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How Green Was My Hybrid

  • April 25, 2008
  • Road Noise
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In the spirit of up-to-the-minute analysis that separates the good blogs from the great ones, I hereby present a short essay on hybrids and automotive environmentalism in honor of Earth Day … which was three days ago.
Well, it’s the thought that counts.

It took a while, but most automakers have taken a break from gnashing their teeth over fuel economy and emissions standards and started putting forth an effort to make cars that will avert a potential Mad Max environmental dystopia.

Coming soon to a dealer near you.

This change came about, of course, because car companies have deeply loved our Mother Earth all along and have decided to take this industry in a cleaner, more efficient direction, and consumers can like it or lump it.
I see you have twigged to my subtle humor. No, automakers are in it for the money. Sweet, sweet, hot and cold running money. Because everyone says they want to join the ranks of hybrid-owning, gas-saving environmental elite. In a 2007 AutoPacific study of features car owners will look for in their next vehicle, hybrid consideration tracked from 22 percent for current owners of luxury cars (Below “leather-lined ashtray” and above “heated brake pedal.”) to a whopping 43 percent among current owners of compact cars. (Just below “seats” and just above “door locks.”) On average, 24 percent of vehicle owners say they’ll consider a hybrid next time they hit the dealership. Obviously, this market is booming.
Or not. That same year, hybrid sales made up 2.2 percent of total vehicle sales in the U.S. I’m no math expert, but I think this indicates a gap between what people want to do and what they actually do.
Oh man. He got his hopes up, and now we’re all doomed. Way to go, American car-buying public.

Now that the bloom is off the rose and hybrids have been on our streets, in our carpools and (gasp!) in our driveways for the best part of ten years, it’s become clear where things are falling short.
Hybrids are expensive
No doubt about this one. A Honda Civic Hybrid will run you several thousand clams more than a similarly equipped standard Civic. However, the difference in fuel consumption (The hybrid gets 40/45 mpg to the standard’s 25/36 mpg.) will save you just a few hundred dollars a year. Sure, every little bit counts, but it’s not the titanic cost-cutter many people imagined when hybrids first entered the equation.
They might not be all that great for the environment.
Ha ha, kids! Joke’s on you! Turns out the energy used in creating all those special bits in your Prius’ innards and then driving the thing around for a few years is greater than the energy that would have been put out if you’d just bought a Corolla or something. And the batteries in most hybrids contain chemicals that, if not handled properly at the end of the battery’s life, can be harmful to children and other living things. Whoops.
We fear change.
This is the big one, and it’s the one that depresses me most. See, despite my just having written what appears to be a spittle-flecked screed against hybrids, I actually think they’re a really good idea. The world’s getting a little low on oil while the atmosphere collects more CO2 than can be consumed by all these stupid plants we insist on sharing the planet with. Like I said earlier, every little bit counts, especially if everyone were able to contribute just a little bit by driving a hybrid or (if we’re taking a field trip to a perfect world) all-electric vehicle.
I think of the hybrid market as like the cell phone market 15 years ago. Back then, cell phones were the size of paving stones, and it was obvious that the technology would go the way of some many other gadgets and get smaller and better as time went on. But people bought them anyway, because they liked being able to talk anywhere. Because plenty of people bought every generation of cell phone, the money was available for companies to develop better models faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper.
The curve for hybrids should be a lot like that, but there’s a big flaw: No one wants to invest in a hybrid until the technology’s perfect. With your first-generation cell phone, you were only out a couple hundred bucks when a better version came out. But when it comes to hybrids, we’re talking about the equivalent of a down payment on a small house, and people won’t take the risk. No one wants to be the chump who bought an Insight instead of a Prius, you know? So there’s not enough capital or apparent interest to justify this technology that everyone seems to want but they won’t buy until it’s perfected.
It’s a vicious circle. How can we break out of it? Beats the hell out of me. If you have an idea, enlighten me in the comments below.

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