The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Electric Slide

If this is true (and I certainly can't vouch for that) it is very interesting. Not only is this an indictment of hybrids, but also of car manufacturers in general for not producing a truly efficient (and cheaper) non-hybrid:

Few people realize that a hybrid’s power train adds roughly 10% to the weight of a car. Even fewer realize that manufacturers try to offset the weight penalty-- and add to the hybrid’s headline-grabbing mileage figures-- by the extensive use of non-hybrid gas-saving technology. Engine shut-off at idle, electric power steering, harder and reduced rolling resistance tires (at the expense of comfort and traction), reduced option content, reduced engine performance, and, in the case of the Ford, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) all help raise the cars’ overall efficiency.

Of course, if gas mileage is the ultimate goal, all of these strategies could be applied to a “standard” car. A non-hybrid model with the equivalent modifications would significantly narrow the mileage gap with its hybrid sibling. In fact, in normal use, the margin between truly comparable hybrid and non-hybrid cars could be less than 10%-- hardly enough to justify the extra purchase price. And, lest we forget, the hybrid’s gas-saving advantage is not without its own particular environmental costs…

Read the whole thing.
(Hat tip, Orin Kerr)


  • it is still much easier to filter and control centralized pollution created by electric power plants from which electric cars get power than to control the diffuse pollution of individual vehicles spouting damaging gases from every road and highway in the country.

    By Blogger d.x., at 1:13 PM  

  • Perhaps, but hybrids are not electric cars. They are recharged by their internal combustion engines, not by the outlet in the wall.

    The author also makes a good point about the environmental costs of discarding batteries.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 1:37 PM  

  • The point on battery-related pollution is a good one. However, I think some of the other information is misleading. Some of the things that hybrids do to improve fuel efficiency cannot be accomplished by normal cars. For instance, hybrids can shut down the combustion engine at idle because the electric motor allows for initial torque and serves as the combustion engine starter, allowing efficient engine startup.

    While I agree that hybrids are not the silver bullet people seem to think, I vote for any step that raises peoples' consciousness regarding alternatives. Once automakers hit economies of scale, the extra cost of hybrid drivetrains will be marginal. In addition, hybrids all use leaner combustion engines than most cars, leading to greatly reduced particle emissions, even when the engine is running.

    Automakers should be using some of these technologies in normal cars, but from a business perspective it makes no sense for them to spend money redesigning and retooling unless there is an incentive to do so (i.e. consumer demand, regulatory conditions, government incentives, etc.).

    By Blogger Jason, at 4:26 PM  

  • I'm with Jason...I'm no expert, but the article sounds misleading. For one thing, it doesn't mention emissions, which may be as important as mileage. And while hybrids have a gas engine, it's much smaller and is able to operate at much more constant power, and therefore presumeably more efficiently.

    I'd like to see more from some people with more expertise on this issue.

    By Blogger ed, at 3:38 PM  

  • One thing that struck me as a possible falacy in the argument is that mileage tests are done without the air conditioning on, etc. This seems like it would be worse for the Hybrid as it would wear down the battery and require the engine to use more gas for recharging it, but that problem is also faced by standard cars.

    Most new cars are very similar re: emissions (except SUVs which are exempt due to their ridiculous classification as trucks) so mileage I think is a fair indicator. I would like to see a more reputable review too, and if I can find one I will.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:50 PM  

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