Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

July 30, 2006

Three Things Realized on the Way to the Beach

Category: Conservation,Save Fuel,Transportation – Tom Harrison – 5:44 pm

We’re wrapping up what turned out to be a really nice weekend with a niece and two nephews, plus our own boy and girl — seven of us all together. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law took a nice and well-deserved weekend for themselves. It was a lot of kids in a not-so-big house, but we did just fine.

None of the kids got a lot of sleep, except during our ride to the beach when they all conked out within the first 15 minutes of the ride. Aunt K. and Uncle P. (names withheld to protect the innocent) left their Nissan Quest mini-van and yes, we were able to get all seven people in the van. There were three things we realized on our drive to the beach.

First, like our Prius, the Nissan Quest has a fuel economy meter that displays the actual average mileage and current mileage. The average in the Quest was 18.8 MPG. Whoa. The average in my Prius is currently reading 47.8 MPG (which is city + highway). So we could have driven both of our Prii to the beach, had plenty of seating and still would have used less gas! In defense of its owners, the vehicle was purchased a few years ago; I don’t blame anyone for having one of these: it’s what everyone did. Plus, they are watching our kids in a couple weeks so we can have a nice weekend away, and I don’t want to get them angry at me :-)

Second, gas prices are high. Yes, we realized this when we filled up the Quest and paid nearly $60. The most I have paid so far, as gas prices creep up, is $30 for a Prius fill-up. Ok, that sounds snarky, and is not anything new (it has been said the Prius drivers emit “smug”), but it was something that we realized sort of in a kind of “oh, wow, gas prices really are high” kind of way. Our only hope is that they go higher, since there clearly need to be as much incentive for people to buy fuel efficient alternatives. Yes, SUVs are getting hammered, but mini-vans are really kind of the same thing for the most part.

Third, on the way back from the beach, we heard an ad on the radio from a local car dealership. The guy was talking about the Honda Pilot, I think, and used the word “astonishing” to describe its 24 MPG (EPA), which, according to the ad dispels the myth that all SUVs are gas guzzlers. Call it what you will: SUV, Mini-van, truck, car, whatever: a vehicle that gets 24 MPG in 2006 is anything but “astonishing”, it’s a shame, and by that I mean shameful, that we could think of a car with that mileage as being anything but mediocre. This is still one half of what the Prius gets in real life driving. Yes, there are people who use their large vehicles for real jobs, but most people don’t really need SUVs or Mini-vans, or high-performance, or large cars. They just want them. Or perhaps “wanted” them.

No, the Prius is not the solution to all known problems. In fact, its mileage is only good on a relative basis. And yes, it is not large enough to hold seven people, only 5. What makes the vehicle we drove get poor mileage is mainly that it is large and heavy. The main point of all this is that many of the people we talk to, people whom we generally think are progressive, aware, intelligent and make good buying choices in so many other ways still stick to their guns when it comes to the car. I have heard more excuses about why a Prius or any hybrid is not a good choice for prospective car buyers. It is true that it does not cost-justified on fuel alone (at today’s prices). But that’s why gas prices need to go up.

The fourth of my three realizations on the way to the beach was that all 7 of us were traveling in great comfort. Indeed, our comfort was greater than the business class or first class seats of most airlines. We had music, personal cooling and heating, music, and I think the van was fitted for a video player — even an in-flight movie! We all had ample leg-room, arm-room and head-room. Why is it that we are willing to fly coach in horrible, cramped, uncomfortable seats for hours on end, but we need luxury (at the expense of fuel, etc.) in our cars? Sure, it’s nice, but it’s far from necessary.

And a bonus realization was that our parents, who had 4 children and 5 children respectively, sure deserve a lot of credit. Just feeding 5 kids is quite a challenge! But it really helps when they are great kids, and K & P’s kids are wonderful. Now if they could just get their parents to buy a more reasonable vehicle, snark, snark :-)


  1. I would love, love, love a Prius. But my partner-in-crime is a stubborn man with no sense of urgency to save fuel or reduce carbon emissions. And this, I believe, is why we have a serious problem in this country with regard to changing behavior. I agree that higher fuel prices will force some people to look to alternatives but there will always be plenty of people able and willing to pay to drive large vehicles.

    What is at the heart of P’s reluctance? Safety. He fears that I will meet my fate at the hands of the local SUV driver. I think this is merely an excuse, but it seems visceral to him (probably having to do with losing his brother in an auto accident).

    I’ve come to realize that affluence will probably be the death of us all because economics seems to be the prime motivator to affecting change. Education alone sure as hell doesn’t do it.

    I’m continuing my campaign, Tom. I will prevail! ;)

    P.S. Yes we have two DVD screens and I think they’ve been used about a dozen times in two years. While they sure are nice for longer trips, they clearly are not a necessity. Oh and your analogy to flying? Coach is just as safe as first class. But driving a larger vehicle on our fast and crowded highways is safer than motoring about in a vehicle that’s half the size of the average car on the road. Given that umpteen people are killed on the highways each day in this country, P’s safety issue does have merit.

    Comment by Kerstin — July 30, 2006 @ 6:38 pm

  2. K and the VIP are far from innocent. :)

    I’ve had the pleasure of riding in a friend’s Prius. I would love to have one. My ’72 bug only gets 30 mpg.

    Comment by poormary — August 1, 2006 @ 3:33 pm

  3. Tom,

    Great post on a great blog. (And thanks for the gas! I didn’t realize how astute I was to leave you with an empty tank.) A fourth realization that you might have had on the way to the beach is that the Prius is really from another stratosphere in terms of MPG, and that the US auto industry has virtually no “good” solution for the environmentally-minded.

    The Quest, just for example, is among the cleanest solutions for a load >5 people. It’s supposed to be getting 26 MPG (K and I must need a tune-up), approximately 2X the rating of truck-based SUVs and approximately the same as most midsize sedans. I’m pretty sure the US average MPG is 25.

    This average rating is the heart of the problem. All of our engine technology has gone into quicker performance off the line. Every year car makers boost horsepower and engine size, while holding economy constant. This is even true of non-Prius hybrid’s (advertised as green) from Ford and Lexus. Poormary’s bug points to one of the saddest cases, VW just launched the 2007 Rabbit–25 years after Mary’s gem, the newest bug-like car gets an astonishing 25 MPG. What progress!

    Fortunately, for both the environment and my marriage, Toyota (surprise!)is due to launch the Sienna minivan hybrid as a 2007 model. MPG is expected to flirt with 40–including leather, DVD and room for a flight attendant!

    Comment by Pete — August 2, 2006 @ 11:04 am

  4. Pete —

    All your points are dead on. My realizations were not so much that the Quest was bad — as you say it is better than average — mostly just, as you say, the average is so phenomenally bad!

    I would point out that the EPA estimates, pretty much for all cars, tend to be a rather significant overstatement of actual mileage. The Prius is typical in this respect; between city and highway driving, it’s rated at between 55 and 60 MPG respectively, but in reality gets between 42 to 50 MPG. So combining the numbers, if EPA says 57, reality is 45, which is about 22% less. So if the EPA says the Quest should get 26MPG, 22% less is about 20MPG in reality. And yes, you’re right that the current average mileage established by Corporate Average Fuel Economy is 25 MPG, and as reinforces, it’s often a gross overstatement of reality.

    Bottom line, cars suck.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — August 2, 2006 @ 10:58 pm

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