The Truth About Hybrids

By Bob Elton

Hybrids like the new Ford Escape are making quite a splash, both in the sales charts and the media. But do they really deserve all the love and attention?

The Toyota Prius, Honda Accord hybrid and Ford Escape hybrid are a major hit. The buff books rave about them, the Greens bless them and retail customers can't get enough (literally). While the mileage, environmental and PC advantages of vehicles powered by a gas - electric powerplant seems obvious, how much of this hybrid mania is hype?

Buyers pay a large premium for a hybrid Escape or a Prius, presuming that the increased fuel mileage makes them a better environmental citizen. While there's no question that the Toyota, Honda and Ford hybrids are more fuel efficient than their conventionally powered equivalents, the difference is nowhere near as great as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) numbers suggest.

The Prius' Synergy Drive looks clean and tidy now, but those big old batteries will eventually pose an environmental risk

Because of the low speeds involved, the city portion of the EPA's test is accomplished in battery-only mode. As the gasoline engine is off-line for a significant part of the test, the eventual mileage figure is grossly inflated. The test fails to consider the fuel needed to recharge the batteries later on. What's more, all energy-draining, electrically-powered accessories (including AC) are switched off during both the urban and highway tests. These variables contribute to the huge discrepancy between the EPA's official numbers and hybrid owners' real world experience.

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.

The hybrid powertrain adds roughly 10% to the car's weight

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

Gas - electric hybrid engines use several large batteries. Creating these power cells requires a couple of hundred pounds of heavy metals-- not to mention the copper used in the large electric drive motors and the heavy wires they require. Mining and smelting lead, copper and other heavy metals is an energy intensive process that generates both air pollution and deforestation. Disposing of the batteries when they outlive their usefulness also raises environmental challenges.

A seldom discussed alternative to hybrid-powered vehicles: walking

And then there are the safety problems related to the gas - electric hybrid engine's high voltages and amperages. While Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) regulate a passenger vehicle's basic crash protection, there are no federally mandated procedures remain for the protection of rescue workers at the site of an accident involving a hybrid-powered vehicle. Service technicians and do-it-yourself owners also lack the guidelines, education and training necessary to safely repair hybrid engines.

So, if the hybrid's mileage advantage is minimal, and the technology has its own set of negative environmental side effects, why is hybrid technology so popular, both in the marketplace and in the glossy pages of the car mags?

The 1923 Stanley Steamer. Will hybrids also become a historical oddity?

Americans are fond of turning to simple silver bullets to solve complicated problems. The hybrid solution seems ideal. Want to be environmentally responsible? Buy a hybrid. A hybrid car offers instant gratification, PC-style. It relieves consumers of both guilt and personal responsibility for the broader impact of their daily energy consumption habits. Heaven forbid that a hybrid owner should switch off their central air, or buy less disposable products, or use their car less, to help protect the environment.

Hybrid technology embodies America's "solution of the day" syndrome. A quarter of a century ago, the diesel-powered car was going to free us from dependence on imported oil. A while later, the turbocharger was set to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine and liberate us from foreign oil addiction. About a decade ago, the California Air Resources Board thought that battery-powered electric cars were the answer, cleaning the air as they saved the world's petrochemical resources.

The problem with the "solution of the day" is that few of these 'easy' solutions actually work. Automotive history is littered with failed miracles, from the kerosene-driven Stanley Steamer to the rotary-powered Skycar. Time has proven that the only innovations that persevere in the marketplace are the ones that deliver real benefits. No amount of hype can obscure, for long, the lack of results. When boosters call hybrid technology an 'interim' solution to our energy needs, they're more right than they even know.

Bob Elton

Bob Elton is an automotive engineer who, over the last 30 years, has worked for all of the big 3 and a number of suppliers as well. Elton holds a couple of dozen patents, and currently works as a consultant to a major automotive supplier. In addition to an engineering background, he has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and has worked inside styling studios at Ford, GM and Navistar. Elton has been an occasional contributor to Old Cars Weekly and has contributed regularly to numerous car club publications. He is currently teaching a class in the automotive restoration program at Washtenaw Community College.

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