Hybrids: Greater Societal Loss?

Posted: September 21, 2010 in Being Green

Hybrids…I just don’t get Hybrids.  I like the idea of getting better fuel efficiency and applaud the efforts, but when I look beyond savings at the pump or the tax credits you get back, and instead consider their total cost to society as a whole – I just don’t see them as a sustainable substitute of the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine – powered by conventional gasoline with standard electric ignition).  My perspective is not as a hypothetical Hybrid owner who only looks at it from an out of pocket costs (this is difficult to do as Hybrids have battery warranties, tax credits, etc.).  Instead, my concern is the cost to society as a whole – which includes out of pocket costs (up front, long term, opportunity cost), the greenhouse gas emissions, and as a racer the reduced driving performance / enjoyment.  The latter parts are “intangible” but should be part part of the equation.

A Quick Overview of Current Hybrid Drivetrains:

  • Mild: The most basic system like in the early GM “hybrids” uses an over sized alternator that is fed when the engine is running and increases its regeneration during braking to provide more power to a larger battery (and helps engine brake the car) which in turn powers the vents (a/c normally shuts off but some systems keep a/c on) and other equipment when stopped (engine shuts off but turns on immediately once the brake is released).  A more complex version includes the IMA (integrated motor assist) system developed by Honda which uses a significantly smaller ICE.  IMA provides assisted power during engine acceleration only – the engine is always running except when it shuts off at a light when you foot is on the brake.
  • Parallel: The Toyota Prius’ system is the prime example of a parallel hybrid.  This design allows the car to be driven on electric propulsion (but only for a short distance, up to a certain speed, or if the battery has a sufficient charge), then the engine will turn on and take over and the electric motor will provide assistance to the ICE engine.  The power is transferred through the gearbox to the wheels that the engine shares, hence the reason why it is called parallel.
  • Series: This system is the kind of system where the engine does not directly power the wheels, only a electric motor does until the charge gets too low.  Benefits of this system are consistent power applied to the wheels (a major reason why all locomotive engines are Diesel series hybrids).
  • Plug In: This is an alteration to the above different types of hybrids (seems to be more prevalent to Series hybrids).  It allows you to plug in your car into a high amp wall outlet at home or a charging station instead of relying on generation from the vehicle (kinetic energy or engine power).  Unfortunately it is automatically assumed by some that Plug Ins are clean b/c it comes from the outlet.  What is ignored is the majority of our power comes from coal plants which pollute and release significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  However, if the source of the wall electricity is from clean sources of energy – then Plug Ins may help offset greenhouse gasses.

Disadvantages of Hybrids: Reasoning

Production Costs and Increased Emissions: Production of Hybrids require significantly more time/energy to build the varying complex drive trains and most notably the resources and expensive materials to mine and build the li-on battery packs (and their eventual replacements).  Because of this, the OEM has released more greenhouse gas emissions in production of a hybrid compared to a substitute fuel efficient non-hybrid ICE vehicle.

The Lifetime of the Hybrid: So, does a Hybrid over its lifetime make up its greater costs over its substitute?  Let’s look at the hard costs.  The standard hybrid adds ~ $5k (Toyota’s Synergy system) to $3k (Honda’s IMA system) in upfront costs to an already fuel efficient vehicle.  Though there maybe a tax credit it still adds to our growing deficit – and the tax credits for hybrids are going away based on sales as the Prius no longer qualifies.  At this time, most fuel efficient 4 door sedans get mid 30’s combined MPG nowadays with more advanced ICE drivetrains promising to provide close to 40mpg combined.  Though the Hybrid owner may pay less at the pump over the lifetime of the vehicle it will take a very long time to recoup this upfront loss.

Reviewing the out of pocket monetary costs, it seems slightly in favor of the Hybrid owner – but only if they did not value adding to our national debt as a result of the tax credit.  However, as the tax credits diminish and expire, the advantage goes back in favor of the non-Hybid owner.  For instance, the money saved at the time of purchase can be invested into an interest bearing account and used to pay the difference in their slightly higher gas pump bill at a time.  In the long run, the Hybrid’s battery will slowly deteriorate by not providing the same level of charge over they years  (thus requiring the gas engine to turn on sooner and more frequently) and it will eventually need to be replaced costing $2-$3k (maybe covered by OEM warranty – but cannot guarantee if they will assume this is a “defect”).

Next let’s look at the intangibles such as emissions.  The Hybrid car will also use less emissions over its lifetime as it consumes less fuel (ignoring if they plug it in from a coal plant).  However, will the lower emission make up for the higher emissions used in production of the Hybrid’s drivetrain and batteries (and the recycling and production of new replacement batteries) as compared to a normal fuel efficient substitute.  I don’t see that as the case as the battery will need to be replaced and society as a whole will have a greater cost.

Fun to Drive: The two Hybrids I’ve driven (2g Prius and 1g Civic Hybrid) seem to place emphasis on taking the driver out of the equation.  Gone is the direct feel of the steering, the strange handling of the car, and most notably the lack of forward propulsion (I used to race a 90hp car).  Unfortunately, I feel much more involved in the driving process with a Toyota Echo or Kia Rio (the typical penalty boxes) than I do driving the above Hybrids.  I’m hoping to stop by and check out a CR-Z in the next month and re-evaluate my findings.

The Alternatives:

  • Buy a Fuel Efficient ICE Vehicle: You will get 80% of the mileage of a hybrid yet spend 80% of the monetary costs.  You will also have lower greenhouse gas emissions over the life of that vehicle.
  • Diesel: Diesel commands a premium of about $1k over a standard ICE, yet costs thousands less than a hybrid drivetrain.  Diesel fuel has ~ 30% greater energy density than gasoline meaning you burn less to make the same amount of power.  With a diesel car you will easily get the same mileage on the highway as a Hybrid but lower city mpg.  Diesels also eliminate the need for a spark ignition system as it uses combustion ignition (but do require a system to warm up the fuel for start up).  Diesels provide a lot of low RPM torque making them great for driving around town.  Diesel emissions have also dropped significantly with low sulfur diesel fuel now standard in the US and advanced catalytic converters that cleanse it of noxious emissions.  Diesel has lower carbon emissions b/c of reduced fuel use over gasoline.  Diesel also offers the advantage of running on biodiesel and other was oils which would normally have been thrown away or dumped into the ground.  VW and Audi make excellent diesels.
  • Start/Stop Systems: This is a promising technology that in its first iteration adds a cost of ~ $500 to the price of the car.  It allows the engine to shut off when stopped and allow the accessories to still run (including air).  This makes a big difference in traffic jams by cutting the need to have a warm engine running when stationary.  Mazda is bringing this to their lineup as a standard feature by 2014 and Porsche’s Panamera is the first non Hybrid to offer this feature.
  • Gas Direct Injection: Direct injection takes a page from the diesel playbook by relocating the fuel injectors from the intake manifold to the engine head and sprays directly into the combustion chamber.  The fuel system needs a much higher pressure to do so but the higher pressurized fuel when sprayed into the combustion chamber creates a much denser and cooler mix of air/fuel mixture – and this leads to more power (~ 15% better).  This in term leads to 15% better fuel savings and reduced emissions.  The drawback is this is a newer technology for gas engines but has been a mainstay for diesel motors.  GM’s Cruze will use a GDI engine and Hyundai has a 1.6 liter GDI engine that gets mid 30’s mpg combined.  Also, Ford’s ecoboost uses this technology in conjunction with forced induction.
  • Forced Induction: By using smaller displacement engines and adding forced induction (via supercharger or turbocharger) – OEMs are now finding they can power vehicles without larger displacement engines.  Ford’s use of EcoBoost is a prime example.  The F150 and new larger trucks will have EcoBoost v6 powerplants to replace V8s.
  • Cylinder Deactivation – Reduced Displacement: Some OEMs provide this already such as GM in their V8 models and Honda in their V6 models.  A computer analyzes engine load and will deactivate certain cylinders under load and keep valves open to reduce pumping losses.  This allows the engine to run on less cylinders reducing gas consumption.  When the computer then sees need for full power it instantly engages the deactivated cylinders.
  • New ICE Designs such as OPOC: Check out http://www.ecomotors.com and their new ICE design that eliminates 50% of parts for a standard ICE engine and allows it to be combined as “modules”.
  • Lighten Up Weight on Cars: Trickle down of advanced composites to reduce need for metal and other materials yet provide increase strength and lightness.  Unfortunately – the price point for carbon fiber composites remains high, but as production technology advances it will trickle down into the mainstream cars.
  • HCCI: Honda has been researching this technology which will create a diesel engine that runs on gasoline.  Issues have been higher RPMs and instability.  Honda seems to have dropped this research.
  1. Jereme says:

    great post could not agree more.

    right now Hybrids are still a “feel good” thing. I would love to see some more clean diesel engines make it over on this side of the pond… 60+ mpg in a small compact car. 🙂

  2. I would love it if more automakers brought us clean diesels and property installed them into cars and light trucks. I’d like to have a 1/2 ton with a diesel engine in it, or if Acura would have put the 2.2 liter turbo diesel in the TSX instead of a huge heavy v6.

    I do agree that there are those hybrid owners who have the “smug” factor. Smugness is one of the worst hybrid car emissions.

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