Is ‘hybrid’ in danger of becoming the new ‘organic’?

Strained analogyIs “hybrid” technology in danger of becoming a feel-good slogan that has more to do with conspicuous environmentalism than with reducing fuel use?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, warns that in the rush to embrace all-things hybrid, consumers and governments might be missing the forest for the trees:

…like fat-free desserts, which sound healthy but can still make you fat, the hybrid car can make people feel as if they’re doing something good, even when they’re doing nothing special at all. As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome — saving gas….

Several bills floating around Congress, for instance, have proposed tax incentives to buyers of hybrid cars, irrespective of their gas mileage. Thus, under one failed but sure to resurface formulation, the suburbanite who buys a hypothetical hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source would be entitled to a huge tax incentive, while the buyer of a conventional, gasoline-powered Honda Civic that delivers 40 miles per gallon on the open road gets none.

There is a rough analogy to be made here with the “organic” appellation for certain foods. Consumers who buy organic foods are generally interested in more wholesome and environmentally friendly products. But a lack of standards have allowed opportunistic marketers to offer a host of products of dubious origin under the organic banner. Consumers, seeking a shorthand for quality, are easy prey to this type of misdirection.

Kitman tells an analogous story of environmentally-minded car buyers who are considering the Lexus 400H, a hybrid SUV that gets worse mileage than many conventional SUVs, and far worse mileage than many conventional sedans. In the case of the Lexus, the hybrid technology is used to provide extra speed, not gas savings.

The lesson here, of course, is do your homework. Which, when you’re talking about a $46,000 light truck, is kind of a no-brainer. Hybrid or no, the vehicle’s fuel economy rating is the place to start. And remember that if you log most of your miles on the highway, a hybrid may not do you — or the environment — much good.

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adam

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  1. David McCall - April 19, 2006

    When replacing my old Civic VX hatchback, which got around 50mpg overall when driven carefully, I had precious few choices. To be able to bring our dog along, I needed a hatchback or wagon and wanted to at least match my current mileage. After a very short search my only choice was the Prius. As a Honda lover I was very much hoping the Honda’s new FIT would match my old Civic’s mpg and thus be an option, but alas it is even worse than the current Civic’s.

    My point is this: I don’t care if it’s hybrid, it’s got to get the mileage. My conclusion, though, is only the Prius delivered what I wanted/needed. And I am averaging about 52mpg, so it is working. Thank you Toyota.

  2. Alex Stange - April 20, 2006

    I thought this was a pretty shallow opinion piece. I bought a Honda Civic Hybrid recently, not because of gas consumption, but because it is one of the 5 lowest-emissions vehicles you can buy. In this guy’s opinion, fuel economy is the only reason to buy a hybrid.

    The other thing he does is rail against Prius owners to do most of their driving on the freeway, since the Prius only uses electric below a certain speed. Again, what he neglects to mention is that there are options like my Civic Hybrid that use the electric motor to assist the gas motor when accelerating, no matter what speed. There’s more than one way to make a hybrid.

    I think the comments posted about this opinion article don’t take into account the irresponsibility of the author of the piece. If there continue to be articles like this without response, people be confused and choose to do nothing rather than worry about making the wrong decision.

    I thought TerraPass was supposed to be a market-driven solution to fossil fuel emissions? Why are you so worried about other people’s market-driven solutions? If Hybrids or TerraPasses are hip, and people think they can buy into environmentalism, is that all bad?

  3. Adam - April 20, 2006

    Alex, what you’re saying seems to support the main point of the piece, which is that buying a fuel-efficient car requires more than just checking for the Hybrid label. If a Civic Hybrid gets much better highway mileage than a Prius, that’s an important thing for buyers to know. The opinion piece doesn’t strike me as at all shallow or irresponsible.

    Yes, I think it’s a bad thing if people think they can buy into environmentalism if their purchase doesn’t in fact have any tangible environmental benefit. It’s bad for the consumers who mistakenly spend their hard-earned money, it’s bad for an industry which needs greater incentive to build fuel-efficient vehicles, and it’s bad for the environment itself.

  4. Ilya Haykinson - April 22, 2006

    There is two goals to getting people to buy more efficient cars: removing dependence on oil for political or renewability reasons, and decreasing polluting emissions.
    In my opinion, any improvement towards either of these two goals is worth the tax incentives etc. If you get a person that is driving a large car at 12 MPG to upgrade to a similar car that does 14 MPG, you are actually saving more gasoline per mile than with a person upgrading from a 30 MPG car to a 40 MPG car.
    Here’s the math: let’s say each drives 300 miles. The 12 MPG car uses 25 gallons. The 14 MPG car uses about 21.5 gallons, saving 3.5 gallons. The 30 MPG car uses 10 gallons and the 40 MPG car uses 7.5 gallons, for a savings of 2.5 gallons.
    Sure, the absolute number is still important. But just by getting the large car driver to improve their efficiency by a lousy two miles per gallon you are saving more gas than a small car owner going from, say, an already-efficient car to a hybrid version of it.
    Naturally, the perfect situation is to get people out of inefficient _types_ of car, i.e. out of large heavy cars and into small light ones, etc. But some people can’t or won’t do that, and for those I think the incentive to upgrade them to the most efficient versions of their cars should be as strong as possible.

  5. Adam - April 22, 2006

    Ilya, that is an excellent point, and I’m glad you brought it up. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, “convincing a consumer to switch from an efficient non-hybrid to a hybrid (say, from a Corolla to a Prius) carries nowhere near the same environmental benefit as moving someone from a car with terrible mileage to a car with merely bad mileage (say, from a Hummer to a Lincoln Navigator).”
    So perhaps we should be just grateful that hybrids are becoming trendy, even if we wish that people would pay more attention to absolute mileage.

  6. Angela - November 26, 2006

    Sorry to comment on this so late after it was posted, but I’m just now researching my options in purchasing a car.

    It is interesting to me that car manufacturers are now using the hybrid engine concept as a performance booster instead of a means of saving gas. Take the new Accord – getting V6 performance out of a 4 cylinder engine. In some ways this doesn’t seem in the spirit of hybrid at all … right? Except that it does save gas over the V6 version, and you have to give substantial points to Honda for their commitment to cleaner emissions.

    Here’s the thing about the luxury question that I think is a little misleading in this post. If you are a luxury buyer, then you don’t have too many options right now. In order to make changes to the environment, we cannot beat our chests and demand that everyone drive either a Prius, Insight, or Civic. The reality is that the trim levels and sizes of those vehicles just do not appeal to certain segments of consumers in the market. However, the Lexus 400h does.

    I’ve probably lost a wide audience already who are now angry that I would actually champion this car –> but an SUV that when driven appropriately can get 35 mpg and yet still make the driver feel they are part of that ‘exclusive’ club is an achievement. Plus it has the room for which many are looking. When driven appropriately it will get nearly 2x the miles per gallon that the typical SUV attains today. I test drove this car, and the real issue here is in getting people to drive it in a way that optimizes the fuel efficiency. You can achieve excellent gas mileage in this car if you are aware of that distinction.

    Not all people buy a SUV because they just want a big car- some people need a big car. They have kids and dogs and and perhaps a business that requires the extra room. Or the appearance of luxury that other cars don’t afford.

    Bottom line – if most SUVs really get 14-19 mpg average, why would we villify someone who makes the choice to trade in for a vehicle that both gets 50-70% more miles out of that gallon and pollutes substantially less? Isn’t 28-35 mpg a significant achievement in this class of car? Does everyone honestly believe we should have Prius, Insight, and Civic and that’s all to choose from?? We cannot affect sustaining broad change without variety. Just my opinion.

    Agree that it would be nice for everyone to think about absolute mileage … but don’t ignore that people may have reasons different than yours for making other choices than living in a tiny sedan. Whether we agree with them or not.

    I encourage people to go test drive the different options available out there – I think you might find the 400h at the end of the day to be an impressive engineering marvel and in fact a better choice than the Accord or Camry hybrids. Just feedback from someone who has now driven every hybrid available.

  7. Tony Welsh - November 29, 2006

    Just for the record, Angela, the Honda Accord hybrid is a V6. It saves gas over the regular V6 for the same reason that all hybrid cars save gas, primarily due to regenerative braking. This does not do much for you on the highway, and many hybrid owners report disappointing results. Better imho to go Diesel. See the new Mercedes E320 Bluetec if you want real luxury and 37mpg highway.

  8. Tony Welsh - November 29, 2006

    Alex above made a distinction between fuel economy and emissions. If we are talking CO2 emissions, this is a falacy; the two things are directly proportional. He complains about the original article being irresponsible and confusing, but in fact Alex’s post is the confusing one.
    btw, I concur with what was said about it being far more important to make relatively small gains in vehicles with poor fuel consumption rather than trying to stretch the envelope at the extreme high ends of gas mileage. Also, most highly efficient vehicles have skinny hard tires in the interest of low resistance but at the expense of cornering and braking effectiveness. I don’t know the environmental costs of repairing the car after you rear-end someone!

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