Cars and Trucks and Greenies That Go
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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

With apologies to Richard Scarry and Dingo Dog.
In this article, I'm going to talk about environmentalists, and perhaps poke at them a little bit. However, in the course of research, I learned some very interesting things about environmentalists. In fact, I have made what is, for me at least, a major discovery: I have learned why environmentalists are nutty.

See, when I tend to think of a radical environmentalist, I conjure up a leaf-eating greenie who wants to ban trucks and SUVs because of their size and lack of fuel economy. That they find such a government intrusion to be reasonable always struck me as bizarre and "radical" -- hence, radical environmentalists. But when I did a search online to see what kind of cars environmentalists themselves like to drive -- information that, by the way, is almost impossible to come by, which I found disappointing considering how eager they are to tell everyone else what to drive -- I hit page after page of the true environmental lunatic fringe.

People who think that China's social controls restricting family size, freedom of movement, and career path were great advances in human civilization. People who lament the industrialization of third-world countries. People who view humanity as a plague that Mother Nature will eventually and inevitably stomp out. Compared to these guys, simply banning half the vehicles on the market seems pretty middle-ground! Environmentalists are nutty because, with the goofballs they have to put up with, they can't see how the rest of us see them.

Fortunately, while most people are generally in favor of better fuel economy (who wants to spend more than they have to?), most people also still respect the right of others to live how they please. But that still leaves us with the not-quite-radical environmentalists who want to ban, or at least severely curtail the availability of, trucks. How they plan to define the cutoff of "okay" trucks, and how they plan to define and enforce the qualifications necessary to buy one of the "not-okay" trucks, generally remains unanswered.

Though the not-quite-radical environmentalists don't seem to be touting the benefits of whatever cars they prefer, we can extrapolate from sales data that they aren't exactly swarming all over the new hybrids. These cars still show sluggish sales despite astonishing leaps in fuel economy and emissions reduction. There are 700,000 members of the Sierra Club, and only about 11,000 Honda Insight cars on the road. Even assuming every Insight owner was a card-carrying Sierra Club member, which is a pretty bold assumption, that means only 1.5% of the Sierra Club wants a car that returns 75 mpg. Chuckle. Environmentalism indeed.

Oh sure, no doubt a fair number of Clubbers ride a bicycle or walk. But for the vast majority of us who are not blessed to have home, work, and essentials all within a four-mile circle, some sort of motorized vehicle is mandatory. And because Honda is the only company in the world that builds one of everything I'd like to compare, I'm going to compare the environmental consequences of several possible Honda vehicle choices. Here you go, you wacky not-quite-radical environmentalists, an honest comparison of how you stack up in the motorized-transport finger-pointing game.

My chosen vehicles are: a 2003 Honda Pilot (SUV! Booo!), a 2003 Honda Accord (if there was ever an everycar, this is it), a 2003 Honda Insight (king of the late-model fuel efficiency race), a 1988 Honda CRX HF (top contender in the old-school fuel efficiency race, and budget priced for college-age greenies), and a 1986 Honda CMX250 motorcycle (the ringer!)

Fuel economy. Probably the number one yardstick by which vehicular environmentalism is measured, even if it is a rather one-sided answer for a complex question. Nevertheless, the marching order for miles per gallon is the Pilot (22 mpg), Accord (30 mpg), CRX (52 mpg), Insight (68 mpg), and CMX250 (75 mpg). Mmm, yep, that's right, there's only a 36% difference between a typical SUV and a typical sedan. Meanwhile, those car drivers could turn in their sedan for an Insight and see a 126% increase, or go for the gusto and choose a motorcycle for a solid 150% increase.

Tailpipe emissions. Immediately following fuel economy, people measure the environmento-friendliness of a vehicle by its tailpipe emissions. Sure, trucks are probably "worse" than cars, but by how much? It's nearly impossible to get the exact emissions of a given vehicle, short of strapping it to an emissions tester, but the EPA kindly publishes the requirements for each emissions rating that a vehicle must face. Knowing the specification that a vehicle will meet gives a pretty good indication of its emissions performance. Here's a little table on how they stack up:

 

HC
(g/mi)

CO
(g/mi)

NOx
(g/mi)

PM
(g/mi)

Green Vehicle

Greenhouse Gases (ton/yr)

Pilot

0.80

2.2

0.4

0.08

5

9.9

Accord

0.41

3.4

0.2

0.08

6

7.8

Insight

0.05

0.2

0

0

7

3.1

CRX

0.41

3.4

1.0

0.20

**

4.0

CMX250*

1.46

26.7

0.1

0.10

**

0.9***

* Motorcycle data is particularly hard to come by, as motorcycles are exempt from emissions controls. These numbers are the EPAís baseline measurements for motorcycles with 250cc four-stroke engines.
** EPA doesnít give Green Vehicle ratings to cars older than 2000.
*** This information isnít available for motorcycles, so I used a carbureted 1.3L Honda engine as a baseline and prorated it for 250cc.

Oh-ho, what's this? The SUV actually produces less carbon monoxide than the sedan! It also produces only 0.39 grams per mile more hydrocarbons, and only 0.2 grams per mile more NOx emissions, while matching it perfectly for particulate matter. Sorry, I can't help getting just a little sarcastic here when I say big frickin' deal! Then compare that Accord's performance to an Insight, and we can all see where the real improvement lies. Poor environmentalists with old clunkers like the CRX aren't doing the atmosphere any favors either.

Even the old motorcycle -- which has no emissions controls at all -- betters the modern Accord in NOx, particulates, and greenhouse gases, while it does take a drumming in hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide from its lack of a catalytic converter. Get a newer bike with converters on it, and this penalty would evaporate. Clearly, there is no perfect solution, but the differences between trucks and cars are not really all that great.

Footprint. Part of the reason vehicles are an environmental problem is the amount of space they consume. Vast parking lots pave over ground that could otherwise absorb heat and moisture. Traffic jams string on for miles in part because each human, himself hardly a foot thick front to rear, uses a conveyance that is somewhere between 10 and 15 feet long. Just how much ground space is dedicated to each vehicle? The Pilot needs 100 square feet of space, about the size of a child's bedroom. But the Accord fares little better, returning only 5% to the world at 95 square feet! The Insight, by comparison, uses 28% less space than either one, at 72 square feet, and the diminutive CRX cuts it even tighter at 68 square feet. Still, even that is more than triple the amount of ground space taken up by the CMX250, at only 17 square feet! Just imagine. Switching from cars to motorcycles could quintuple the traffic load without paving a single extra foot of ground.

Hole in the Ground. I love this one. How big of a hole do you have to dig to recover enough raw material to build the vehicle? Well, on average, a typical car is about 64% steel, 8% aluminum, 20% plastics, and 8% other stuff. For the purposes of this evaluation I'll disregard the 28% plastics/other because, let's face it, that stuff is too hard to quantify at any meaningful level. For the metals, however, the mining industry knows pretty well how big a hole they have to dig to arrive at a given quantity of finished metal. And, typically, it takes 4.5 tons of rock (plus 700 lbs. of coal, 40 lbs. of limestone, and 23 million BTUs of energy) to make one ton of steel. Aluminum is even less efficient with 6 tons of rock (plus 1,020 lbs. of petroleum coke, 966 lbs. of soda ash, 327 lbs. of pitch, 238 lbs. of lime, and 197 million BTUs of energy) for every one ton of aluminum.

The Pilot, at 4,439 lbs., needs just under 15,000 lbs. of rock removed from the ground to make up the steel and aluminum components -- 12.8 cubic yards' worth. That'd be a hole nine feet long, six feet wide, and six feet deep. The Accord, at 3,360 lbs., fares better with only 11,000 lbs. of rock, for a 9.4-cubic-yard hole (seven feet by six feet by six feet). The svelte CRX, at 1,967 lbs., requires a comparatively lightweight 6,600 lbs. of rock, and a diminutive 5.6-cubic-yard hole in the ground (eight and a half feet by six feet by three feet).

The Insight poses a unique problem in that it is touted as an aluminum-intensive vehicle; the engine, body, and frame are all aluminum. Honda hasn't published the percentage of vehicle weight for aluminum, so for the purposes of this evaluation I'll simply swap the percentages of steel and aluminum used by the other cars. All that aluminum, being less efficient at the raw material stage, means the 1,878-lb. Insight will need 7,900 lbs. of rock, digging a 6.7-cubic-yard hole (ten feet by six feet by three feet).

The CMX250 also poses a bit of a problem. At 306 lbs., it's hard to believe that 28% of its weight (around 85 lbs.) consists of nonmetals. Unfortunately motorcycles haven't undergone the same industry scrutiny as cars, so more precise figures aren't available. I'll penalize the motorcycle by reassigning half that weight to steel. It therefore needs about 1,200 lbs. of rock (it would have been an even 1,000 lbs. without the penalty) -- a one-cubic-yard hole. You've probably dug that in your own yard.

Recyclability. Oh hey, I found a use for that 20% of vehicle weight after all. That's the amount of the vehicle going back into the hole it dug out -- the bits that, so far, no one has figured out how to recycle. Pretty elementary math here: 20% of each vehicle's weight is 887 lbs. for the Pilot, 672 lbs. for the Accord, 393 lbs. for the CRX, 376 lbs. for the Insight, and 61 lbs. for the CMX250. Just to drive a point home here, every other vehicle generated more non-recyclable solid waste than the original weight of the motorcycle.

Hello environmentalists. Did you say you were driving a car?

With all these numbers being thrown around, it seemed appropriate to devise a scoring system. I took the scores from each category and derived the standard values. This is a statistical method that makes it possible to compare numbers generated on unrelated scales -- such as we have here. The standard values represent the number of standard deviations from the average of the scores, and therefore have both positive and negative values. To mitigate this, I reassigned the worst score to 0 and recalcuated the others to represent the number of standard deviations away from the worst offender. Using this method, the worst score will always be 0, and the best score is theoretically infinite -- completely dependent on how much an improvement the best is compared to the worst -- but in practice no vehicle scored higher than 2.7 in any category. To avoid having the five-category emissions section dominate the scoring, I scored emissions separately and averaged the scores for an overal emissions score (this is why there is no 0 in emissions -- even the Pilot won in that section).

 

Fuel Economy

Tailpipe Emissions

Footprint

Hole in the Ground

Recyclability

Final Score

Pilot

0

1.4

0

0

0

1.4

Accord

0.4

1.7

0.2

0.8

0.7

3.8

Insight

2.0

2.4

0.9

1.4

1.6

8.3

CRX

1.3

1.1

1.0

1.6

1.6

6.6

CMX250

2.3

1.2

2.5

2.7

2.6

11.3

So, yes, it's true: the mid-size SUV is worse than the mid-size sedan. Greenies rejoice. But don't party too hard; the Accord only squeaked by because of the amount of material in the taller truck. If it weren't for all that mass, the Accord and the Pilot would be close enough to call it a wash. Meanwhile, the Accord got its LEV butt kicked by a 15-year-old barely-emissions-controlled dinosaur, and the Insight -- which is cheaper than an Accord and would probably be quite effective for most commuters -- blew it away with more than four points' difference. There's a bigger difference between an Accord and an Insight than there is between the Insight and our ringer, the motorcycle.

If the not-quite-radical environmentalists find such great offense in the 2.4-point spread between their beloved cars and the evil SUVs, then one would hope they bow down in tribute before every 7.5-point-better motorcycle that rides by. But they probably don't; they probably complain about the noise.

Which brings us back to the whisper-quiet Insight, and its inexplicably small sales relative to the number of card-carrying environmentalists in this country, complaining about what other people drive...