Monday, April 26, 2010

Prius as a Status Symbol, and Nothing More?

I don't like hybrids. I'll start with that. They aren't the least bit fun to drive. In some ways they are downright scary to drive. There is no physical connection between the brake pedal and the wheels. If something goes wrong, or the car shuts down, you will drift to a stop, and that is the best you can do. People seem to drive them horribly, for whatever reason. I can't tell you how many times I have had a Prius ten feet from the back tire of my motorcycle, on the freeway.

Priuses have been marketed with more efficiency than the actual car. The silly "cheese wedge" shape has become synonymous with "Green." In fact, the main reason that the Prius outsells other hybrids is that it looks like a hybrid. Toyota has been able to convert the Prius into a status symbol which portrays the owner as "Forward Thinking" or "World Minded," but most of all, "Green." In fact, in a 2007 survey of Prius buyers, 57% cite “Makes a Statement about me” as a reason for buying a Prius. ( That is nearly double the percentage interested in “Higher Fuel Economy” (36) or more than double for “Lower Emissions” (25). “Distinctive Styling,” in other words, the “Cheese Wedge” hybrid design, also ranked highly, at 33%.

In the article, several customers are quoted after buying Priuses.
“I really want people to know that I care about the environment,” said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. “I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car.” Mary Gatch of Charleston, S.C., chose the car over a hybrid version of the Toyota Camry after trading in a Lexus sedan. “I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there,” Ms. Gatch said. “I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.”

I cannot imagine being that pretentious with a car. Those owners show the same level of “Snobbiness” as charactures of owners of high end executive cars. I can’t help but think about the “Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?” bumper sticker we talked about in class. Priuses have made being “Green” a status symbol.

In reality, Priuses do not offer as significant energy savings over other cars as they are purported to have. They also require more resources to build, and therefore energy, to build. Even disregarding that fact, they are still a new car, and therefore have to be built. That takes resources, which would not have been used if the old car is kept. The gas mileage isn’t that much better either.

In the US, we think in terms of Miles Per Gallon, rather than in terms of Gallons/100Miles. Because these are reciprocals, this creates a skewed perspective, which assists in marketing. For example, 14 to 20 MPG, which saves twice as much fuel over a given distance as the improvement from 33 to 50 MPG. Every year, the average driver will travel about 10,000 miles. In a Prius, we’ll assume that it gets 45 MPG, which is 2.22 Gallons/100 miles. During the year, that corresponds to about 222 gallons of gas used. My 1995 VW Jetta has about 150,000 miles, with many more to come (at least 100,000), gets 30 MPG on the freeway. That is 3.33 Gallons/ 100 miles, and 333 Gallons a year. So the Prius only saves about 100 gallons a year. That may seem significant, but compared to the amount of energy used to make a new car, that is nothing. For the purposes of this post, I will assume that energy is roughly proportional to cost. If a new prius costs $25,000, it would be a fair estimate to compare that cost to about 1000 gallons of gas. In the ten years that you own the car, it could save about the cost of the car. However, the Jetta cost less to start with, at about $17,000, and will last for at least twice as long. So, at 15 years old, and 150,000 miles, it would be “Greener” to keep the car for another ten years, and not relegate it to a car crusher.

In addition, the batteries for a Prius are made from nickel, mined in an area of Canada so devoid of life from the acid rain caused by smelting, that NASA used it for training for the Apollo missions. Conventional, non-hybrid cars, such as clean diesels, or well tuned petrol engines do not have this unfortunate component. Diesels in Europe comply with stricter emissions laws, and can still return nearly 70 MPG.

When trying to do your part to keep the world clean, think about what you are actually doing. If your old car works, keep it. Do the math. If you want that status symbol, buy some “Carbon Credits” to show that you care. At the very least, those don’t cause acid rain.


  1. I posted something similar in an earlier post but I thought it would be worth restating. The prius isn't simply a status symbol. Most people that I know witness one have stated that it's an decision bases solely on economics. I know many people in LA that drive upwards of 500 miles in a single day. For them, when there was no better option, the prius was essential for saving money. Although it may not be the most fun car to drive, it does save some people money. Not that the environment isn't important, but for the majority of people money is simply a priority.

  2. The thing with the Prius is that hybrids are most efficient when driven in town, or stop and go traffic. For a long drive like that, a clean diesel is much better for the environment. They will last much longer (300,000 miles is not uncommon) and get better mileage(~56 MPG for the Jetta TDI)

  3. You make an interesting argument here. I feel that Prius' have become a pretty large status symbol of "green," but I don't think that that's all they represent. To some extent, they do "help" the environment with better emissions (if you are a new car buyer - i.e. your first car ever). Also, Toyota has purposely set out to represent their Prius' as symbols of green cars. For consumers that don't know much about hybrids or eco-friendly cars, the Prius gives them a car that has higher mpg while reducing their carbon footprint. You could then, argue that Prius buyers are ignorant, which is not completely true. Or that the intelligent consumers are buying Prius' as status symbols, which is also not completely true. Your argument is then, incomplete.
    You could also apply your argument to other "green" modes of transportations, such as a bike. If you were to say that bicycle owners ride bikes as a status symbol, that could be true for only a handful of people. It is more efficient then, say, a Prius. But what is even more efficient is walking on foot. People may simply like riding bikes, and others may simply like driving Prius'. So I don't completely agree with you that Prius' are simply status symbols. For some, Prius' represent forward innovation and a movement towards helping the environment, and for them, that is enough.

  4. Max: I reformatted your post so that it fit more neatly into the column. I suspect others had trouble reading it the first time, too!

    Thank you all for this interesting conversation about hybrids. I sold my dumpy little Saturn before moving to Berkeley about four years ago, and I have to say I have enjoyed not owning a car and getting around on my own two feet, but when it comes time to purchase a car again, I have a feeling I'll be wrestling with all of the issues that you have raised.

  5. One more thing, actually. Max's message about keeping your car, whatever it is, in good condition through maintenance... is an important one. Our culture has an unhealthy fascination with all things new, and the idea that we can "buy" our way to a greener Earth is downright silly. Though there are some problems to the logic of those who advocate "going lightly" in the world, in general, trying to get by with less, to not rest happiness on material goods (Do I have the nicest house on the block? Is my car impressive? Does my laptop double as a supercomputer?), to use the things we do buy into their venerable old age... these are all undervalued ways of life.

  6. Hey I thought this post was very interesting, especially about how they have negative effects upon the environment too. I especially liked your quotes relating to people's smugness, if I may borrow the concept from South Park, and I really think that type of pretentious attitude when it comes to environmental preservation deserves more skepticism and needs to change, especially when they don't know what they're talking about.