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March 7, 2004
Hybrid Cars Still More Expensive, Less Reliable

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the so-far unfulfilled promise of electric-gasoline hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, the darling of the Hollywood set, and determines that hybrids may not be the answer:

But consumer advocates say the marketing glosses over a few things, including the true operating cost of the cars, despite their fabled fuel economy. "If you're looking at this purely as a pocketbook decision, the hybrid won't work," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports magazine, although he has no quarrel with the hybrids' environmental credentials. ...

Although the Prius and Honda's Civic and Insight hybrids do get terrific gas mileage, in real-world use they rarely match the extraordinary fuel economy the Environmental Protection Agency gets on its test circuit.

The federal government is gradually rolling back the tax deduction hybrid buyers can claim it was $2,000 last year but $1,500 this year. Unless Congress renews it, the deduction will keep declining until it disappears in 2007.

Analysts at Internet car shopping and information service Edmunds.com say the technology that makes hybrids appealing is improving so quickly that today's vehicles are likely to depreciate faster than conventional cars as new hybrids arrive.

The second bullet point can, of course, be corrected by simply extending the tax benefits that currently exist. The final bullet point plainly states the generic risk taken by consumers who become early adopters in technology. It's the first bullet point that causes the most concern to me. While the manufacturers are proclaiming the EPA tests that show 60 MPG on the highway and 51 MPG in the city, Consumer Reports' figures are significantly lower: in the low 40s for the Prius, and the Times reports anecdotal evidence for the Honda Civic Hybrid. Back when I bought my first car, a Datsun (now Nissan) 210 with manual transmission, I regularly got 38 MPG combined highway/city driving, and that was in California with all of the emissions equipment installed. Adding all of the expensive and difficult-to-replace electrical systems have only improved the fuel efficiency, and therefore emissions, by less than 20%.

However, the environmental benefit has also been far from proven. Right now, the hybrids rely on commercial electrical power for recharging the large banks of batteries. Even supporters of this technology acknowledge that since commercial power is highly reliant on fossil fuels, there is no environmental benefit to hybrids. In fact, given the higher efficiency of the internal-combustion engine, widespread use of the hybrid would actually increase emissions overall. And this doesn't take into account the disposal issue of the huge battery banks used in hybrids once they no longer function properly.

Hybrid electric/gasoline vehicles are simply not the answer, not while commercial power producers continue to use fossil fuels to produce the electricity that powers the cars. Alternate-fuel technology, such as hydrogen, should continue to be explored as a clean-fuel solution for our vehicles, or else we need to invest heavily in fuel-cell generators for commercial power, or nuclear power, or both.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 7, 2004 12:25 PM

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