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17.11.04

Hybrids For The Future

Orrin Kerr points to an article claiming that hybrid cars

... 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.

... 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.

... 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.


I don't have any expertise in automotive technology, so I'll accept for the sake of argument that the author is right about how little improvement a hybrid gives. Even with that granted, though, his argument still misses an important element of the decision to buy a hybrid. The Prius and Escape, on which the 10% figure is based, are the first commercially available hybrids -- the Model Ts of energy-efficient cars, as it were. It would be shocking indeed if they represented the limits of what hybrid technology could achieve. So buying a hybrid is not merely about reducing your own environmental impact over the years you'll drive it. It's also about investing in a line of R&D. Hybrid technology will only improve if the first models, however primitive they may be, are commercially successful.

I certainly agree with the last paragraph I quoted -- I've written before about the dangers of expecting a simple technological fix to solve our environmental problems. But the article presents it as if there's some sort of trade-off between using a hybrid and making other environmentally-conscious decisions. There's no reason we can't do both, and it doesn't strike me as likely that the green fuzzies that come from owning a hybrid would contribute to making people complacent about their air conditioner use.

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