling public goods with positional goods is a hallmark of healthy capitalism! Competition among luxury brands keeps technology marching forward as each automaker parent seeks features that will provide exclusivity, a little extra market power for the length of a model redesign cycle. That’s why we have ABS/ESC/airbags up the wazoo/backup cameras/navigation/MP3 input ports/voice commands/hands-free bluetooth-FM radio integration/Shiftronic manu-matics/xenon headlights…and eventually autonomous vehicles. You don’t get these out of a state-owned monopoly. The Chevy Volt is another example. Yes it’s pricey, but as with the above technologies we need early adopters before we have widely-shared progress. We should be happy to show that ‘greedy capitalists’ can provide public goods at a profit to early-adopters of hybrids. But if we aren’t happy, and we still resent short-run overspending on flashy status-seeking features, then we have to criticize Bentleys, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis proportionately louder than we do the Prius or the Volt.

 Update: This is not an argument that everybody should buy an electric car *right now*, nor that current subsidies are optimal policy. The essential point is that we shouldn’t criticize Revology classic Mustang restorations or Prius buyers (who are not subsidized at the margin!) unless we also criticize customers of luxury cars, nor Tesla customers unless also Ferrari customers. The environment isn’t about the environment, but luxury also isn’t about luxury. Again, look at comparably equipped Honda Accords against the base trim Acura TSX.

**EPA Highway is the minimum a skilled driver should average in warm weather. Hypermilers can do much better. This is an underrated reason why automated cars will be such a boon to efficiency in 8-12 years: user behavior is as important as current powertrain options in determining fuel economy, and most people zoom up to redlights and stop signs as if the oil companies are paying them for fuel! Not only can a computer actually figure out that an imminent red light means “start coasting”, they’re much better at handling deterministic information. They should be able to calculate ideal coasting and acceleration choices with greater precision than (even skilled) humans can.

12 Responses to “Smug Emissions? Reconsidered.”

  1. wintercow20 says:

    Of course no one asked me what I thought of other status seekers! I’ve written dozens of posts on it before and to be honest it is not a concern of mine. The point again that I make time and time again is that the environment is not about the environment, and that most (many?) Prius drivers actually have no idea if their purchase was environmentally friendly. The easily noticed design and term “hybrid” is a low cost substitute for figuring it out. It turns out that hybrid ICE are probably going to pass an emissions cost-benefit test ipso facto, but it also turns out that if folks who drive very little are the ones buying Priuses, then it is certainly plausible that their purchases are making the worse off. They should be buying Escalades.

  2. Harry says:

    Yes, one idea is for us all to live in town and walk to work.
    A hundred years ago, in the town nearest my home, the carriage house in what is now a garage (if you could afford a horse and carriage) had a hay mow above the stable. Those who could not afford a horse walked to work.
    The biggest trip of the week was to go to church, which was a couple of miles away.

    Today, it is fashionable to own a hybrid. People commute from the suburbs to the city, often by themselves. These vehicles get great gas mileage, in miles per gallon per car. So far there are no laws outlawing people driving alone in their car in this country, and government has not forced us to abandon our homes in the country, and that is good. Our government keepers have figured out that there may be enough rope laying around for us to hang them all if they tried to pull a fast one.

    My Cadillac DTS gets about 27 miles per gallon on the Interstate, which, when I or my wife is riding shotgun, works out to 54 miles per person per gallon. It might be a little less when not using the heated steering wheel in the winter, or the cooled seats in the summer. We also can use the HOV lane.

    So, another idea is to encourage voluntary carpooling. If I had to commute to work, it would be easier for me to attract three other riders, with my big cooled and heated seats than if I drove a tin can underpowered crackerbox.

    They have not yet come after me.

  3. Harry says:

    I bought my car because it has a big engine with plenty of power in reserve, a sunroof, all the toys (including the cooled seats) and enough room in the trunk for two suitcases and two sets of golf clubs. One of my friends drives a Prius, and his wife drives a vroom vroom red Thunderbird. It’s a free country, right?

  4. Harry says:

    My friend also owns a scooter, and gets out of sight gas mileage; he has had only one minor (no physical injury) accident.

  5. Trey says:

    I’m skeptical of the early adoption argument for electric cars. Sure, today’s e-cars are better than 1911


    but they still are up against the basics of energy density, and batteries lose to gasoline by about 50:1. Until someone VASTLY improves the battery, e-cars are going to keep running on subsidies.

  6. wintercow20 says:


    An even more interesting calculation would be to ask, given current battery technology, exactly what kind of physical material requirements would be needed to meet even 1/2 of current American auto demand using electric car batteries. The physics don’t work.

  7. chuck martel says:

    Bernard Mandeville was right about some things. Satisfaction of his private “vices” is a benefit, in fact a necessity, for the expansion of the economic sphere. Buy an Escalade for the good of mankind.

  8. aarmlovi says:

    Why be skeptical of the early-adopter argument? That’s the development course of every major consumer technology. Not everyone bought a RadarRange in ~1950; it took time to refine into the mass-market microwave. Similarly the costs of current battery technology will likely make all-electric cars imprudent for non-luxury auto segments for some time. Even if all-electrics remain impractical, mass-market hybrid sales with smaller batteries will still provide (some) capital and the incentive to compete on ever-improving battery tech.
    —Re: Energy density: You’re correct: the raw energy density of gasoline is far higher than current lithium-ion tech. But all-electric powertrains take up far less interior space than ICE powertrains, more than compensating for the low energy density by creating space for battery packs. The Tesla Model S is a sedan that seats 5 adults and 2 children, plus a front-trunk! That’s very different from the Volt, which uses space for both powertrains. Again, the Volt is a Frankenstein limited to early-adopters.

    –Re: Subsidies: The quoted price of the Volt is pre-tax for that very reason: I don’t approve of the $7500 tax credit either. But it remains that mass-market, no-longer-subsidized hybrids like the Prius are affordable and popular.

    –Re: Material Requirements: This is not an argument for everyone to buy an electric car, so that argument is orthogonal to this post except so far as it neuters early adoption as an expected path to future practicality. But while opening massive lithium mines and battery recycling facilities *tomorrow* would be incredibly expensive (i.e. short-run supply is inelastic), I don’t think you hold that the longer-run supplies of natural resources are so inelastic. The Volt is certainly not going to generate the returns to finance battery research, but mass-market hybrids already do. And early adoption is the essence of Tesla’s strategy with all-electrics. First the Tesla Roadster supercar, now the Model S luxury sedan, and eventually a mainstream all-electric that can compete in the mass segments. We’ll see.

  9. chuck martel says:

    Only a couple of the riveters at the Stanley Steamer plant were pessimistic about the future of their product.

  10. Harry says:

    Attaboy, Chuck!

    Teslas, which people like Paul Allen can afford as toys, catch fire.

  11. wintercow20 says:


    The electric car was famously developed over 100 years ago. I have little sympathy for the “early adopter” argument when it applies to them. The rest of your point is worth noting, particularly given my pollyanna-ish tendencies on resources … but I’ll perhaps post my calculations (absent technological leaps) to support my claim. The early adopter argument has been used as a crow-bar to justify any willy-nilly investment as the precursor to some yet-to-be discovered better way of doing things.

    Of course, you can do all of the investing you want with your own money … but this claim is never made by the guys in the garages.

  12. […] few days ago Alex attempted to be a voice of reason in the “debate” about the symbolism and status-seeking involved in the purchase of many […]

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