The Prius Deception
I just saw Edmunds list of the 10 Hottest Selling Cars in the US. The hot 10, in order, are:
- Toyota Prius
- Mini Cooper
- Scion xA
- Scion xB
- Scion tC
- Lexus RX400h
- Honda Civic
- Toyota RAV4
- Ford Escape Hybrid
As an aside, let’s hear it for Toyota who produces 6 out of the 10 vehicles.
Edmunds defines hot as selling close to sticker price, having minimal incentives or rebates, and spending little time in dealer inventory.
This got me thinking about the Prius, the long list of unfulfilled buyers waiting on dealer lists and the price they are willing to pay to buy less gas and be ecologically friendly. It doesn’t seem to matter to most that the premium they pay to buy the Prius could buy them all the gas they could consume during the life of their car after purchasing a nice gasoline-only fueled vehicle. Of course, if you ask your average Cambridge, MA, Boulder, CO or Berkeley, CA Prius owner, they’ll tell you that it’s not about money, but about burning less oil and polluting less air. Noble and reasonable desires, for sure, but let’s make it clear it’s not about saving money.
Now, I’m all for consuming fewer dead and rotted dinosaurs and for slowing down the growth of city-sized holes in the ozone layer. I don’t believe that
the current hybrid technologies out there are the way to go about it, though. In fact, I think the marketing machines at companies like Toyota and, dare I say, the US government through hybrid rebate programs, have forced us to take our eye off of alternative solutions that are not only much better, but could come to market more quickly if there was more push from the auto-buying public. Knowledge is power, right?
Let’s start with the facts, ma’m.
- Battery technology evolves at a glacial pace. There may be breakthroughs in the future in alternative technologies (e.g. fuel cells), but the standard chemical reaction in batteries has not improved much in a very long time. Quantum improvements in engine mechanicals and fuel chemistry will happen long before similar improvements in battery technology.
- Batteries weigh a lot! My friend John Bower likes to quote a Ford engineer who said: “electric cars are a brilliant solution for the task of hauling around 1,500 lbs worth of batteries.” All that weight has to be propelled by something and that something is gonna need fuel to run it whether it be electricity or fossil fuel. Electric motors are very linear. If you want more power, you need more batteries.
- The Prius has an EPA rating of 60mpg in the city and 51mpg on the highway (city numbers are higher because the drivetrain relies on batteries for power in stop-and-go traffic). The EPA does not get these numbers by driving around, though. They take the engine out of the car and put it on a dynamometer to measure it in a lab. During these tests, the maximum acceleration used is 3.3mph per second which is how fast you’ll drive on your 97th birthday.
Also, the tests are done with the air conditioning off. With the extra load on the engine, some tests have shown the Prius’ fuel economy drops by as much as 33%. In Europe, the car is rated at 47mpg in the city and 56mpg on the highway. The European ratings are done with the engine mounted in a car, under the hood although, apparently, they still drive pretty slowly.
I am in no way stating that hybrids are a bad thing. But why are hybrids the only high-mileage solution in the US? In Europe, where fuel costs roughly one million times more than it does in the US, some 50% of all new vehicle sales are diesels. Why? Because diesel solutions blow gasoline/electric solutions out of the water. Let’s look at some cars available (or soon to be available) in Europe that use diesel fuel as their only means of juicing an engine . . .
- Audi A2 1.2 TDI
- city: 65.33
- highway: 87.11
- average: 8.4
- Smart fortwo CDI
- city: 60.31
- highway: 75.87
- average: 69.18
- Citroen C2 HDi 70 SensoDrive VTR
- city: 48
- highway: 61.9
- average: 56
- KIA Picanto 1.1 CRDi EX
- city: 48
- highway: 61.9
- average: 56
All of these cars are better rated than the Prius in terms of mileage (compare to Prius’ European mileage numbers, above), some of them by wide margins. None of them have batteries.
How many people know that the US government has mandated that the diesel fuel sold in the US will have substantially lower sulfur content by the end of this year? This will make it similar to those fuels sold in Europe, although not identical and not quite as good. It’s a significant improvement over existing diesel fuels, though, and will help automotive manufacturers to filter out nitrogen oxides and particulates to the same level as is now the case with gasoline engines. Diesels are already better with carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline engines. Diesel fuel can make more power in a diesel engine than the same amount of gasoline in a gasoline engine. According to the Department of Energy, if 30 percent of the passenger cars and light-duty trucks in the U.S. had diesel engines, U.S. net crude oil imports would be reduced by 350,000 barrels per day.
I ask again, why are hybrids the only offering to choose from in this country?
To be sure, batteries and electric motors have a couple of significant advantages. They can convert the energy released from braking into electricity that can be used later to power the car. This energy would otherwise be released into space as heat, never to be recaptured. This generative process can also be used when gravity moves a car down a hill or momentum propels it as it coasts to a stop. The potential energy in the vehicle can be used to charge batteries which save the energy to be used for propulsion later. These are huge benefits, but they’re also all we should expect from the process. No need for huge batteries because this should be seen as power to aid propulsion, not to be the fuel itself.
Diesels also have a big drawback – they are hugely efficient engines as long as they stay within a certain rpm range. This is why so many diesels worldwide come with turbochargers. The turbochargers help the engine stay in a band where they are most efficient.
Now, what if we were to combine electric motors charged the way I mention a couple of paragraphs ago with diesel motors? What if the electric motors had one job – making sure the diesel engine stayed within its power band, basically replacing the turbo charger? My guess is that if you did this you could take the mileage numbers of the cars mentioned earlier and increase them by a significant percentage. This should result in a 2-3X increase in fuel economy over most current fuel efficient vehicles in the US.
My point here is not that the Prius is bad or that consuming less energy is bad. It’s that we’re looking at solving the problem in the wrong way. Introducing gasoline hybrids is a good thing. Exploring hydrogen power, fuel from plants and improvements in batteries is great. We shouldn’t stop. There are solutions, though, right in front of us that we appear to be ignoring. If we’re really serious about reducing our reliance on imported fuel, why aren’t we exploring all avenues simultaneously?
Let’s encourage individuals and companies to do research into propulsion systems that require no fossil fuels. At the same time, let’s push for broad availability of the solutions that can be engineered today. Really push. I’d like to see the first diesel hybrid that gets 100mpg in 2007.
Of course, this can’t be at the expense of having 500hp gas high-speed guzzlers available to whoever wants them. I not only remain a free market bigot, I need to make up for certain inadequacies with powerful cars.
As Dennis Miller says, “but that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.”
NOTE: my response to the very thoughtful comment from David H. Hawkins, below, can be found in another post: The Prius Deception . . . The Other Side of the Argument