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If you want to know what I'm on about in the shortest time then please read the introductory first post and my current action plan. Comments are very welcome. And if you like this blog, please tell a friend. Thanks!

Sunday, 13 May 2007

I want a divorce - from my car

Early in the piece I laid out some concerns related to peak oil. Last weekend I expanded a bit on that and introduced the concept of localisation as an inevitable consequence of there being less fuel available for transport. More recently I've said some unkind things about biofuels in general and ethanol in particular. I finished with, "by far the most important thing to do right now is to simply use less fuel."

Alright, so I can talk the talk. But can I walk the walk? Well, I have a confession to make. And a real problem to sort out.

A bit over a year ago - well before sustainability concerns became part of my regular waking consciousness - I got a new car. My professional life requires a fair bit of travel and my employment package includes a vehicle allowance. I loathe log keeping and administration so I entered into a three year novated lease under which all of my vehicle expenses are automatically recorded and accounted for in a tax-effective manner.

That's all well and good, but now the sustainability issue has slammed me with a one-two punch. First, I chose a large six-cylinder car; and second, I'm obliged to travel at least 25,000 kilometers each year in it to avoid significant tax penalties. At an average fuel consumption of around 12 litres per 100km that's at least three thousand litres of fuel each year.

Remember that this is not just about greenhouse gas emissions, for which I could (and probably should) try to compensate through tree planting and other schemes. No, this is about the extravagant waste of a precious, irreplaceable and diminishing resource: oil itself. There were plenty of reasons at the time why this particular car seemed like a good choice but now, despite it being very well made and a pleasure to drive, I'm wishing I'd picked something a lot more fuel-efficient.

I'm going to look into my options for terminating the lease and work out whether I can afford to do so. I can't stop driving altogether (yet!) but I would feel much happier if I could replace this big car with a small motorbike or maybe a scooter. However, Michelle is terrified of me being smeared all over the road by a larger vehicle and so that may not be an option for the near future. That would leave me looking at a very small car or maybe a petrol-electric hybrid.

The big challenge - for every one of us - is to figure out how to live and work in a technologically advanced but transport-constrained society. And if peak oil is actually upon us then we need to start doing that right now just to prevent an enormous gap opening up between supply and demand which would result in spiralling prices and crippling fuel shortages.


"Yeah, I know we've had some great times together and you know I think you're great, and stylish and everything. It's just... I feel that you need more than I can afford to give. It's like we're not really compatible, not meant to be together, you know? So I uh, I really think that I need to spend some time with other vehicles. I'm really sorry. I... I want a divorce."


Michelle B said...

Well you know how to give a girl a heart attack. I can't help but be more concerned about the thought of you on a bike - the accident stats are just too real for me to write them off. I can understand the sentiment behind wanting to make a change from the VRX, the hard consieration that I see is you seem to regularly cart around these huge computer boxes that are currently in our lounge room. What will be you option for doing that with a bike/smaller car?

TB said...

Sorry hon - didn't mean to alarm you.

(Are we really going to have this discussion via a blog? I guess it's on-topic and possibly informative for people so here goes...)

If we ignore the safety concerns for a moment, a bike would be by far the better choice. Most of the time I don't need to move large boxes around the place. Much of what I do can be done with a laptop or two carried in a backpack. A bike would use the least fuel, help me avoid a lot of traffic congestion and make it much easier to find a park.

For those times when I need to move larger boxes or travel out of town for a few days, the low running cost of a bike would make it economical to hire a car. Boxes can be moved by couriers. It's also not unthinkable that we could share your car from time to time.

But I admit that a bike's advantages come at the price of an increased risk of injury. It wouldn't be quite so bad if more people rode bikes. But I'll take a good look at the really tiny car option as well - which is no small matter when you consider how tall I am.

Iain said...

All I can say is: if you do any form of long-haul driving for any form of majority, don't get a hybrid. (My own preference is for a bike + quality rider safety training, but I'm not you - and carrying computers around on a motorcycle is nontrivial. My only regular travel need is to and from work, and I have an okay public transport service for that.)

If you do a lot of highway driving, you're better off opting for a small diesel. The downside is that most small diesels don't come with an automatic transmission, but auto transmissions result in a degradation in efficiency anyway due to the workings of the torque converter.

Examples: the TDi Golf (5.5l/100km combined), or if you need the room, a station wagon such as the Mazda6 common-rail diesel (5.9l/100km combined). Mazda claim they can get 1200km out of the 55 litre tank at highway speeds, and I have reason to believe that's achievable, if the combined figure is 5.9 litres. The price of these is now within the same ballpark as their petrol equivalents.

All of the relevant figures should be available from the AGO's Green Vehicle Guide; in any case, there's a standardised test that all manufacturers must adhere to, so it is generally possible to compare apples with apples.

Having driven the TDi Golf I can say that its performance is comparable to the petrol one, even if the engine doesn't rev quite as freely. I couldn't imagine the Mazda6 being too different to it's petrol-burning twin.

The mileage for a Toyota Prius is excellent around town - the batteries do their best work when regenerative braking is possible - but mileage will hit 7-8 litres per 100km in highway conditions once the batteries deplete. This is of course somewhat higher than the usually stated 4-5 litres per 100km, and no better than any other four cylinder car. I've heard that the same applies to the Honda Civic, but I know it to be true for the Prius.

Diesels on the other hand are very good at developing enough torque at low revolutions, which in turn helps reduce the engine's speed at road speed, which in turn helps reduce the amount of fuel required. The down-side is that they're optimised for the longer haul, and diesels don't like ambling around town in start/stop traffic (notwithstanding the manual transmission). They'll still go through less fuel than an equivalent petrol, but a lot of the benefits are eroded in any case.

(A hybrid diesel would be the best of both worlds, IMHO, although I imagine the sticking point is the difficulty in starting/stopping diesel engines regularly.)

Diesels are also around 70% lower in carbon dioxide output per kilometre travelled, due to the smaller quantity of fuel they need to produce a specific power output. That said a diesel engine under load does generate various particulates - the black soot various large trucks can be seen to produce, particularly when climbing hills and/or with heavy loads. Smaller engines produce less soot, of course, and particulate filters/combustors are generally found on the small diesels sold over here.

Diesel engines also have the advantage of being able to run on a wider range (and wider quality) of fuels than a typical petrol engine. Chip oil (yellow grease) works fine, for example, and fairly soon BP will be supplementing their diesel with up to 20% non-petroleum oil (under the name B20). I would actually imagine that due to this, engines which run on diesel will be around for longer than petrol.

The smart automobile company (the consortium behind the fortwo) make a three cylinder diesel for their European fortwo range. It's capable of going from Darwin to Adelaide on 128 litres of fuel, or around 3.3 litres per 100km, as proven during a recent Solar Challenge.

Unfortunately it isn't sold here in Australia, and probably isn't practical if you're carrying more than the weekly shopping around!

TB said...

Hi Iain,

ta for the input. Most of the time I just need to get around the city so a hybrid would be fuel-efficient.

The ability to burn used frying oil and such in diesel engines is kind of interesting but it's not a practical solution for the world's transport challenges. Not only is there a hell of a lot less cooking oil available than the amount of crude we currently consume, but the emissions from fuels like that are full of sulphur and other pollutants which would make our cities uninhabitable if they were burned on a large scale.

Ian said...

The bicycle accident stats aren't all that far off car accident stats. The ATSB reports that in Australia there are currently about 40 cycle fatalities per year (as low as 26 in 2003) and falling, out of a bit over 1600 total road deaths per year, or about 2.5%. Statistics on the number of cycle trips vary, but are generally around the 2% mark and rising. Add in the other factors such as the even greater number of people killed by car emissions, the risk to your children from being run over in your driveway (about 13 per year) and improved health from cycling (not that Terry is at any risk of becoming obese), and cycling starts to look a whole lot safer than driving.