Will ‘clunkers’ program deliver an environmental impact?

Supporters of Cash for Clunkers have suggested the program is both a floor wax and a dessert topping – it’s both good for the environment and a boost to the economy. Good mileage automobiles use less fuel. Less fuel is less pollution. It’s hard to argue with that logic.

But a study a few weeks ago raises more of a question about the drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Quality Planning, a consultant to the insurance industry, studied the habits of drivers of hybrid vehicles. It found they drove their vehicles 25 percent more than drivers of non-hybrids.

“The additional miles driven by hybrid vehicle owners would seem to offset the net ecological benefit of owning a fuel-efficient vehicle. After all, a gallon of gas is a gallon of gas, no matter which type of engine is burning it,” Dr. Raj Bhat, president of Quality Planning said on a posting on the firm’s Web site.

Bhat says he doesn’t know, however, if the lower per-mile cost encourages people to drive more miles each day or take more trips.

But why wouldn’t it? It’s an established fact, of course, that the cost of fuel changes our driving habits. As the price of gasoline went up last year, people combined trips and drove fewer miles. Why wouldn’t a reduced per-mile cost similarly affect drivers’ behavior?

A good question, perhaps, but one that doesn’t have an answer. We’ll have to do this anecdotally. If you’ve bought a hybrid — or other “fuel efficient” vehicle — in the last year or so, what was the bottom-line impact on the total amount of fuel you purchased? Did you change your habits from your gas guzzler days?

Update 3:03 p.m. – The Transportation Department released data on Monday showing the vehicles traded in so far averaged 15.8 miles per gallon, compared with 25.4 miles per gallon for the new purchases, or a 61 percent improvement. That’s a lot of extra driving you can do and still be ahead of the game.

Update 3:41 p.m. – Here’s the link to the Christopher Joyce piece on how long you have to wait to offset “new car carbon.” Audio should be available by 6 p.m. The story runs this afternoon on All Things Considered.

Update 3:47 p.m. – MPR’s Curtis Gilbert sends along this e-mail from Friends of the Earth:

Based on calculations done by colleagues of ours at CalCars (www.calcars.org), replacing an older, lower-mpg vehicle with a new, higher mpg vehicle reduces CO2 only if the replacement vehicle provides more than twice the fuel economy of the vehicle it replaces. This is why Cash for Clunkers is not an ultimately environmentally progressive program: the emissions avoided from transitioning to a 22 mpg vehicle from an 18 mpg vehicle does not, over the lifetime of the vehicle, make up for the energy embedded in the older car that is destroyed before its useful life is over, as well as the energy involved in manufacturing the new car–unless the mpg of the new car is double that of the old.

An important alternative to Cash for Clunkers is an idea that a colleague of ours, Felix Kramer of CalCars, has developed–i.e. to dedicate the cash that consumers would have put towards a new car to convert their older vehicles to electric vehicles. Please see more on this below and at the following link: http://www.calcars.org/scrap-or-retrofit.html