Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hybrid Hype: Balance is the key

Okay, so if you read my review of a few of the many articles on you can see that I think SUVs are a pox on our roadways. Lest you think me some rabid treehugger high on herbal tea and brainwashed by Greenpeace, I need to point out that there is hypocrisy and waste at the other end of the automotive spectrum as well.

I'll start by conceding that there is definitely a niche for hybrid vehicles. City cars that spend most of their time at low speed and/or in stop-and-go traffic benefit greatly from hybrid technology and for drivers who put LOTS of miles on their cars in those sorts of conditions might even save enough fuel to offset the extra cost of the hybrid car (after it's sold at a loss by the manufacturer and subsidized with tax credits from the government, of course.)

Average American drivers, however, would be better served by buying an efficient "normal" gasoline-powered car, or perhaps a diesel as low-sulfur diesel becomes available in the US. (In a classic case of bullshit bureaucracy, the federal government has mandated more stringent emissions for diesel vehicles a year before they put more stringent requirements on the fuel itself that are necessary to use the current cleaner, more-efficient diesel technologies that are in use in Europe.)

Why do I say that? Well, let's take the Jones family for example. They live in a suburb about 20 miles from the city center and are looking for a vehicle for Mrs. Jones that will be used primarily to commute to work and drive around on family errands. Their previous car was totaled in a wreck, so they can't wait too long too long to replace it, the insurance company will only pay for the rental car for a few more days. This pretty much rules out the Prius with its long wait list, so let's consider a Honda Civic.

The Honda Civic Hybrid lists for $19,900 and the Civic LX Sedan (the comparably equipped car) lists for $15,610, a difference of $4290. If you want to whinge about the $2k tax credit you can get currently for hybrid vehicles, I'll take a reasonable negotiation discount off the price of the LX (I don't think you'll get much off the hybrid) and let's just call the net difference $3,000.

To reasonably compare the two cars, let's estimate that the mostly-suburban driving Mrs. Jones does falls halfway between the city and highway cycles... so we'll take an average of the EPA rating for the two cycles (even though there are lawsuits from people claiming their hybrids don't achieve the EPA ratings, but that's another entry.) That gives us 48.5 mpg for the Hybrid, 35 for the LX. If Mrs. Jones drives 15,000 miles per year and her fuel price averages $3 per gallon, it will take more than 8 years for the Hybrid to pay for that $3k differential in cost to the Jones family. No one is really sure that the batteries will still WORK in 8 years! Please note that I'm not even applying net-present-value calculations, so I'm offering charity to the Hybrid by suggesting that $1 in fuel savings 8 years from now is worth just as much as $1 in savings today.

It's simply not realistic to compare H2 consumption to a Prius and say that electric hybrids are The Way to cure our energy consumption habit. The two cars I describe are very similarly equipped and their performance is very similar as well... the hybrid has slightly more peak torque but the LX has a 115-lb weight advantage which probably more than offsets that, and at prolonged highway speeds the LX won't have its available power sapped by a discharged battery pack.*

Ah, yes, battery packs. Have you heard anything about what's going to HAPPEN to those battery packs when they no longer hold a useful charge? How much will it cost to replace them? Will the parts be available, or are these cars to be disposable? Another interesting difference between these two cars is that the Hybrid carries its battery pack in a location that precludes folding rear seatbacks, so the LX will be more practical for carrying larger objects from Home Depot and Target.

So, you can buy a less-expensive, lighter, probably more-reliable and longer-lived car for less money that returns comparable or better performance while still getting nearly 4x the fuel mileage of your neighbor's yellow H2, or you can spend your hard-earned money to make a pro-environment political statement that will probably end up creating toxic waste disposal problems when it's time to scrap those hybrid batteries. What will you do? What WILL you do?


* A reader commenting on this post stated that cars don't need all their power on the highway. I must admit that on a FLAT highway, this would not be a problem. Driving around LA or San Francisco, or in the Texas Hill Country where I live would eventually discharge the batteries and leave you with just the (small) gasoline engine, as has happened in road tests run by car magazines. 26 Sept 2005


Anonymous said...

"at prolonged highway speeds the LX won't have its available power sapped by a discharged battery pack"

Um, at prolonged highway speeds you don't need but a fraction of available power. Most cars could run on one cylinder at cruising speed. So the need for "available power' isn't much of an argument.

DKB said...

Anon: Yes, on perfectly flat roads at 70, a modern car uses less than its maximum power. I should in fact have said "In the real world, at prolonged highway speeds where the terrain isn't flat" such as the Texas hill country (where I live) or areas around Los Angeles and San Francisco (where hybrids seem to be quite popular.) In a flat place, this would not be an issue.