Commentary

Talk the Talk, but Don’t Drive the Car

When it comes to fighting global warming, most of my “greener” friends talk the talk. Fewer walk the walk by biking to or living within walking distance of work, and virtually none drives “the car.” The car is Honda’s gas-electric hybrid Insight, and data show that the Greens’ archenemies — Republicans — have taken to the cute little thing in disproportionate numbers. Why aren’t Greens driving the car?

Greens still think that the government is impeding the flow of energy-efficient technology. I witnessed an example of this last September, when I participated in a panel discussion with NASA global warming scientist James Hansen. Advocating the green side, Hansen argued that the main difference between our positions was our belief in the role of government. I maintained that people would adopt more efficient technologies on their own because, eventually, some will produce more output for less cost. He thought the government should “remove the obstacles” to the development and purchase of efficient technology.

Most people who go to meetings like that are convinced that global warming is a terrible problem. They hold other stereotypes, too, including assumptions about the lifestyle and mores of people who think it isn’t a problem. So the audience gasped when I pointed out that the there were no police roadblocks that prevented me from taking delivery on the 70mpg Insight I bought the previous month.

I bought a 2000 silver Insight, serial number 2630, on August 3, the day after it rolled off the truck at my local dealer alongside red serial number 2999. When I took it in for its 7,500-mile service last week, 2999 was still sitting there, along with a lot of other Insights around the nation. A remarkable one-third of the 5,600-odd Insights shipped here were not sold as of Dec. 31.

Trying to figure out why the Greens aren’t buying is difficult. Unlike a lot of cars, Insight meets its EPA mileage figures. The Agency gives a combined city-highway efficiency for this model at 65mpg (61 city, 70 highway). Seventy-seven owners on Insightcentral.net have an average of 63.0. My lifetime mpg, shown by the flashy onboard computer, is 67.2. Recently it gave me 70.5 from rural Virginia to Washington, averaging around seven miles above the speed limit on 160 miles of federal and interstate highways.

Maybe they don’t like the fact that it’s a two-seater, but many of my Green pals are unmarried, childless or drive alone. Anyway, the “average” car has 1.4 occupants. Maybe they don’t like the fact that its short wheelbase makes it a bit choppy, but, hey, these people eat kale and smile.

Instead, what has happened is a surprise to those who thought Insight would be a “greeniemobile.” Mean old Republicans are buying the car. One survey shows they outnumber Democrats two-to-one. The only Insight owner I know in Congress is Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

Like Sen. Bennett, who is awed by the design, Republicans are attracted to the machine. The all-aluminum Insight is the highest piece of rolling technology the common man can own. It has a drag coefficient of 0.25, the lowest of any mass-produced car in history. The onboard computing and display is stunning, tracking the microprocessors as they seamlessly swap power back and forth between the electric and gas motors. Because the electric engine kicks in whenever the pistons are in opposed position, twice in every revolution, the combined motive system is as smooth as an old Mazda rotary engine (which got 17 mpg). Most of the slowing of the car is done by a dynamic brake (as in a railroad locomotive) when the current to the motor reverses (making it a drag-inducing generator) as you tap on the pedal. There’s no plug. It charges itself while the gas engine loafs.

Techno-nerds and computer geeks trend Republican. They believe that technology, not government, is the key to the future. Nor is the government preventing anyone from buying this car, or keeping Honda from losing five figures per copy, on a vehicle that can be bought for $18,000 from dealers who want to unload their old inventory.

The loss-leading Insight was designed to defuse the Greens in a prospective Gore presidency, while all those Accords, Civics and Legends protect the company’s bottom line. Where are they now? Fifty-three million Gore and Nader voters have bought perhaps 1,000 Insights. They’ll talk the talk, they’ll conjure that the government is preventing them from purchasing efficient products, but they won’t drive a 70mpg car they can buy at a steal.

If Honda jerks the Insight — the Greens’ best chance to drive lightly on the earth — they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. Meanwhile, their Republican friends will own collector’s items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a few decades from now.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Satanic Gases.