The last time I drove with my father in his Prius I swore I’d never do it again. He stares down at the console between the driver and passenger, rarely ahead through the windshield, and he makes constant small adjustments of the accelerator and brake pedal. I never knew whether we were slowing down or speeding up, and the rapid back-and-forth made me sick.
I thought he drove as he did because he was old, but as I didn’t want to say that. Then last summer I bought a Prius. My earlier effort to save the planet through car ownership was buying a diesel VW Jetta, and I had a solid five years of self-satisfaction before VW got caught rigging its vehicles to trick emissions testing, hiding the fact that they gave off 40 times the allowable levels of nitric oxide. Unlike most auto company scandals this didn’t result from negligence but rather from deliberately taking advantage of those of us who thought we could have it all -- performance, low emissions, and cost savings at the pump. It was all a lie.
Unlike VW, the Prius positively projects honesty and good intent and Prius drivers are nothing if not well intentioned. The Prius makes some rather bland concessions to comfort and performance, but that’s really not the point. This is a car that you can drive with the righteous belief that the more you drive it the more good you’re doing.
Prius owners greet each other with understated respect and camaraderie, but with an undercurrent of competition. It’s not long before we exchange our mpg average. If you are higher than your fellow Prius owner, you feel both a little satisfaction and a little guilt, the way a Calvinist must view his brethren who are not among the elect appointed unto glory.
Prius drivers tend to be data-obsessed and technocratic, and in that realm the Prius doesn’t disappoint. You can view the overall mileage throughout your car’s entire lifetime, as well as access the “Eco Diary,” a data log that tells you the percentage of time you used the electric motor (kind of a purity index) and how many hundreds of miles you can drive until your next fill-up, and you can relive your entire journey via bar graphs that display your energy consumption every minute along the trip. And the Prius will calculate the money you’re saving on gas, if you need an economic rationale to bolster your good works. Prius drivers are those kids who always did their homework. Other kids cheated off their tests.
When you shut the car off (it’s difficult to know whether it’s actually off because it’s eerily quiet) you get a score and narrative feedback based on your acceleration, braking, climate control (your score is really based on not doing those things). The report card (“Eco Score”) says something like “62/100. You were a bit heavy on the gas, but we believe you can do better.” Last time I was in school a 62 was a “D” and the teacher’s encouragement had a condescending tone. Laying off the air conditioning gets you extra points, as does gliding, coasting, gentle braking, and accelerating gently and incrementally onto Route 128, though it doesn’t win you any points among Boston drivers.
The most compelling and instantly gratifying graphic reward of the Prius is the large color touchscreen on the console, which offers an animated real-time representation of energy flowing around the engine, wheels, and battery. When the wheels are charging the storage battery it’s like watching money being deposited into your bank account. But when the bright red energy bands show that the gasoline engine has been activated you feel disappointed in yourself; this is costing you money, overheating the planet, and will lower your Eco Score. But there is a sweet spot, right around 45 mph, where you can maximize your Eco driving style by ever-so-gently alternating light acceleration and braking, whether you’re on the Autobahn or in a school zone.
Now I realize that though my father was driving like an old person it wasn’t because he was old. He was maximizing his fuel economy. He was looking at the console not because he didn’t care what was happening on the road but because the touchscreen animation was more important. And he alternated between accelerator and brake to keep the car at that 45 mph, entropy-defying, cost-free, carbon-free zone of timeless mobility, when all's right with the world.