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climate change








Smart Cars, Hybrids, and Our Spaceship

Toyota PriusFor just over a year now, I have been using a Toyota Prius from PhillyCarShare, a local car-sharing agency, when only a car would do the job—for hauling items too heavy for a hand cart, a long trip to a place with no public transit, and similar tasks.

The Prius is unquestionably a fine piece of engineering. On a 200-mile trip with city and highway driving, it averaged about 45 miles per gallon of fuel. It provides feedback on all its systems, and most of its controls are digital and easy to use. It rides comfortably, accelerates smoothly, and has a sleep mode for the engine that virtually eliminates idling at traffic lights. If the solution to our transportation problems were merely a change of automotive technology, the Prius would be a good candidate for the assignment.

So, to be fair, would the so-called "smart car," a small vehicle which is becoming popular among sport utility vehicle (SUV) owners and others looking for fuel economy now that gasoline in the U.S. is hovering at $4.00/gallon. Automobile makers, even those in the U.S. who previously didn't get it, are rushing to fill the demand for efficiency even as they struggle to sell thousands of unwanted low-mileage SUVs. General Motors, which has been staggering toward bankruptcy for the last nine months or so, is even advertising alternative fuel cars powered by hydrogen, electricity, and hybrid technology similar to that of the Prius.

All of this sounds good, and it cannot hurt if we begin to drive more efficient vehicles. But the problem goes beyond fuel efficiency. The private car has always been the least efficient way to move people from one place to another. Making our cars smaller and more economical will do little to change this. One city bus, for example, can replace 40-50 cars if each car carries one person. If each car has a passenger and a driver, the bus can still replace 20-25 cars. This saves road space, speeds up commuting, and uses less fuel per passenger-mile than even the most efficient car.

The private car has another and more important inefficiency. A high percentage of an automobile's carbon footprint stems from the resources used to manufacture it. Buses and trains also have a built-in footprint, but because they carry passengers more efficiently than a fleet of cars, their total footprint per passenger-mile is lower than a private car.

There is also the question of parking space. One of the major problems with a car is that you have to put it somewhere. Central Philadelphia has over 500 parking facilities, many of them surface lots that break up the urban fabric, complicate water runoff, and turn some areas of the city into treacherous wastelands—literally: empty, deserted areas like parking lots can encourage crimes against persons.

The earth, which is in effect a kind of spaceship, does not have this kind of room to waste. Shared cars, on the PhillyCarShare model, would, if widely used, take up less space than a fleet of cars that outnumbers licensed drivers (as in the United States). There would be fewer of them—one shared car for every 20-30 drivers instead of more than 1 private car per driver. They would come close to the architect Moshe Safdie's concept of the utility car, which would be available for short trips around a city after a traveler or commuter had arrived in the city by train or bus. The Prius or a smart car would make an excellent utility car. It also makes a good shared vehicle.

What these new car models cannot do is transform the world merely by replacing the current car fleet. Replacing all our SUVs with Priuses would save fuel. It would not save the planet.