12/02/2011 10:08 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Musings About a "Colossal Commute"

As the carbon count goes higher, inexorably, globally and the world community suffers from mounting challenges due to climate chaos, the value of incrementalPrius MFD (2004) individual change can seem meaningless. So what if a household figures out how to save 500 kilowatt hours a year and $50 by installing cfl light bulbs (or by using LED Christmas lights) if they still head off to the grocery store in a McSUV? Our challenges are so immense that these incremental baby steps won't solve them yet there is a good case to be made that we won't meaningfully tackle those challenges without baby steps as part of the equation. This equivocation and uncertainty came to mind in reading a Toyota Today (the magazine targeted at Toyota dealers and sales staff) article entitled Prius Conquers Colossal Commute.

Bob Callen was reluctant to buy a Prius back in 2004. With a daily commute of 320 miles roundtrip, he was afraid he'd have to replace the battery in less than two years.

But, he says, "I decided to chance it and buy."

His 2004 Prius has since racked up 500,000 miles -- and it still has the original battery.

Two of many reactions.

  • Fuel savings: As per the article, Callen replaced an "18 to 20 mpg" vehicle with a Prius in which he gets "45 to 47". At 20 mpg, this would have burned 25,000 gallons of gasoline while at 45 mpg he actually burned 11,111 gallons. This is a difference of just under 13,900 gallons. At $2 per gallon, that $27,800 pretty much paid for buying a Prius. At $4, the figure Callen calls "average" for his purchases, he paid for the Prius two times over.
  • Reduced carbon load: Callen's driving a Prius, as opposed to a moderately inefficient vehicle, cut his driving carbon load by about 350,000 lbs of CO2 emissions (175 tons). (While burning "unleaded gasoline has 8.91 kg (19.643lbs) of CO2 per gallon", this commonly used figure ignores the full well-to-wheel implications of exploration, extraction, transport, refining, and sale of the fuel. This fuller figure, dependent on analytical approach, adds in the range of 25 percent to gasoline and diesel. Excellent figure comparing diffferent fuel sources well-to-wheel CO2 loads here (pdf).)

Pretty impressive that Callen can continue what he was doing (more than 300 miles per day of driving, just for commuting) while saving serious amounts of money and significantly reducing his carbon footprint.

Also impressive? Toyota Today failed to highlight either of these calculations, which one would think would help them in selling fuel-efficient vehicles.

Now, for some more reactions.
  • Still huge amounts of fuel: For that daily commute, 320 miles, Callen cut his fuel use from 16 gallons to 7. That is an impressive change. Bravo! ... Ummm ... 7 gallons per day in commuting means 175 lbs of CO2 emissions before we even talk about the CO2 load of building/maintaining/selling/etc the Prius let alone any of the other aspects of Callen's life(style). At 200 days/year of work, that would translate to 15,000 lbs of CO2 emissions solely for commuting. That 7.5 tons/year is, for example, just about the average Italian's annual emission load.
  • Life's burdens and choices: Callen has chosen, because his wife is dedicated to their resort-like home, a commute that takes up about seven hours per day of life.

"Once we got the horses and the grandkids moved in, my wife let me know I could work wherever I chose as long as I understood she wasn't moving." Callen leaves home at 2:30 a.m. and arrives at his office at about 5:30 a.m. He heads home at 3 p.m., arriving between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., depending on traffic.

Callen works as a sales manager for Canon U.S.A. Let's play some thought games here. Why not, Mr. Callen, get an apartment near your office and convert to a compressed work week? Do one commute per week, rather than five, and be in the office four days per week at 10 hours per day saving 28 hours per week in reduced driving, reducing carbon loads by 700 lbs per week in terms of reduced driving, and gaining three day weekends. One would expect that a major corporation would have flexible work policies to enable this. Or, considering the modern working world, it seems reasonable to question just how much "face time" is required and whether Callen's commutes could be reduced via telecommuting.

This story, read while having our own Prius (under 10,000 miles per year, as primary car ...) get maintenance at the shop, sparked thinking about unemphasized 'great' elements of the story (financial payoffs and reduced pollution) and unexplored negative implications (safety of other motorists of a potentially exhausted Callen on the road; etc ...). All explored within wondering about incrementalism and whether we should consider things from the perspective of 'better than Business As Usual" (look at all that reduced pollution and how much money is being saved) or from the perspective of what we need to do (look at all the pollution that is still being emitted) to address global challenges.

While Mr. Callen's 320 mile commute won't drive climate change even in the worst fuel hog, his life choices provide a window for considering our larger challenges and opportunities.