My Hybrid and I

He has a carbon footprint larger than Table Mountain, which is rather modest considering his travel schedule, laments Dave Pepler as he eschews the virtues of hybrid technology.

For a living, my travels take me from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, Tete to Addis Ababa, and Dar es Salaam to Upington, using mainly aircraft, a major polluter of our upper atmosphere. For someone who professes to be an ecologist and militant green warrior, this is a terrifying cross to bear, especially in forums where I fulminate against
the current disregard for our fragile planet. Often I have to face a militant member in the audience, who, with a quivering finger, accuses me of ecological high treason and bigotry.

Naturally there is an element of truth in their accusations because, if I had to be totally true to my word, I would have to live in a tree house built from rubble, sleep under newspapers and consume weed salad, followed by acorn coffee served in an abandoned jam tin.

In fairness though, I live in a tiny house, use only bicycle transport when at home, forage for much of my food, and heat my little cottage by burning invasive weeds in a high-tech wood stove. My lighting is exclusively powered by lightemitting diodes, in summer I cook with solar energy, and my hot-water system is double insulated and on
a timer. In a nutshell, I consider my actions, which is not a bad mantra for modern living, because every action you take in life has some effect on the environment.

I come from a family of cyclists, from my grandfather, down to my dad, who believed that you should be prudent in your habits, including travelling. My maternal grandfather, Oupa Boy, bought his Rudge bicycle in 1921 and used it his entire life until 1969. Today I own four bicycles, including a rather fancy battery-assisted German hybrid, a high-tech beauty with lithium-ion batteries that recharge while freewheeling downhill.

In my 33 years at the University of Stellenbosch, I have driven my car only 11 times. I have simply used rain gear on my bike in winter, with lights for the darkness. Cycling is like swimming naked; you are free, surrounded by glorious wind and smells and sights.

Is cycling dangerous? Of course it can be. I still think back in shame to my ghastly behaviour towards car drivers as I’ve cursed and shouted my way through Stellenbosch’s narrow streets. I was born with alternative transport genes.

I shall never forget the day I saw my first Toyota Prius hybrid car. It was in Canterbury, England, where I was attending a conference on small falcon population dynamics. On my Sunday break, I decided to walk into the city from the university on a hill outside town. It was high autumn in Kent, with cotton-wool clouds and fields of chrome yellow rape setting the scene. Soundlessly, a weird shape whooshed downhill past me, only the sound of its tyres
proving that it was not levitating. And lo and behold, a week later my friend Bert bought the first of his two Prius sedans, and I was hooked. This was in 1998, and to this day his two cars have served him faultlessly.

Little did I know that many years later, in 2010, I would start my association with Toyota and land a Prius of my own. This blood red car set the tone for my hybrid fixation and taught me how to manage my driving optimally.

Needless to say, I sometimes took my passion for economy to such lengths that other motorists nearly went crazy. Stopping at a traffic light, next to another Prius, I lowered my window and whispered to him: “Let’s see how slowly we can take off”. Only another battery head could have enjoyed such a hybrid in-joke! These days I drive the new Auris Hybrid, a car that has really crept under my skin by dint of its sheer balance in doing everything just right.

I drive a Toyota hybrid vehicle because of who I am. My personal mantra is one of respect, for myself, for others, and therefore towards life, as well as responsibility towards the planet that sustains me. I do, however, regularly face derision about my choice of vehicle, mainly based on facile arguments about the ecological cost of the battery as well as the perception that there are no well-considered recycling pathways for the hybrids.

Shall we look at the real cost of lithium-ion batteries? If we were to take the combined number of cellphones (6.8 billion), tablets (119 million in 2012 alone) and then add the batteries in shavers, watches, toys and innumerable other devices around the world, the mass of the batteries in hybrid vehicles fades into insignificance. Toyota has a
rigid policy for handling discarded hybrid batteries.

Excellent news for the hybridvehicle market is that the brain behind Tesla cars, South Africanborn Elon Musk, in February 2014 announced his plans for the biggest lithium-ion factory in the world. His vision is nothing short of
staggering: by 2020 the so-called Gigafactory will produce batteries for 500 000 vehicles, and the price per kilowatt-hour will be reduced by 30%, thereby transforming the entire dynamic and profitability of electric and hybrid vehicles. In fact, Musk is now doing exactly what the early pioneers for the mass-production of cars did in a structured manner. The result was a near halving of the unit price per car, with the immediate effect of wholesale acceptance in a world which, until that point, had doubted the feasibility of the motorcar as a means of transport.

South Africa is waking up to the near-limitless potential of renewable electricity generation from wind and sun. With the near halving of solar panel costs in the last five years, we are rapidly seeing our landscapes change with the sudden appearance of wind farms, solar arrays and solar ovens. If we project the swift progress in renewable-energy
generation elsewhere in the world, it’s a matter of time before we follow suit and produce a sizeable chunk of our output from these sources.

We are experiencing a steady and escalating rise in fuel prices these days and, with dwindling resources and an ever-increasing unstable Middle Eastern source, this trend will likely continue. Clearly the time for thinking anew and critically reconsidering one’s transport options has come.

I am proud to be a hybrid user and cannot wait for the new dawn of these extraordinary vehicles that Toyota has developed and refined to the amazing models that they are today.