Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Drop In the Bucket

Yesterday, me and the missus went to our local Toyota dealership and bought ourselves a nice shiny Prius.

It is, without question, an awesome little car. Well, not really little. It's quite spacious, rides reeeeal smoov, and is filled with all the latest gadgets and gimcrackery. It hums and whirs softly to itself as you drive, the perfect robot butler efficiently accommodating your needs and desires. It both speaks and will obey spoken instructions. It feels like the Car of the Future. Is it fast? No. But it gets you there, and when you come to a stop, those regenerative brakes sound for all the world like a K'tall Citizen-Grade Transmatter Drive on final approach.

I love that sound.

The Prius is also a much less expensive car than it should be. Though it's the iconic hybrid, it's always been a bit of a loss for Toyota. The tech it showcases wasn't cheap to develop, and it isn't cheap to produce. Even at retail price, Toyota was barely recovering it's investment. Now, though, they ain't movin' off the lots. The reasons for this are threefold.

First, there was the "braking" issue with Priuses. It was never a significant issue, but between media hype and an easily panicked public, the Prius name is a bit tarnished. Second, there was the Toyota QC thing. Having overexpanded, Toyota badly mucked up quality control in pursuit of market share, and suddenly folks are more reluctant to buy them. Increased warranty coverage and two years of free maintenance just aren't enough.

Third, Americans are just the teeniest bit short-sighted. I see many, many, many new Jeeps and SUVs on the Beltway this summer, purchased by people who got stuck in the blizzards this winter and who've utterly forgotten that gas prices are still historically low. Fuel at the pump is mysteriously sticking under the trigger point of three bucks a gallon...and so no-one is buying those silly little overengineered hybrids with their high-price tags. They don't make economic sense, and they're piling up on the lots with all sorts of incentives to buy. Where once there were waiting lists and dealer premiums, now you can haggle to your hearts content. As I most certainly did. Man, I love haggling for cars.

For us, the combination of comfort, Meet the Jetsons styling, and efficiency makes it perfect. Do I for a moment imagine it makes a difference in combating America's addiction to oil? Well, not meaningfully. Our family gas costs will decline, sure. We'll consume hundreds of gallons less gas a year. We couldn't buy more efficient personal four wheeled transport. Will that ultimately save us money? Nah. We're unlikely to recoup that hybrid premium unless gas gets waaay more expensive. And that'll never, ever happen, right, kids?

But globally? There simply aren't enough Americans who care. Most folks would prefer to just pay the cash and buy more gas. It's easier. It makes more financial sense. Ecology and the well-being of creation take a back seat to the immediate gratification of horsepower and the illusion of rugged individualism. Folks with my mindset are a drop in the bucket. Or, as occurred to me today, a drop in the Gulf.

Today, I held up a little ruler to my computer screen, and measured from the farthest points of the Gulf oil spill. I got a distance that is comparable to the drive from Germantown, Maryland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That's around 259 miles. It'd take us four hours and nine minutes to drive it.

Should I take comfort in knowing that in our shiny shiny Prius, that'd only use about half a tank of gas?

Woo hoo.