Green Update: Are Green Cars Doomed to Fail?

1899 Columbia electric Landaulet

1899 Columbia Electric Landaulet

Boy, we do love our cars. Some of us love them so much we even convince ourselves to like green cars, those expensive, range-limited toys that make us feel we’re doing our part to reduce greenhouse gases and global warming. The Frankfurt International Motor Show is going crazy with green cars.

I write about ’em every week and praise them, for all their flaws, as a step in the right direction. Yet in fact, as one authority argues, in the grand scheme of world pollution, your individual actions have virtually no impact. The problem is far too vast.

Recycling and refusing plastic bags at the store can make you feel better but, like driving a green car, it won’t make a quantitative difference. The actual present economic, biosystem and health damage done by carbon dioxide pollution is about $400 per person per year in the U.S.

Society pays for this in a kind of reverse socialism, rather like we do with emergency room health care. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is doing all it can to catch up to us in their emissions, though some “third-world” countries act in more enlightened ways than we do.

Finally, the only means to escape the quagmire is through collective action—by some kind of cap-and-trade, says our authority, which has worked in the past. Most important, people have to pay for their actions in a free economy—and understand that it’s in their self-interest to do so. If not, the free lunch ends in a dead planet.

Collective action? Regulation? Are you kidding?

The prospect of anything like collective action to regulate greenhouse gases today would probably be called “treasonous” by our leaders in Texas, Washington—or Europe, for that matter. Converting to a green economy is totally off the radar. Our jobs are disappearing for reasons that almost never get discussed.

But the point is not to quit producing and driving green cars, or building mass transit, or trying to reduce your impact. Green cars are at last developing into a real industry sub-segment. Those who buy and respond will eventually be the game-changers, even though only God knows how long it will take to alter the country’s collective will to act on pollution and climate change.

The green-car crowd is sometimes laughed at, but its numbers are growing. It has begun to influence the industry in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Even through sentimental advertising like this from Nissan, one hopes that a modicum of public consciousness is being raised.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s old-school boosters, like this flack, say things like “big engines are inherently fun,” and “[e]ight cylinders are as American as apple pie.”

We’ve got a long road to travel in this country.

Do you think green cars will make it in reasonable numbers in the next ten years?


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  1. Are green cars really green? When you compare a hybrid to it’s standard brother, you’ve got a car with much more electronic content (all of which requires highly toxic chemical process to produce), batteries which in most cases have large amounts of toxic metals like Cadmium, and the same gas engine system. So you arrive at the question: “When you include the environmental impact of manufacturing/operating/disposing the extra equipment of green cars, are they really green?” IMO it’s about a break-even proposition.

  2. Depends on what you call “reasonable”. To date only the Prius has made a significant impact toward achieving some modicum of “greenness”. One has to be impressed with what they have done in light of the resistance of the public to these green vehicles. Carmakers, other than Toyota, are reluctant to build these in numbers large enough to make any significant impact to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Cost is still the primary obstacle to more widespread acceptance. From an economic perspective these vehicles make little sense to purchase. A $3 to $5 K difference of a hybrid over a base model makes little sense even to an undereducated buyer.

    Much like an increase for gasoline taxes, increased hybrid buying will hit the lower income groups the hardest. So if we are looking for middle class buyers to be the core buying group perhaps sales of green vehicles could increase markedly if production cost decrease significantly. Government subsidies will also help defray the cost of these vehicles until other political parties bring subsidies to a grinding halt. The biggest incentive to greater hybrid buying is CAFE standards. Carmakers will be spurred to increase production not because they want to, but rather because they have to.

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