The Hidden Inefficiency of the Prius

By Deane Barker on May 20, 2008

Don’t Buy That New Prius! Test-Drive a Used Car Instead: Wired Magazine argues that buying a used car is vastly more energy efficient than buying a new Prius.

Making a Prius consumes 113 million BTUs, according to sustainability engineer Pablo Paster. A single gallon of gas contains about 113,000 Btus, so Toyota’s green wonder guzzles the equivalent of 1,000 gallons before it clocks its first mile. A used car, on the other hand, starts with a significant advantage: The first owner has already paid off its carbon debt.

I’ve often wondered about this: should we all just buy used cars? I look at the folks down in Cuba who have kept 1950s-era cars running just fine for decades now.

But then I think, doesn’t buying a used car just free someone else up to buy a new car? If you buy a used car, are you preventing a new car from being built? Or is it still going to be built and just go to someone else? You might not be directly responsible for a new car being built, but you’re indirectly responsible in the sense that you enable the market to exist. Right?

The sad, inescapable fact this all hints at is this: we just need buy less stuff, in general. We tend to only consider the energy efficiency of something once it’s built. We ignore the fact that an enormous amount of energy and resources go into building something in the first place. We pat ourselves on the back because we bought the efficient option, conveniently glossing over the manufacturing piece of it.

I guess that’s because once it’s built, that cost is sunk — it’s already incurred, so we therefore don’t feel responsible for it. I mean, the Prius is already built, and there’s nothing I can do about that right? But, back to my previous point, are we somewhat responsible because we enable the market?

At the risk of a jarring analogy, it’s like child porn. In the eyes of the law, if you consume it, you’re just as guilty as if you produced it, because without you, the market couldn’t exist and it wouldn’t need to be produced in the first place.

So, perhaps the true environmentally-friendly answer is…don’t buy a car at all? Buy a bike? But how much energy does a bike take to manufacture?!? Oh, hell, just walk then. But the walking shoes…

So, the final solution: walk naked (link mildly NSFW, but highly relevant).

Wired has a whole series of articles in the latest issue debunking sacred cows of environmentalism. It’s a good read.

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  1. That Prius was already scheduled for production.

    I’ve been reading these articles too. Wired’s using lame debate tricks to make an argument. It goes like this: pick a topic everyone holds close to their heart and slice it thin enough so as to pick it apart.

    Bottomline is simple. You’re no more responsible for the impact of building that Prius than you are for the way a previous owner drove / maintained a used vehicle. And buying used means lessening the depreciation on a non-efficient vehicle. Who’s to say the owner of that Tahoe isn’t just bouncing to the new body style?

    How would you rather replace those used vehicles, you buying a Prius or someone else buying something far less efficient?

    Wired can repost their article when we start talking about the coming iron ore crisis.

    ps, as for Cuba, they probably have it right (because they have no choice). But vehicles get less efficient with age. And there’s an obvious economic impact to removing production demand.

  2. Er, or you could buy a used Prius. Problem solved.

    Really, this kind of knee-jerk contrarian stuff is just silly. Comparing BTU’s used in manufacturing to exhaust gasses is incredibly apples-to-oranges.

  3. Cars in the 1980’s had it right. Before all the added luxuries, cars weighed a whole lot less than they do now. 40 mpg was a lot more common.

  4. So, the final solution: walk naked

    In the midwest? With the seven month winter? No thanks. :-)

  5. This article just happened to be on CNN’s site today – I used to own a Metro, and while it was daggone uncomfortable for my knees, I can’t argue with the mileage it got.

  6. in a nutshell, you get nothing from nothing. it’s like telling people to turn off the air conditioner because fossil fuel is being fed to produce power to the grid. One has yet to know how reliable the battery cells are…

  7. I drove my first prius 108,000 miles.The ONLY maintenance i ever had done was an oil change ever 5000 miles(full synthetic…and often over the 5000 mile limit)and new tires ONCE.I now have my second prius. I am averaging 51.8 miles a gallon and no that is not out of the ordinary…that is just how good the gas millage is! I could care less about global warming,my carbon foot print,the polar bear or any other “green” topic. BUT I do care about my money…and at over 50 miles a gallon I will continue to drive a prius! In 2010 when the come out with the new model(lithium batteries)and its getting 90-100 miles per gallon you bet I will upgrade….either that or wait for the Tesla roadster :) …and oh your argument to buy a “used car” to lower your carbon footprint is a JOKE right? Do the math. 20000 miles a year at 25 miles per gallon vs 20000 at 50 miles a gallon. Or do they not teach math any more?

  8. 20,000 miles a year is a lot. I think the accepted standard is something like 12,000 miles.

    And where do you get 25 mpg? In the post, we were taking about mileage in the high 30s.

    Change those variables (I’ll assuming 37 mpg; 12,000 miles a year; and $3.80 gas), and you’re saving a grand total of…

    …$320 a year.


  9. Lol! lets talk about the pollution created by the processes and stuff when actually making a prius, shall we?

    i know quite a bit about the prius. we all know they cost heaps to purchase, and that you save on fuel, but you dont actually end up making up for fuel savings on the prius until after you have used it for decades after (like 50yrs)

    Getting back to the point: The pruis’ components generate alot of pollution whilst being made by the factory processes. Also, eventually the power cells and special batteries used to drive the electric motor, and the motor itself, will eventually die. This will not be cheap to replace. The power cells are quite expensive, and compared to having them installed in cars (ie pruis) on assembally in comparison to someone getting a professional to install a new power cell/s will cost tonnes of money (around 30-50k)

    Another thing on my mind in regards to pollution. I have heard that it would be more proffitable and better for the environment (due to manufacturing processes and materials with the pruis) would be to buy a Ford Focus…yea ino, i didnt quite believe it at first until i looked into it further. (e.g. better pollution rating incl manufacturing processes compared to pruis)

    In the end you may end up saying (or coming to a conclusion) that the pruis isnt actually better for the environment than normal petrol or diesel power cars. The high pollution generated when creating the components, to the repairing costs of dead components down the track (decades later as it may be, but still expensive, and generating more pollution to replace dead components) backed up by the initial cost of the Pruis helps hinder the overall successfullness of the pruis of being named “a cheap, cleaner way”

    My final thought: Id rather spend 40-50k on an audi A4 with a slow-guzzling diesel engine, which produces more power and less overall pollution than gasoline and petrol engines (40% less fuel)

    …or a homemade electric car (wait a sec, i might be contradicting myself with the powercells…:$)

    :D hope this posts helps with pepl and cars : )


  10. Its all garbage…if the world is “globally warming” how come they are putting taxes on carbon use as apposed to banning it all together? Clean air would be nicer but no one is saving anything, the only good thing that is comming out of this whole ordeal is that people are making cars get more miles per gallon,hence saving me money.

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