Executive Summary: The hybrid powertrain is a very interesting advancement in automotive technology, introducing a new dimension to the trade-offs between engine performance and efficiency: having both becomes possible, at the trade-off of space and cost. For the most part, the technology has been used to increase the efficiency and reduce the emissions of a given model without making large sacrifices in performance. While the technology is new, the capabilities are very lucrative, the reliability to date has been good, and there are many flavours to choose from, only a few fitting the stereotypical view of a small slow econobox. The future of hybrids is bright, and well worth a look if you’re in the market for a car.
Updates: Since first posting this in 2007 there have been a few changes to the hybrid landscape. The 3rd generation Prius has been released (2010), the Insight has been relaunched as a Prius-like aerodynamic hatchback, and Ford has released the Fusion Hybrid. I hope to update the stuff below when I get some free time, but for now enjoy some slightly dated research:
Introduction to Hybrids
EPA/Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption/mileage ratings
Rebates and Incentives
Otto vs. Atkinson
General Gas Saving Tips
The Case Against SUVs
Gas Tax MiniRant
Background: I had my car stolen twice in the summer of 2006. The second time, it went missing for over a week, and was returned with muddy boot prints on the dash, garbage in the back seat, damage to the front seat, damage to the dash and radio, the ashtrays had been ripped out of the dash, the tension in the parking brake was gone (likely from driving with the parking brake on to keep the headlights off, or from joyriding/doughnuts) and of course, the steering column and ignition had been ripped apart to hotwire it. I was sick, and could simply not believe that someone could be so randomly and stupidly destructive. I did not feel at all comfortable with the car like that: even after the post-theft inspection, I didn’t feel safe, and I just didn’t want to be sitting in that car. My dad was supportive of my situation, and offered to help me buy a new car to get rid of it – he didn’t feel safe with me driving on the 401 in it, either.
So, I started looking into a replacement vehicle. I had been casually following the development of hybrid cars for some time (right back to the first time I saw the Insight on TV), and was quite interested in that. I started with the Civic Hybrid, also looking at a conventional Civic and Accord (my dad was a big fan of Honda that month, and I did have a relationship with the dealer there after all the repairs my old Accord needed).
After test-driving both types of Civics, I was locked in indecision: I personally was leaning towards the hybrid due to concerns about rising fuel costs and environmentalism, but it had a really small trunk, and I wasn’t quite sure I could deal with that. My dad was dead-set against helping me pay for a hybrid, as he thought the technology was way too new and untested, and insisted I get an Accord (he also thought the gas-only Civic’s cloth interior was cheap looking, and that the Civic was too small for anyone to use – he even considers the Accord a small car). However, the new Accord came standard with a navigation system that I just didn’t like: not only was it annoying to use, it made all the other functions annoying to use, as now the radio was a subscreen of the nav unit to control: I would have had to look at the radio to make sure it was on the right page for the softbuttons to do what I wanted, rather than being able to operate a radio by touch like I pretty much do now. Plus, I don’t like the big, bright screen of my mom’s at night. Stuck in indecision, I started to research – intently – the hybrid powertrain, in particular looking for any reported reliability problems, hoping to convince my dad and myself. I also started looking into what that small trunk was really capable of carrying (basically about two file boxes or three backpacks less than my Accord), and if there were any trunk/hitch/roof carriers to expand the space if needed.
During this time I also detailed my car to get it ready to sell, cleaning every surface, right down to getting Q-tips to clean all the little crevices between panels and switches. And the funny thing is, with the car cleaned out and looking good, I didn’t feel as bad driving it. I got used to the strange new noises and scratches. And I figured that keeping my old car a bit longer would be way cheaper than a new one – and it would give hybrids another year or two to develop. It also let me delay this big decision a little longer, and I really do love putting off big decisions.
All this time, I’ve kept up my research, staying active in forums like greenhybrid.com and priuschat.com, and keeping a special eye out for news stories on these cars. I’ve actually done more research on my potential car buying decision than I did on my decision of which university to go to (actually, more than both of my university decisions combined), arguably a bigger, more life-altering one. Here I offer the benefits of my research for all. Hopefully you can make some kind of use of my obsession.
Introduction to Hybrid Vehicles: Hybrid cars operate on both a gasoline internal combustion engine as well as an electric motor: they are a mixture of an electric car and a gas car, hence “hybrid”. This, at first, seems a little inefficient: instead of one powertrain, one source of energy, you now have two. It works, however, because the two different power systems work better in different ranges: gas engines give good power output at high RPMs, and also work well with constant power demands. However, in order to meet peak demands engines are often sized much larger than needed for the typical steady-state power drain, and are particularly poor at getting going from a dead stop or at low RPMs. Electric motors on the other hand, provide maximum power at low RPMs at a dead stop, but battery power is not as compact to store the energy for long steady-state demands, and motors are a little more prone to overheating. The two complement each other well: an electric motor can be used to complement the gas engine for the short periods of acceleration, and in turn the gas engine can be made smaller and more efficient. Thus, instead of having to trade off power for efficiency, you can now get the same power at a better efficiency, with the tradeoff instead being the size (and cost) of the electric motor/hybrid powertrain.
To be perfectly pedantic, I should say that while “hybrid” generally refers to gasoline-electric hybrids, that there are other kinds (not generally available in the passenger car market), such as hydraulic-gasoline hybrids (where hydraulic systems store braking energy in pressurized fluids).
History: The Clinton administration in the states launched a program known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles in the 90’s as a program with the “Big 3″ auto makers to research and develop a line of very fuel efficient, affordable family sedans. Hybrid-electric power trains were a big focus of that program. That program was criticized for letting the automakers take money to develop cars that they didn’t really intend to sell, some have said that the automakers entered it in bad faith all along, never really intending to improve fuel consumption in their fleets (indeed, that was just about the time of the SUV boom). Honda and Toyota, outsiders to this party, were threatened by the possibility of the US automakers having advanced technology fuel efficient vehicles for sale by 2000, and started their own hybrid research programs.
The efforts weren’t completely wasted for Ford and GM, at least: GM did, briefly, sell the EV-1, and Ford currently sells the Escape Hybrid, and borrowed a lot of styling elements from the Prodigy concept to make their new Fusion. Chrysler, on the other hand, is up shit’s creek without a paddle these days – a causal relationship to refusing to making efficiency a priority is implied (but not proven). But many agree that the biggest product of this program was simply the threat that sparked the development of the Prius and Civic hybrids.
The Future: The “Hydrogen Economy” is a fraud, really. If it isn’t, it’ll be 25-50 years before we see any kind of significant penetration of Hydrogen cars into the market, and that will only happen against the reality that wherever you could create a hydrogen fueling station, you could put in an electric car charging station or LNG terminal at less cost and greater efficiency (there are no “hydrogen mines” — it takes electricity and/or natural gas to “make” hydrogen for cars). [Note: just after writing this Honda announced they will actually make their FCX Hydrogen fuel cell prototype and sell it in limited production] Either way, hybrid cars are a very important stepping-stone, because it is unlikely that future Hydrogen cars will be burning the hydrogen: more likely the technology will take the form of Hydrogen fuel cells. In which case, electric motors, batteries, and more efficient transmissions will be needed anyway. Research into hybrid cars is something that should be done, and gasoline-electric hybrid cars will not be completely orphaned in the mysterious future “Hydrogen economy” – many of those central systems will still be around.
Closer to the present, Toyota has said that they plan on offering a hybrid version of every car in their lineup within the next 15-20 years, and foresees potentially selling only hybrid powertrains. This technology, while new, does not appear to be a passing fad, and instead should be here to stay.
Benefits: The benefits of a hybrid powertrain are generally improved fuel efficiency for the same performance, though that often depends on the specific implementation (the Civic Hybrid, for instance, gets quite good fuel efficiency, but is a bit slower than the gas-only Civic with its larger engine, while the Accord Hybrid is quite a bit faster than the regular Accord, but gets a minimal improvement in fuel consumption). Hybrids also often offer improved emissions, not just reduced carbon dioxide from reduced gas usage, but they also tend to carry the latest in vapour recovery, releasing fewer unburned (and toxic) hydrocarbons, and also more efficiently catalyzing nitric oxide compounds (perhaps a side-effect of running the engine within its most efficient range).
This is achieved party through the synergy between the workings of an electric motor and a gasoline engine: their power (torque, I suppose I should say, though even as a physicist I don’t appreciate the difference when it comes to cars) vs. RPM curves complement each other well, leading to a flatter power curve, and also allowing the use of a smaller, better tuned engine for the same car. Regenerative braking allows the electric motor to turn into a generator, slowing the car and recapturing some of the kinetic energy as electricity: energy you would otherwise lose instead helps you not have to burn gas to accelerate the second time around. Also, hybrids can turn off some or all of the cylinders in the car (”auto-stop”) – a very intelligent system, as there’s really no need to be burning gas while you’re standing still. The powerful electric motor (and more capable batteries) can spin the engine up to full operating speed before injecting gas again, vastly reducing wear & tear from start-ups. Some models can also deactivate some or all cylinders during steady-state cruising, and simply close the valves to reduce pumping losses (engine braking). Some non-hybrid cars are also starting to come with this capability lately.
The Disadvantages: Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to a hybrid powertrain is the size. It introduces new parts, more complexity, and big batteries to store. The parts and complexity, while somewhat worrisome to an engineer, are generally well worth the investment (and the reduction in wear & tear makes up for complexity when it comes to maintenance issues). The batteries, however, have to be put somewhere. The two favourite places to drop them so far appear to be behind the rear seats, such as in the Hondas and Toyota Camry, or in the floor, such as in the Ford Escape and other Toyotas (Prius, Highlander). Either way, losing out on a bit of trunk space seems to be the end result (and in the case of having them behind the rear seats, losing the option to fold the seats down). There may be other disadvantages, with concerns centred around battery life and/or replacement costs, disposal, emergency response, resale value, and other issues. All this really adds up to is that uncertainty is another disadvantage. All the data to date indicates that these other concerns are not real, but we don’t know for certain, and won’t for another few years. Finally, for those cars that are recognized as a hybrid (the Prius, being unique, suffers from this in particular), there are also potential issues with people: on the mild side, you may get a lot of people asking inane questions out of the blue such as “how does it work?” or “how often do you have to plug it in?” to severe road-rage incidents, with some people reporting that they get cut off by big SUVs, no matter how fast (or slow) they’re actually traveling. The Prius just seems to look slow to some people, or reminds gas-guzzler drivers just how much better life could be if they just didn’t have to pay for gas, or something.
Perhaps it’s just too smug.
As an aside, the biggest concern I have with the hybrids is that the trunk space might not be adequate for me – while I never see the need to fold the seats down, I do quite often completely fill the trunk of my Accord, and while it is true that you tend to expand to fill the space available to you, I still hesitate when looking at the size of the trunk. My thinking though is that there should be a way for the manufacturers to get the battery pack in the car without having to sacrifice on trunk space at all. The battery pack, I know, is made up of over 100 individual cells (essentially its an array of D-cell batteries). I don’t see any technical reason why all the cells have to be in the same place in the car. If the pack was broken up into say 4 (or more) smaller packs, it could be hidden throughout the empty, inaccessible parts of the car. For example, the doors have a fair bit of empty space inside them, so a few packs could be slipped in there (though that might not be quite as safe in accidents, I can’t really say). Also, the fuel tank is about the same size as comparable cars, despite the increased fuel efficiency. A vastly smaller tank could make room in the undercarriage, while still keeping the range comparable to current vehicles (anything over, say, 500 km should suffice, which lets us nearly halve the size of the gas tank). Finally, what about putting them in the roof of the backseat? Many people don’t care too much about head clearance in the backseat: dropping it 2-3″ (what I estimate the height of the pack, mount, and control circuitry to be) would still let an adult of average height such as myself fit, and wouldn’t be too uncomfortable for many others (about as bad for someone 6″ as most two-seaters are for me).
EPA/Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption/mileage ratings: Many people have raised a stink about how their hybrid cars don’t come close to the mileage they’re rated for. Usually, these people have never figured out what their actual mileage is in their previous cars, simply taking the EPA/NRC estimates at face value. The truth is, those tests are very optimistic: they are performed on cars that are warmed up, with the AC off, on a dynamometer (no air resistance), at low speeds with no stop and go traffic. The reason people only come to realize this after getting a hybrid is that it’s usually the first car they’ve ever had that had feedback for their mileage in the instrument cluster (many new/luxury cars have a multifunction trip meter that can display this information, but most people don’t pay attention to it), and it’s the first time they’ve compared their mileage to the EPA/NRC ratings because they bought the car for its fuel efficiency. The fact is, if you drive the same way, you should get about the same relative difference between two models. So, the EPA/NRC are useful for comparing between models, but are absolutely not a predictor for what you will actually get. (One quick note though is that hybrids may suffer slightly disproportionately more when dealing with very short trips, since the engine won’t autostop until it’s warmed up – it will still do better than a gas-only car, it’s just that the difference will be a little smaller. Also, hybrids may suffer a disproportionately a bit more in cold weather as they may have to run the engine more for cabin heat. Conversely, a conventional car will have a disproportionately higher consumption in stop-and-go driving, or the “taxi cycle”).
- Lifetime cost is lower for a Hummer: there was a strange, nasty “study” released by CNW marketing (believed to be a GM front) that poo-pooed the Prius, saying that the total lifetime environmental cost would be greater than for a Hummer. They never released the full basis for their calculations, but a few things are clear. First off, the “cost” is certainly not what you would pay, it’s some nebulous environmental/energy cost, claiming that the manufacturing process consumes the vast majority of the resources through the life of the car. Multiply out their figures and you’ll find that the “cost” of a typical car (almost any car on their list) is about an order of magnitude more expensive than is the case in reality: no one is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of their economy compact car to keep it on the road; while there may be externalities, there’s no accounting for making them that large. They also had some very wonky figures, calculating that a Hummer would last an average of 300,000 miles (482 000 km!!) while a Prius would only last 109,000 miles (the warranty is 100,000 miles in the States), claiming that it is a “novelty/niche” vehicle, that wouldn’t see continued use. Needless to say, it’s been debunked numerous times, with many, more serious lifetime impact studies concluding that the operation of a vehicle consumes the lion’s share of the resources, so there is a logic to paying more up front for improved lifetime efficiency. Despite being so thoroughly debunked in so many places, it keeps popping up on the internet and in the news. See also the Pacific Institute’s debunking of this junk.
- Toyota nuked Sudbury: a particularly poorly researched story originated in a tabloid (or a student newspaper and then picked up by a tabloid), claiming that the nickel in the nickel-metal hydride batteries came from Sudbury, and that the refining and mining process turned the region into a “moonscape”. This is… mostly… untrue, as anyone from Ontario should know. Inco did have some environmental problems in the past (though it was never a moonscape), but Sudbury has been improving by leaps and bounds in recent years – but both the acid rain problems and the regreening efforts had absolutely nothing to do with Toyota. It’s really tenuous to blame hybrid cars for nickel mining: the mine was there for over a hundred years, the nickel needed for hybrid car batteries is a tiny, miniscule fraction of the output from the Inco mine, and Sudbury was already looking a lot better by the time the Prius came around.
- Plugging it in: Another persistent association people have is that “electric car” is something that has to be plugged in. In hybrids, the batteries are charged by the engine, and it never has to be plugged in. Interestingly, many hybrid owners want to be able to plug their cars in: it’s much cheaper to get energy from electricity off the grid than it is to burn gasoline (if not, there would be a lot of people with gasoline generators in their backyard), and running in all-electric mode releases zero asthma-causing pollutants around people’s homes.
- It’s slow: There is no practical maximum speed for hybrid cars: they can go as fast as you’re willing to pay the speeding ticket for (the governor is set at approx 100 mph – 160 km/h, but some have managed to go even faster than this). The Civic Hybrid and the Prius are a little more sluggish than average in terms of acceleration, but this is not a fault of the hybrid powertrain in general (cf. Accord Hybrid), rather it’s a conscious trade-off made by the auto manufacturers to maximize fuel efficiency in these models.
- The battery will die after X years and cost X to replace: This is one that can’t be completely rebuffed, since it falls under that whole umbrella of uncertainty with the new technology. However, most of these claims are vastly overstated, even for being uncertain new technology. I will talk more about the batteries below, but they are generally designed and managed to last the life of the vehicle. The warranty is usually over 160,000 km (often 100,000 miles), so they’ll last at least that long. The replacement cost is estimated to be about $3000 at this point, but as the hybrids become more popular, that will probably come down. Also, as more hybrids are put on the road, more are totaled in accidents, so cheap salvage batteries could be an option as well. Also, there have been some very high mileage cars that have had no problem with the batteries.
- The batteries are toxic and do more environmental damage than the gas savings is worth. The current generation batteries are made out of nickel (NiMH) and are very recyclable. The manufacturers pay a bounty ($200 or more) for the batteries to ensure that they are properly recycled. Metal prices have gotten so high lately though that even without that they would be recycled as the metal in them is worth more than that, even with the costs of recovering it from the battery. In a related tidbit, a user from Priuschat compared the batteries in a regular SUV and the Prius. I can’t find the thread to give you the final numbers, but every car, SUV, etc. has a battery in it, a lead-acid battery. Lead is a far nastier battery metal. It’s cheap, but highly toxic and difficult to recycle/dispose of properly (it costs money to recycle a lead-acid battery, whereas you make money recycling NiMH). Since the Prius doesn’t have a conventional starter, it has a very tiny lead-acid battery for its 12V supply, just enough to boot the computers and turn the lights on for a bit when the car’s main power is off. Other cars and SUVs have larger batteries — and the larger the car, the larger the battery has to be to power the starter motor to turn the engine over. These batteries do die every 5-6 years or so. According to the figures, an SUV would go through 3 lead-acid batteries in its lifetime, together having about the same total metal content as the Prius’ much smaller 12V batteries and large hybrid pack together. The total metal content was similar, but for the SUV it was all lead, whereas most of the metal used in the Prius was nickel.
- Emergency responders are at a risk of electrocution: The hybrid control systems have been set up to cut power in the event of an accident, and moreover the high-voltage lines are clearly marked with orange coatings (hurray for quickly coming to an industry standard!). A lot of thought has gone into making sure these vehicles are safe for emergency responders to cut into to save your life. The car manufacturers have also been active in training emergency responders on how to deal with the cars, providing them with information to familiarize themselves with the issues, etc. Because of this myth, however, an issue has been created: a firefighter who heard this story, but wasn’t familiar with hybrid cars may hesitate to cut you out of one, and that would legitimately put you in danger. They have also raised concerns that since the electric motors can push the car silently, they can’t be guaranteed that the car will stay put if they can’t hear the engine, they have to manually check that the car is off/in park. Hopefully as firefighters and the general public (but not car thieves, who should live in mortal terror that a hybrid may electrocute them at any moment) are educated about how the high voltage electricity is handled in the car and the safety interlocks in place, this will not be a concern.
- The hybrid drivetrain produces harmful electromagnetic fields. This one is difficult to say for sure that there’s nothing to it. I can say that it’s been blown way out of proportion by some people and the media. Nobody has shown me yet measurements indicating that there are significantly higher fields inside the passenger compartment of a hybrid — in the engine compartment near the electric motors, yes, there will be some fields, but I don’t really see any significantly higher fields reaching the passengers. Even then, it’s very controversial whether magnetic fields have any effect on humans; much more likely that cellphones would rather than the quasi-static fields of the hybrid DC power supply/low frequency motors. Plus the hybrid offers real benefits that outweigh those theoretical risks.
Maintenance: There isn’t much data to go on one way or the other here. Hybrids appear to have the same number of issues and recalls as regular cars (for instance, Civic Hybrids had a problem with the power windows coming out of the tracks, and had a recall to fix an issue with the battery voltage controller). They do not require any special maintenance beyond regular cars – oil changes, transmission flushes, coolant checks, that sort of thing (although a quick battery inspection is part of the checklist for regular maintenance). The hybrid powertrain does not appear to put a large number of cars in the shop, however the few that have needed repairs tend to get stuck for long periods of time as highly qualified technicians are called in (often to find out what caused the problem to ensure the continued reliability of the fleet). Wear & tear on the brakes and engine is anticipated to be lower due to the regenerative braking, sharing of peak load with the electric motor, and more powerful starter motor. One concern is that maintenance will have to be done at a dealer, which is more costly than an independent shop. For me, this wasn’t a big deal: I’ve had pretty good experiences with my local dealer, and poor ones with some local shops, so I only go to the dealer anyway. Despite this, regular oil changes can still be done at home or at a quick-lube place (though if the car has a special oil filter then you might need to make sure they stock that for you).
Economics: Saving gas and saving money go hand-in-hand, so perhaps its not surprising that people want to know when a hybrid car will begin to pay for itself. Some lament having to wait years to turn a profit (or in the case of some of the low-efficiency luxury hybrids, just breaking even). On the other hand, a hybrid powertrain is the only upgrade option on a car that will ever make paybacks, whether that’s this year or 10 years from now. Whether you buy a navigation system, a bigger engine, automatic transmission, or air conditioning, those options will only cost you money up front, use more fuel, and depreciate in value. Of course, a car is an expense, never an investment, so the cheapest, most economical option is to get a bus pass and not drive at all (if you need a car for work, then work should pay for it, right?) – but more realistically, we’re willing to pay for a car because of the convenience and prestige, so why not a hybrid car simply for the environmental benefits?
Ok, I’ve preached enough, and the economic calculations are important anyway, so let’s do this. First off, it’s important to make actual apples-to-apples comparisons. If you’re going to use fuel savings as a measure to help you decide whether to get a hybrid or not, make sure you’re comparing a hybrid and a car you’d actually consider as a replacement. Take into account not only size, but also trim level: the Civic Hybrid has a lot more features than a Civic DX; it’s at least the equivalent of an LX. Likewise, the Prius is bigger and has more features than an Aveo. Using the EPA/NRC estimates of fuel consumption will usually get you pretty close to your potential savings, because the relative differences should stay about the same, but feel free to modify them if you have the data to do so intelligently (for example, you could get a rental or negotiate a long test-drive and see what your actual fuel use is on your actual commute with your actual driving habits, or rely on the sometimes-inaccurate “real world” mileage figures published by many car magazines – just watch out for any models they review in the winter, and check more than one source in case they had a tester more interested in acceleration than efficiency).
The basic calculation is simple enough: take the fuel consumption for each of your vehicles (and here is where the Canadian units of L/100 km really makes this easy) — either the combined, or city/hwy-only figures if your driving is mostly limited to one or the other, here highway numbers will usually be the most conservative — guess at the average price of gas, and find out how much it would cost you to drive a certain distance. Then, with the difference in prices, you can find out how far you have to drive to “break even”.
For example, let’s look at the Civic Hybrid and the Civic LX:
Hybrid: $26260, 4.3 L/100 km highway
LX: $21830, 5.7 L/100 km highway
The price difference is $4430, on top of which there are $4000 of government incentives for the hybrid (and about $100 provincially for the gas Civic). There is also an internal $1000 rebate from Honda because the gas-only Civic narrowly missed the Federal rebate target, while its Toyota Corolla competitor qualified – however, only manual transmissions need apply (and even for an extra $1000, I personally probably wouldn’t go manual). That brings the price difference to $530.
If we assume gas is $1/L (and it’s been above that for some time recently, but it’s a nice round number), then the Hybrid needs $4.30 to go 100 km, and the LX needs $5.70 to go the same distance. In other words, you save $1.40 per 100 km in the Hybrid. To get to the break-even point of $530 would take 37 800 km, or just about two years of driving for me. After that, I save money in operating costs (and if gas is more expensive, which it is now and I fully expect it to be for a while longer, then that’s even more impressive!). Plus keep in mind that this was for the highway figures, where the gas only version comes closest to the hybrid. If I used blended figures, or city-only driving, then it simply becomes difficult to fathom buying the gas-only version. “Heck,” I’d say “I’ll take the hybrid and a roof rack for those odd weekends when the trunk isn’t big enough.”
Of course, this is a somewhat simplistic analysis. There are other factors to consider, such as the cost of borrowing the extra money up front, and maintenance issues. You also have to take into account your ability to deal: most gas-only cars can be had for a few percent below MSRP, whereas many hybrids are in demand enough that discounts are rare. On the other side of the scales, gas prices have doubled in the last ten years, and will likely continue to go up, perhaps drastically. Honestly though, this gets you pretty damned close.
Oddly enough, the fact that you can expect future returns or savings from a hybrid powertrain make it the only part of the car that is an investment. With the Canadian tax credits in this example, a hybrid is something that costs $530, and saves (earns) about half that much every year. Pretty impressive return, I’d say.
As for the resale value, well, that deserves some thought, too, and will get its own section below. I’ll just quickly note here that it’s not as big a concern for the economics here because, to generalize, those who buy hybrids tend to be those who drive their cars into the ground. Also, don’t be concerned about a payback period being less than 10 years but more than you plan on holding onto the car: the remaining “payback” will still hold value for resale, because the next owner will also be able to save on gas…
Update: see a whole article on the economics of a hybrid purchase here.
Rebates and Incentives: The US federal government has a very strange, confusing system of income tax credits for buying a hybrid car. Several states also have incentives of various types (from single-occupant HOV lane passes to tax rebates). Here in Canada, the federal government has announced a rebate schedule for most hybrids (up to $2000 for a Prius or Civic Hybrid). This program is still in its infancy, and as far as I know, no rebates have been paid out yet. The money will eventually come though, and that has recently raised demand for hybrids in Canada. Ontario has a PST rebate of up to $2000 for hybrids (if you reduce the PST you pay with a trade-in, you won’t get the full rebate). BC, Quebec, PEI, and now Manitoba also have rebate programs, but I do not have the details handy.
Update: the Federal EcoAuto rebate was a brief success, paying out $2000 for efficient hybrids. Unfortunately, after just 2 years the schizophrenic Harper government has cancelled it. There will be no rebates for model year 09 hybrids.
Resale: Resale value is hard to predict on these cars. It has been quite strong, but that is in part because there are so few on the used market, and such a demand for them (not everyone interested in a hybrid or saving gas can buy new). As their performance and maintenance records become more solid, the resale values could potentially go higher. On the other hand, every new tax incentive announced lowers the resale value. Also, every car tends to suffer a bit in resale when a new redesign is launched (e.g.: the ‘05 Civic is probably worth a fair bit less than the ‘06 simply because the Civic was restyled for ‘06). This will hurt hybrids even more because not only have the looks, safety features, and options changed, but also the technology appears to be improving by rather substantial margins with each generation. The price of the new cars may also come down in the future as manufacturers kick up production to reap the economies of scale (and also as they face competition with each other), and any drop in the new vehicle price hurts the resale market.
Insurance: Insurance companies seem to be all over the map, but some of them offer discounts to drivers of hybrid cars. Perhaps because they can’t accelerate as hard to get into trouble, perhaps because their drivers tend to have fuel economy in mind, and drive a bit slower. Either way, if your insurance company gives you a quote that’s higher than a comparable gas-only model, then consider shopping around.
The Batteries: These are not the batteries in your laptop or cell-phone, even if they are NMH batteries. The computer software very carefully controls the state of charge and keeps it in a healthy middle range so that the battery is never fully charged or fully discharged, which leads to a longer battery life. The estimated replacement cost is about $2000 at the moment, but that is expected to steadily come down as the cars become more popular (and as rebuilt/salvage batteries enter the market). There have been very few cases of hybrids needing their batteries changed, and generally Honda and Toyota have been very helpful with owners, covering all or part of the cost when not under warranty, and studying the cars to see why the batteries failed. Old Honda Insights and Civics with manual transmissions have suffered the most failures, hypothetically because the owners were not shifting soon enough, and the batteries had to work overtime. This is part of the reason why Honda no longer sells manual transmission Civic Hybrids. Hot climates (Texas, Arizona) also seem to degrade battery life – indeed, there are cooling fans and vents that one can find in the car to help keep the batteries at the proper temperature, but this may not matter in the sun. It is believed that for most people, the batteries will last the useful life of the car, and I see no reason to doubt that.
Some drivers have put a ridiculous number of kilometers on their car, such as a Vancouver taxi driver who at last report was over 300,000 km. Jesse put almost 350,000 miles (560,000 km!) on his first-generation Prius before it was totalled in an accident. No telling how much longer the batteries could have lasted, but even if they were on their last legs, I figure a car doesn’t owe me anything after half a million kilometers. The batteries on those cars are holding up just fine. Of course, there is an issue where the batteries may not degrade simply with use, but may degrade with time as well, if used or not. In that case, putting on 100,000 km per year probably isn’t as indicative as we might hope, but is still a pretty ringing endorsement. A few people might have to change their batteries after say 200,000 km and 10 years, but then that expense is not out of line with any car that age – something costly will go, whether it’s a clutch, transmission, radiator, etc. Plus, also consider that by that point you’ll have saved enough on gas to pay for the battery replacement, possibly several times over. If the batteries don’t need replacing, then you simply get to save your money.
As for the disposal, all the automakers in the game so far have return and recycle programs in place. If you don’t believe me and are in possession of a Toyota battery you’d like to dispose of, just send it to me and I’ll take care of it for you :) I can say that with confidence because there is a “bounty” on the batteries – Toyota will pay good cash money to get their battery packs back.
The state of charge in the batteries is important not only for the longevity of the batteries (keeping the charge around halfway charged is better for the batteries than fully charging or discharging, also known as a deep cycle), but also for the performance of the car. Since the periods of high demand (acceleration) are met with the help of the electrical motor and batteries, the car can have much worse performance if the battery somehow becomes drained or unusable. This can happen on very hot days if something blocks the airflow cooling the batteries (the computers will not let them discharge too much current in the heat), but much more commonly happens in mountains. Since keeping a steady speed on a hill (or accelerating up a hill) is a high-demand task, if the hill is very long (like a mountain) it’s possible that the state of charge in the battery can drop too low, and the car will be left running on the gas engine only. Reports indicate that in these situations, the Civic Hybrid and the Prius can maintain a speed going up hill, but lack the power to acclerate. Likewise, going downhill the regenerative braking may “fill” the battery on a very long hill, and the generator will disconnect and stop causing a drag on the dar. The driver may then have to adjust the pressure to the brake to compensate (i.e.: you may lose some braking power at a given pedal position, and have to press further for the friction brakes to slow you at the same rate).
Environment: Hybrid cars are great not only for saving gas, but also for reducing emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions are pretty well correlated with the amount of gas used, but other smog-forming emissions are reduced as well. For those who largely only drive on highways, a turbo diesel engine can often get nearly the same level of fuel efficiency, but even then that technology is not preferred because the emissions from diesel engines tend to be poor. All indications are that the savings over the operational lifetime of the vehicle more than make up for any additional pollution caused by the manufacture and recycling of the hybrid parts.
Transmission: Virtually every reviewer or auto columnist seems absolutely head-over-heels in love with manual transmissions, and laments the lack of one on hybrid vehicles. However, the vast majority of car buyers (myself included) prefer automatic transmissions, even though they cost more than manuals. Manual transmissions often get better ratings in terms of fuel consumption, but the truth is that it requires nearly perfect shifting to do better than an automatic – and it introduces an element of human error, too. If you like waiting to shift and listening to the engine roar at red-line, you’ll probably do worse on fuel consumption (even if your acceleration is better). If you absolutely can’t imagine buying a car without a manual transmission, then a hybrid car probably isn’t for you (unless you’re looking for a used Civic or Insight).
Beyond that, hybrids often have continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs. These new-fangled transmissions tend to be a bit more efficient than a conventional automatics, and feel very smooth to drive since there are no shift points: the car simply revs the engine up to a desired RPM range (usually the most efficient range, unless you really stomp the accelerator) and adjust the drive ratio as needed to match speeds or acceleration. Because this technology is new, it is another concern for long-term reliability. While hybrids are on the fore-front of using CVTs, they are not alone: all across the auto industry, they are slowly being incorporated into conventional cars, typically as those cars undergo their ~5 year redesigns. So it looks like auto makers believe in them, and if not, there should be plenty of cheap, 3rd party parts or rebuilds available when they do break (as there are now for automatic transmissions).
A note that so far, it appears as though the CVTs require a bit of extra maintenance beyond what the manufacturers recommend. Independent testing of Prius transmission fluid indicates that at least the first two transmission fluid changes need to be done more often than the 60k miles (96000 km for Canadians) recommended in the schedule. The Honda cone and belt systems also require frequent belt adjustments. This isn’t too onerous though, since Honda recommends my conventional automatic fluid be flushed every 2 years whether it needs it or not – and that’s about the schedule the CVTs should be on, at least for the first two. That said, there haven’t been any failures to speak of.
Otto vs. Atkinson: You may, in discussions of hybrids and efficiency, hear of an Otto Cycle and an Atkinson Cycle. To put it very simplistically, the Otto cycle is the standard 4-stroke internal combustion engine as we know it. The Atkinson cycle is a variation of this internal combustion cycle that is more efficient and cleaner burning (the difference is largely that the expansion ratio is different than the compression ratio, though not being an automotive engineer that has limited meaning to me). However, it is lacking in peak power output – because of this, it’s a natural to pair with an electric motor to handle peak demands. The Prius has an Atkinson-tuned engine, this is partly why the rated horsepower of the Prius’ 1.5 L 4-cylinder engine is so low, even for a 1.5 L engine. It has been said that the Civic Hybrid can approximate an Atkinson cycle when cruising with its flexible valve timing control, but I’m not sure to what degree.
Honda Civic Hybrid: This is the vehicle that started it all for me, really. Very fuel efficient (depending on your driving style, potentially the equal of the Prius), especially on the highway. Also the cheapest hybrid in Canada by a pretty fair margin. The electric motor is small, and the transmission is set up so that the car can run on the engine only (which some people find reassuring). The acceleration is adequate, but the trunk space is pretty limited. From the back seats forward, it’s basically just another Civic, but with a neat two-tone colour scheme. The Civic Hybrid has a somewhat small electric motor, which really just goes to show how small an electric boost is really needed to get rather large gains in fuel efficiency. Oddly enough, it only comes in 4 colours, white, silver, grey, and a very pale green that I frankly can’t stand. No blue (though the Americans get a blue option), no black (though the Europeans have a black option), no red, and no pleasant green. I’m really surprised, especially given how little effort it takes to offer a car in a different colour. Particularly since the regular Civic has a broader colour palette. The backseat can fit 2 adults who are my size or smaller, but I wouldn’t want to try a tall person behind the driver (maybe behind the passenger if they scoot up). Kids would have no problem, though. Because of the batteries in the back, the rear centre armrest was removed, which you may never notice.
The Civic (both hybrid and otherwise) has a very interesting split dash that I really liked: a digital speedometer up above the steering wheel (which minimized eye travel) and the rest of the instruments in the standard position behind the gap in the wheel. The hybrid displays were clean and well integrated into this setup, unlike the Toyota screens which can be a bit distracting.
Toyota Prius: The Prius is the quintessential hybrid. It’s the only hybrid that doesn’t have a close gas-only model, so it stands out in traffic (and is also tough to do a cost analysis for). It defies many laws of physics, not only getting incredible efficiency, but also having a “heretical” mode in its transmission where the gas engine runs, providing current to a motor, which then turns the wheels (common sense says that it would be more efficient to just have the engine turn the wheels directly), and being far larger inside that it looks like it should be. There are complaints that the seats are rather uncomfortable, and have no height/tilt adjust, but the backseats have several inches of extra leg room as compared to my Accord: it can quite comfortably seat 4 adults (it’s a little too narrow for 5). The hatchback design makes it quite versatile and helps offset the loss of space due to the battery. In fact, the hatchback makes the trunk a bit bigger than a standard Camry (though it appears as though those ratings are for when the trunk is filled above the glass in the hatchback). This is perhaps the most efficient 4-wheeled highway-capable vehicle available to Canadians, period.
Interestingly enough, the most efficient way to move 4 people is in a Prius. The most efficient way to move 8 people is in two Priuses (the plural form, however, is a little tough to come by… Prii? Also, there are some 7-seater vans that are better for 7 people than 2 Prii).
The dash of a Prius is very unconventional, with some of the information living in the center console multifunction display, and the speedometer way up in a raised, slightly towards center digital display. Likewise, the rear window has the spoiler cutting across the middle of it, making visibility a bit… interesting.
Toyota Camry Hybrid: The Camry hybrid is very appealing in pictures and on paper: a slightly more powerful version of the 4-cylinder Camry that offers much improved fuel efficiency (though not quite as good as the previous two hybrids) in a very familiar, comfortable package. It’s a pretty cheap upgrade, too, and has lots of options to pick from if so desired. The only real downside is that the trunk is about the same size as the Civic Hybrid – if not for that I might already be driving one.
Honda Accord Hybrid: The Accord Hybrid is a bit of a different beast all together. It’s based off the V6 Accord, which I find overpowered to begin with (really, the 4-cylinder Accord has plenty of power). It sees a very modest improvement in fuel consumption, and pushes the performance to sports car like levels. That actually says something about how hybrids can be tuned for different goals: it both reduced fuel consumption and increased acceleration – it completely changes the old dichotomous tradeoff between power and fuel consumption, instead allowing you to improve both at the cost of size, weight, and cost. Anyhow, the Accord Hybrid does appeal to some, but it suffers from the fact that the people who want speed don’t generally think of hybrids, and the people who want an Accord with better fuel consumption would do just as well with a V4 that has a trunk (or a hybrid Camry!). I haven’t seen a single ad for the Accord Hybrid, so I don’t think Honda is doing a very good job of attracting the right customer for this car, and indeed there have been rumours that Honda will stop making it (or retool it to an efficient V4 to better compete with the Camry hybrid).
Ford Escape Hybrid: This is the SUV with Kermit in the commercial, so you’ve got to give it some props. It also shows that Ford is really the only American car company that’s trying, a little. There was at one point a lawsuit/licensing issue between Ford and Toyota with regards to Ford’s hybrid technology in the Escape. While Ford did end up having to “license” its hybrid components from Toyota, they are not actually powered by a Toyota hybrid system (cf. the Nissan Altima). What happened is that Ford independently developed a hybrid system that was similar enough to Toyota’s that there was a patent issue. If you beat your chest and will only buy domestic, then don’t worry about the Ford Escape Hybrid, it’s not “tainted” by Japanese technology. I hate SUVs, but this is a pretty decent compromise SUV: it gets about the same mileage as a midsized car, but with the ground clearance and space of an SUV. It comes in a 4×4 flavour for the one or two people on the entire continent that actually drive off-road. Unfortunately, Ford’s hybrid program was derailed a few years ago for reasons unknown. They were on track to produce Fusion and Edge hybrids, but now barely even make the FEH: since they make more profit per unit on the regular Escape, they have only dedicated a small part of the Escape production line (15k units/year from what I heard) to the hybrid, the rest being gas-only. This has made it very difficult for consumers to actually find an Escape to buy; compounded by the election frenzy in the states where every politician wants to drive a domestic hybrid and the FEH is about the only option.
Nissan Altima Hybrid: After poo-pooing hybrids as a money-losing fad, Nissan suddenly realized that even if people weren’t buying hybrids, they were going into Toyota dealerships to look at hybrids, and then buying regular Toyotas. To jump on the bandwagon quickly, they licensed Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive and slapped it on their Altima. The Altima is thus extremely similar to the Camry, with slightly different suspension and a different interior. It’s cheaper, too. However, Nissan is busy working on its own in-house hybrid technology, so the current Altima Hybrid is sure to be an “orphan” in the future, and thus I can’t really recommend it to anyone.
Saturn VUE Green Line Hybrid: GM really bugs me sometimes. I just hate watching them running around with their heads cut off. Its like someone comes up with an idea in a meeting, and some jackass immediately stands up and says “That’s a great idea! Now here’s how we can pervert it and drive it into the ground.” I mean, these were the guys who actually built and successfully
sold leased a purpose-built electric car (the EV-1). Then, cancelled it. Then, destroyed it so thoroughly that 10 years later when it’s apparent that there’s a market for such a creature, they can’t even manage to dust it off and just start selling. I heard that they were opposed to hybrids for a long time because they cost more to make, and GM was “opposed to selling any vehicle at a loss, even for a short term.” I find that hard to believe given that the company somehow manages to run at a loss – if every vehicle they sell makes a profit, then they should overall have a profit, shouldn’t they?
So with the Saturn VUE hybrid, they have shot themselves in the foot. Both feet, actually. First off, the VUE is the hybrid with the lowest incremental cost to jump up to a hybrid. It’s the cheapest because it does the least: this crappy system (”BAS”) is not a hybrid like the others, with an electric motor providing a boost to the gas engine or capturing energy from braking. Instead, this is simply a system with a
36 48-volt starting motor so that the engine can be turned off at stoplights and restarted easily with minimal engine wear. That is a decent first step, and is probably something that should be in all cars soon… but it’s hardly worthy of the “hybrid” name – misusing a term like that is only going to cause consumer backlash when people realize their hybrids don’t do as well as the Ford/Toyota/Honda ones (though to be fair, GM is using the “Green Line” name instead of “hybrid” in all the big text). But the really big shot in the foot comes from the fact that before they ever sold a Saturn Green Line, they announced that they were going to kill it and stop making them. In the near future (2008? 2009? Never?) they are going to introduce a new lineup of GM hybrids – actual hybrids – with what they term their “2-mode” system. It will only be in their large trucks and SUVs, arguably because those are the vehicles that have the most to gain from hybrid technology (but really also because they’re all GM makes a profit on anymore).
Saturn Aura Green Line: The first couple have just been sold in the States, and Canada should be getting them sometime this summer [summer of ‘07 that was]. I have very few details at the moment — though it does appear that this will be a BAS system at first. Either way, they’re already gearing up to sell it as an affordable hybrid — if you’re already considering the Aura or a car in that price range, then this might be an easy step up to save some gas. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a really futuristic, fuel-sipping hybrid, then the AGL might not fit as well as some of the other options on the market.
Toyota Highlander Hybrid: I don’t know much about the “HiHy”, other than that it’s an SUV that has more luxury options than the Ford Escape Hybrid, and roughly the same fuel consumption and performance. It’s an SUV and it didn’t have Kermit in the commercial, so I didn’t pay too much attention (it’s also pretty far out of my price range).
Lexus Hybrids: Toyota also offers two (soon to be 3) flavours of hybrids in an upscale Lexus package. I haven’t bothered looking at them at all. I do know that the SUV, the 330h, is fairly similar to the HiHy, and many people who have looked at the 330h have recommended saving money and going with the HiHy.
Bioelectromagnetics: My field of study is bioelectromagnetics, and concerns about exposure from the motors or batteries crop up from time to time. The issue is undecided, but I’ll tell you this in a mostly non-professional capacity: there is a definite benefit to a hybrid (fuel consumption, emissions), so take the very small risk involved and get one. For comparison, many people have an always-on wireless network in their house that has many of the same unknown safety concerns but offers next to no benefit (more mobile internet access… geez, take a weekend and lay some cable and save the radio spectrum). Also, they do not present any sort of pacemaker risk for occupants (though they may for mechanics). The smart key system some use is more of a hazard. The only thing to worry about from the motors is the possibility that the magnetic field may subtly alter your conscious state – perhaps make you slightly more prone to fall asleep, or slightly more anxious. Either way, there are many stronger, easier to detect effects that outweigh those potential ones, such as caffeine, emotional state, attention…
[edit: if that crazy lady from the new york times got the idea about her narcolepsy from here, I’d appreciate a cite at least!]
General Gas Saving Tips: Getting more out of your gas is something all drivers should consider, especially with prices so high. Most of the tips are pretty straightforward: Slow down. On my car, I save about
2-47% by slowing down from 120 km/h to 110 km/h on the highway. Generally, your most efficient speed is the one where you’ve shifted into your last gear and your engine is in its most efficient range (about 2500 RPM). Going 110 km/h on the 401 is not holding up traffic, only costs me about 9 minutes on my 2 hour drive between London and Toronto, and saves me about a third of a litre of gas each way. That’s not a huge amount, but it adds up. The savings for slowing down on the highway are magnified for vehicles with more wind resistance or at even higher speeds (there’s more benefit of slowing down 10 km/h when dropping from 130 to 120, etc). In the city, accelerate moderately and try to coast or glide as much as possible. By leaving lots of space for the car in front of you, you’ll be better able to do this, and it’s safer too. Time the lights if you can to avoid stopping, and time your trips avoid rush hour. If you’re stopped for more than a minute, consider a home-made autostop: just turn the car off. For modern cars (i.e.: ones where you’re not worried about getting stuck in the middle of traffic when it doesn’t restart) it’s worth shutting down if you’re going to be stuck for over a minute, which can happen for train crossings, bad accidents, select traffic lights I know of around the city, and the like. Also, keep your tires fully inflated, perhaps a bit overinflated relative to what the sticker inside your door says (but always below the sidewall pressure on the side of the tire itself). Keep track of your mileage, whether on your own or with a database like that at greenhybrid.com. You’ll be better able to spot behaviours that lead to low mileage, such as bad weather (winter causes a big hit in fuel consumption), speeding, or having a slow leak in a tire get out of hand. If nothing else, having that mindset of making mileage a priority will help you drive a little bit more sanely. The very best tip of all though is to stay calm, cool, and relaxed in the driver’s seat. Don’t try to rush anywhere, don’t fight traffic – watch as the guy that buzzed by and cut you off gets stopped at the next light anyway and have a good laugh. It does wonders for your stress levels too.
The Case Against SUVs: A lot of people dislike SUVs, and I’m definitely one of them. I could fill pages and pages just ranting about SUVs. They do have a bit of “cool” factor, and they’re definitely a status symbol (how else will people know that your kids play soccer, the least equipment-intensive sport of them all?). But image aside, extremely few people “need” an SUV (think: did your family have an SUV when you grew up?). Some people may need a van or a station wagon – vehicles that are like SUVs in terms of having more interior space for people and stuff, but which generally make much better use of their space (not wasting it on ground clearance) and generally get better mileage too. Consider what you actually need when thinking of your next vehicle choice, rather than how much smaller a car is compared to an SUV. Also consider that SUVs carry a big price up front, and continuing down the line as well (especially if they need premium gas!). And finally, if there are only a few times a year when you truly need a bigger vehicle, remember that it’s possible to rent or borrow one then, without having to drive around with the thousands of pounds of steel the rest of the time.
A few people “need” an SUV to go off-roading. These people, however, are very few indeed. It’s important to note that off-roading, where high ground clearance and big tires and that sort of thing are needed, is not the same as dirt-roading. PEI, for instance, has a ton of dirt, gravel, and just poorly maintained roads. Everybody there does just fine in regular cars. The same for snow: there is a very small margin of snow accumulation where an SUV helps you get through snow that a car couldn’t get through, but those conditions are not usually safe for most drivers to be out in, and the inflated sense of power or safety the SUV gives can cause more accidents than four-wheel-drive can prevent. Also, hybrid SUVs that get improved mileage are available.
Gas Tax MiniRant: Gas is expensive, and has risen beyond the level many people budgeted for in recent years. This has some calling for an end to gas taxes, which account for a significant portion of the price we pay at the pumps. However, this is a bad idea for many reasons. The first is that for environmental reasons, gas should be expensive. That one leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths, so I will give the big, pocket-book hitting reason: at the moment, the cost of gas at the pump has very little to do with the cost of oil. The prices are so high because demand is so high, and the supply is so low: if the price dropped any, then there would be shortages, and the price would jump up again. This is largely due to a lack of refining capability. So, if the taxes came off gas, we would very quickly find ourselves back at the same price point on the pump, only now all the money would go to the oil companies as profit, rather than to the government to maintain the roads. It’s just not a good idea. The only way to reduce gas prices is to reduce demand (and build more refineries).