It's my personal soapbox, a place for me to express thoughts and feelings, musings and rants, reflections and recollections; to have fun with words -- about things spiritual, environmental, social, political, economic, and, from time to time, personal. And of course about peace. Soapboxes are in public places (as London's legendary Hyde Park) on purpose, and so I invite conversations with you, for it is through civil discourse that we can gain some perspective on the seeming chaos of these changing times and learn together how to shape a positive future for ourselves, our communities, and the generations to come.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Driving My Civic Hybrid and Economic Rationality

I'm leaving  for the airport in an hour for a flight to Vermont to attend the National Peace Academy's week-long Peacebuilding Peacelearning Intensive. I'm not likely to get a chance to write any The Green Pen posts before getting back, so here's a blast from the past to share. From July 2005, to be exact. Today's comments are [bracketed in italics].


There was an article in the paper the other day [July 2005] about Honda upgrading its hybrid Civic model in order to give the Toyota Prius a run for its mpg money. I’ve been driving a Honda Civic hybrid for almost two years, now, and I love it. [And I'm still driving it -- 8 years and 100K miles in all and counting.]

In making the leap, I took a big risk, I have to admit. Not with the Civic, mind you. No, the risk was that I sold my old 1991 four-door and -cylinder 180,000-mile-old Accord to a friend, forgetting for the moment that one of the reasons I was selling it was that it was getting on in miles and I didn’t want things to start going wrong with it. Fortunately, my friend is still my friend because she has had absolutely no problem with it these past two years and is now selling it again herself.

Anyway, two things I’ve noticed about the mileage I get with the Civic hybrid.

First, the dashboard display panel has two very useful mileage-related metrics. One is the average miles per gallon you have achieved since the last time you reset the gauge to zero. The second metric shows the instantaneous mpg; it’s as if it’s dividing the speed at each moment by the fuel flow rate at that very same moment. For all I know, that’s exactly what it’s doing.

I generally reset the average mpg counter to zero whenever I fill up with gas. I also, as a check on the gauge, calculate in my head the average mpg by dividing how many gallons it took to fill it by the miles driven since the last fill-up. And the calculated result always comes out two to three mpg less than the average reported on the gauge. Always. I don’t know why. It just does. It’s not that I drive a lot in reverse (guessing that perhaps the averaging mechanism doesn’t count miles driven in reverse). So, it’s a mystery.

I generally get 42-45 mpg – by my calculations, not by what is reported on the gauge. Which brings me to the second thing I’ve noticed. And that is that the mpg I get is very sensitive to how I drive. And that I drive much better – or, at least, more fuel efficiently – with the hybrid than before. [Now, six years later, I'm getting more like 38-40 mpg, possibly because the car is older but  more likely because California has "upgraded" it's fuel mix regulations on the gasoline companies, requiring more ethanol in the mix for more months of the year.]

It’s that instantaneous gauge that does it. Like biofeedback, I find myself looking constantly at that gauge to see how I’m doing, to try to push the mpg line all the way to the maximum right end. Sort of a “personal best” contest with myself. With my eye there and my ear (sometimes) on the cell phone, I must be a real danger on the road, though a fuel efficient one to be sure. [Rest assured that, nowadays, no more cell phone use while driving -- hands-free or otherwise.]

So, I pull away from intersections smoothly and slowly. I drive at steady speeds. And I coast a lot. For instance, I look far down the road, and, if I see the next light change to red, no matter how far away, I immediately take my foot off the gas and coast. Not only does this coasting recharge the battery, but I’m not burning more gas to maintain speed that will only have to be braked away in heat if the light doesn’t change before I get there. [Another big advantage of minimizing braking -- after 100K miles, I have yet to need new brake pads!]

I never used to do all this, but that darned instantaneous gauge tells me I’d better if I’m to best my personal best. One thing I can’t do, at least not always, is, when the weather is nice, I still like to drive with the windows down and the wind blowing on my body. Oh, what a feeling! (Oh, wait, that’s Toyota’s line.) And this even though Click and Clack on NPR’s Car Talk have said very clearly that it is more fuel efficient to drive with windows up and air conditioner on than with windows down and air conditioner off. Apparently, the wind drag is a bigger fuel burner than the air conditioner.

Anyway, I’m convinced that a large part of the mileage gain over my old Accord is due to reasons other than the hybrid technology itself. In other words, I used to get 27-30 mpg with the Accord. So, now I’m getting about 50 percent better than that with the hybrid. Not bad. But, consider that if I had just gone from the Accord to a newer, smaller, lighter weight standard Civic, I probably would have increased my mileage probably 15 to 20 percent right there. Then, if I were to drive that standard Civic the way I drive the hybrid one, using the biofeedback, I guess I’d increase the mileage another 10 to 15 percent. So only the final half or so of the mileage improvement would be due to the hybrid technology.

The moral of the story is that, if we are concerned about skyrocketing fuel costs, we can save a lot almost immediately if we would just drive smaller, lighter cars and drive them (or even our current vehicles) more efficiently, which also, by the way, would be more safely. And all without having to buy new hybrid vehicles. Maybe it would help if new standard vehicles were also to come equipped with those instantaneous mpg gauges. No reason they couldn’t.

One final note on hybrid economics. There is no way the fuel savings over the life of the car would ever cover the higher purchase price of the vehicle. So, why buy it? Well, I’m getting more than just fuel savings for that added price. And it’s not just do-gooder feel-goods; there are very real economic benefits to be had.

Cleaner air has a value. Helping reduce emissions of greenhouse gases has a value. To me and other hybrid drivers as an individual as well as to society at large. In other words, to  us those are not externalities.

And this reasoning applies to other things than cars, too. We do not need government regulations to mandate the explicit pricing of what has heretofore been considered outside the economic system. We can, each one of us, choose to assign a value to them and make our personal consumption decisions accordingly. Perfectly economically rational.

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