Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


The Prius Deception . . . The Other Side of the Argument

I recently received a thoughtful comment on my original Prius Deception post by David H. Hawkins.  In his comment, Mr. Hawkins basically says that I’m full of crap with many (most, actually) of the claims I make – if he knew me, he might not limit his findings to the post in question.  In his comments, he claims that “this article contains a plethora of incorrect ‘facts’ and suppositions” and outlines what  he believes are my “fallacious facts.”  Since I thought his text was insightful, and he seems like a reasonable, intelligent man, I thought I would put my comments on it in a new post rather than in an extended comment to the original.

Below are Mr. Hawkins’ explanations of my allegedly fallacious statements, the truth as he sees it and my further thoughts on the particular topic.

Fallacy:  The difference in price for a Prius over another comparably equipped mid-size car will buy all the gas you would need for the life of the car.

Truth:  If I WERE paying $3000.00 more than a comparably equipped mid-size car (which I am not).  At todays prices, the car would pay for the difference in between 2 and 4 years depending on how much I drive, and I expect gas to go up even more in price.

Will: Well this one is actually pretty simple to validate.  We’ll pick a “comparable” vehicle in the mid-size segment.  How ‘bout the Toyota Camry CE (4–cylinder car).  The Camry is a great car, it’s actually larger in interior space and exterior dimensions, is more luxurious and is faster than the Prius – although arguably not significantly different from the Prius in any of these aspects.  Of course, it’s also manufactured by the same company, Toyota, which hopefully removes some other variables in differentiation.  According to Edmunds, the average selling price (the price people are actually paying for the car) of the new Camry is $19,300.  According to the same source, the average price people are paying for a new Prius is $24,900 (this assumes equivalent options – the Prius must include the optional HF package which adds front seat-mounted side and front and rear side curtain airbags and 6–speaker stereo to be equipped almost identically to the base Camry).  Thus, the difference in purchase price is $5,600.

The Prius gets much better gas mileage than the Camry.  The actual mileage numbers gleaned from various car magazines and car review web sites are the mid-to-high 40s mpg for the Prius and about 30 mpg for the Camry – obviously, these are city/highway combined numbers.  For the sake of discussion, let’s give the Prius the benefit of the doubt and use 50 mpg for the Prius and 30 for the Camry.  Assuming that the average driver drives 12,000 miles/year and gas costs $3.50/gallon, the Prius driver will spend $840 for gasoline/year ((12,000 mi/50 mpg) * $3.50).  Using the same calculation, the Camry driver will spend $1,400 for gasoline in one year.  The difference being $560 per year.

Since the difference in purchase price, as outlined above, is $5,600, it’s clear that it would take 10 years to break even financially on the decision to buy the Prius.  Of course, this does not even include the facts that 1) batteries lose efficiency over time, 2) 10 years is already outside the envelope that Toyota prescribes as the useful life of the battery, 3) internal combustion engines are more efficient after break-in and, 4) the opportunity costs on $5,600 can be significant for many.

Fallacy:    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.

Truth:  By this argument, anything on wheels is obsolete, wheels haven’t changed in centuries.  Batteries HAVE come a LONG way, from lead/acid to carbon/zinc to lithium ion.  I should point out that the battery in a current model Prius puts out over 200 volts and is raised to 500 volts for use in the engines.  (as a side note, street cars run on about 600 volts, and no one complains about their efficiency.)  Also, the battery is only used in situations where the gas engine is very inefficient, such as low speeds and high acceleration.

Will: Sorry, David, I don’t understand what the wheel comparison means.  If you believe that I am stating that batteries are obsolete, you need to read my entire post in which I state that I’d love to see simple diesel/electric hybrids with electric motors used to keep diesel engines in their peak torque range.  That aside, the combination of batteries and electric motors HAVE actually increased in efficiency at a glacial pace compared to the combination of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels (this does not mean, BTW, that batteries have not evolved and that new battery technology, as you state, has not been introduced).  And this is true even considering the fact that fossil fuel efficiency is virtually unchanged (actually, it has probably decreased since all the old additives have been removed).  Engine technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades.  Much by electronics, but quite a bit mechanically as well.  The average horsepower/liter of engine displacement is up tremendously.  The output of battery powered electric motors has increased as well, but not nearly as much as for engine/fuel combination.  Even more to the point, the prospects for further electrical and mechanical advances in internal combustion engines looks like it will outstrip advances in battery technology for the foreseeable future.

Fallacy:  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.

Truth:  The battery in a Prius only weighs about 100 pounds!
How much do you think a tank with 20 gallons of gas weighs?
(Just for the record, it weighs 124.32 pounds!)

Will: David is right on this one.  The battery on the Prius weighs about 100 pounds.  A truly amazing feat considering all that it does in the Prius.

This one is true:    The Prius has an EPA rating of 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg 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.

BUT…:  These figures are quoted by Toyota because they MUST BE BY LAW.  Anyone with sense knows “your milage will vary”!  Most Prius purchasers know enough to expect around 45 to 50 MPG.  Still a lot better than most of the other cars on the road.  Also, the Prius has 295 Ft/Lbs or torque. and that is usable from a standing
start.  The Nissan Z sports car only has about 270 Ft/Lbs torque and that is at an engine speed of 4800 RPM, certainly not from a standing start which is where I personally WANT to have most of my torque overcoming the static friction and inertia of a dead stop.  I also question the quoted  European milage figures because hybrid cars like the Prius get BETTER milage in the city than on the open highway.  The above figures (if correct) are at least reversed.

Will: Actually, David, most car buyers don’t really get the fact that “their actual mileage may vary.”  Even when they do, they believe that there is a slight difference between the EPA numbers and actual mileage.  The Prius’ numbers, however, are significantly different.  You are correct, though, that Toyota MUST publish the EPA numbers.  The law does not say, however, that they can’t publish their own real numbers as well.

You are also correct that the Prius has ~295 ft/lbs of torque available.  This torque is almost all from the electric motors – the gasoline engine puts out an incredibly anaemic 82 ft/lbs of torque.  Electric motors are great at applying even torque across a broad band of motor rpm.  The problem in the Prius’ implementation is that the batteries can’t support the application of that high level of torque for very long.  Great for getting off the line, but not much help 10 seconds after the light turns green.  It should be noted that Toyota claims that the maximum torque for the car takes place at 4200 rpm (I assume that’s engine rpm, not electric motor rpm).  Of course all this is why the Prius accelerates from 0–60 mph in 10.37 seconds.   For reference, the Camry accomplishes this same feat in 8.6 seconds.

Finally, while you’re correct that you want the torque off the line, it’s the results that matter.  Using your comparison, the Nissan 350Z with it’s maximum torque of 270 ft/lbs held at bay until the engine hits 4800 rpm reaches 30 mph in less than 2.5 seconds.  The Prius, with its 295 ft/lbs of torque available as soon as the light turns green takes 3.4 seconds to get to 30.  Of course, if you make this comparison on the continual application of torque, the Z takes about half the time that the Prius does to get to 60 mph.  I don’t believe that these two cars should be compared.  I’m just using your examples to show that the engine specs aren’t indicative of the actual performance.

Also, as a side note, I am an engineer.  To anyone who appreciates engineering works of art, the Prius is the Mona Lisa.  Its internal design is a masterpiece of engineering elegance.

Will: I too am an engineer.  To be sure, the Prius is an engineering marvel and Toyota is a great engineering company.  As I said in my original post, I’m not out to bash the Prius or its manufacturer, Toyota.  The Prius is a good car with terrific technology.  My point is that it’s not what the American public believes it is.  There are better solutions to the problem; many of them available now and many of them considerably cheaper than the gasoline/electric hybrid.  Even more solutions would be available immediately or in short order with minor policy changes in this country (e.g. 5 states don’t even allow the sale of new diesel-powered cars, one of them California – what incentive does this give the European manufacturers of diesel cars to ship to the US?).

 May 19th, 2006  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The Prius Deception . . . Good Article in BusinessWeek

Check out the article in BusinessWeek on the prospects for diesel fuel and vehicles in the US.

From the article: “Indeed, predictive models created by the U.S. Energy
Dept. show that a doubling of diesel market share would reduce American
gasoline consumption by 350,000 barrels of oil a day.”


 April 28th, 2006  
 Stuff with a Motor  
 Comments Off on The Prius Deception . . . Good Article in BusinessWeek

The Prius Deception – Part III

If you had the patience to make it through my first two posts on this topic here and here, you know that I’m on a rant about why the US public isn’t better informed about alternative fuel technologies and vehicles that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Gasoline/electric hybrids, the only well-known semi-alternative to pure gasoline use today, represent a great technology that is being over-hyped and is being applied far beyond its optimal usage. Diesel fuel (including biodiesel) and E85 (85% ethanol) combined with electric motors and variable displacement engines (shutting down some of the cylinders when the demand on the engine is low) offer far superior fuel economy; most often with better performance than today’s hybrids. The kicker is that while few people know about it, most of this technology is available today.

To celebrate Earth Day, AutoWeek Magazine, did a road test of a variety of cars to test gas mileage over long distances. Some of the competitors in this test were the usual suspects in such tests – the Toyota Prius and the Honda Accord Hybrid – but AutoWeek also threw in a couple of non-standard competitors for the fuel-economy throne – the Chevrolet Corvette and the Jeep Commander. The results are interesting:



EPA Rating

Actual MPG

Gallons Used

Chevy Corvette


27.0 MPG

27.3 MPG


Honda Accord Hybrid


34.0 MPG

33.9 MPG


Jeep Commander


18.0 MPG

17.2 MPG


Toyota Prius


51.0 MPG

42.0 MPG


VW Jetta TDI


42.0 MPG

49.9 MPG


Note: the course was 349 miles of open road

First and foremost, the diesel blows everything else away. Not only does it go further on less fuel, it’s a bigger, faster and more comfortable car than the Prius, the second best in the test and the standard-bearer for high mileage vehicles and hybrid technology. In this case, the performance is actually better than is noted, because the Jetta was using biodiesel – a blend of diesel fuel and old Fryolater waste. The 7.0 gallons of fuel consumed is not 7.0 gallons of black gold, 20% of it came from vegetable oil used to cook yesterday’s french fries. See my post on why new diesel fuel is not your father’s diesel fuel any more.

The other interesting point is that the Corvette, one of the fastest cars on the planet, gets pretty good gas mileage when driven like you’d drive your Prius – i.e. like your grandmother drives. Now granted, the difference between the Corvette;s 27 MPG and the Prius’ 42 MPG is huge, but I don’t think the average person would believe that a high performance car like a Corvette could get almost 30 MPG.

Finally, the AutoWeek data shows off, once again, how distorted the EPA mileage numbers for the Prius are. The EPA rating of 51.0 MPG isn’t even close to the 42.0 MPG observed in the test. This test was also conducted on an early spring day in Michigan – I doubt the air conditioner was on. Current gasoline/electric hybrids take a tremendous hit in mileage when using accessories like the air conditioning. On a hot summer day, the mileage would be considerably worse.

The exciting thing about these results is that they point to some huge opportunities in the short term in reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Diesel and E85 powered vehicles are already available and deliver solutions that decrease oil consumption well ahead of that delivered by current gasoline/electric hybrid technology. When combined with variable displacement and electric motors (creating diesel/electric and E85/electric hybrids) we can make a serious dent in the amount of oil imported into this country.

 April 25th, 2006  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The Prius Deception – Part II

[Note: when I refer to hybrid I am referring to gasoline/electric hybrid technology unless otherwise stated]

In my last postabout hybrid vehicles, I explained why I believe that the auto-buying public, especially in the US, is being hoodwinked about the advantages of such cars at the expense of having better solutions, using current technologies, made available to it. In that post I discussed how diesel-driven cars already offer significantly better fuel economy in many parts of the world without the downside of the size, weight and cost of large batteries required to propel a hybrid car and that the fuel needed for these vehicles is available in this country this year.

In this post, I’m going to discuss E85 fuel. Again, this is a currently available technology in the US that is relatively unknown by the auto-buying public.

First though, I need to reiterate – in no way am I saying that hybrids are bad or that no one should buy them. In fact, they’re great vehicles, in general. To be sure, there are genuine perceived reasons for buying the current generation of hybrid automobiles. Key among these are:

  • Saving money because they require less gasoline
  • Consuming less of the diminishing fossil fuel resources of the planet
  • Creating fewer ozone destroying, lung clogging bad emissions on a per mile basis
  • Feeling good because it’s the “right thing to do.” 

If the last of these is your reason for purchasing a hybrid vehicle, do not pass go and ignore the fact that two hundred dollars could be yours.  Get to your nearest Toyota dealer and put your name on the long list of those who want an underpowered car with real-world mileage far below what the EPA endorses.

While doing this, though, recognize that hybrids won’t save you money.  When you actually sit down and do the math, you’ll find that the money you save by buying less fuel takes years to balance out the higher purchase price of the car.  Add to this that the useful life of today’s batteries is only about 6 years and that they’re very costly to replace (chances are that it will take you almost 6 years to save enough money to offset the higher purchase price of the car) and you’ll quickly realize that hybrids have nothing to do with saving money. 

In terms of fewer emissions, hybrids do a good job.  It’s the reuse of energy created during breaking and coasting that does it.  Less fuel gets burned so less garbage is blown out of the exhaust pipe.  Any technology that facilitates such reuse is good and this is where batteries and electric motors excel.  Any reasonable fuel substitute in the future needs to provide this type of fuel regeneration to fully take advantage of the inertia of the vehicle.

If your goal is to import less black gold from the mantle under the Middle East, then hybrids are a puny step.  This is where E85 fuel offers a better solution than today’s hybrids. 

E85 fuel is 85% ethanol.  In the US, this ethanol is created using corn and various grains distilled into a liquid usable by vehicles for propulsion.   While this mixture still contains 15% gasoline, the majority bio-fuel component reduces gasoline consumption by huge amounts.  For example, using EPA numbers for both vehicles, a GMC 4WD Yukon SUV uses 133 fewer gallons of gasoline a year than a Toyota Prius (based on driving 15,000 miles per year).

E85 is also cleaner burning than gasoline, with lower CO2 emissions.  At the same time, E85 fuel provides more horsepower and torque in identical engine configurations.  Since ethanol increases the octane level of the fuel (105 octane like the good ol’ days), there is no need for the MTBE additives that exist in today’s fuel.  Since MTBE is toxic, most would consider this a good thing. 

There is a downside to using ethanol as fuel – it’s highly corrosive and breaks down the rubber and plastics in today’s engines.  Engines can be engineered, however, to deal with these problems.  The technology to run the same engine on either E85 or 100% gasoline is also readily available.  The vehicles that support both types of fuel are commonly known as flex-fuel vehicles.  Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury and Nissan all sell flex-fuel automobiles in the US market.

So, you might ask, why isn’t everyone driving flex-fuel cars?  Well, for some reason, only 600 out of the 200,000 some odd gas stations in the US carries E85.  If you’re in the Midwest, you may have a shot at finding one within a full gas tank of travel.  If you’re anywhere else, however, you’re gonna be outta luck.  The only public station in all of California that sells E85 is in San Diego. 

Additionally, while there is a surplus of the corn and grains required to produce E85 in the US, there are not enough production facilities to actually distill the stuff.  Perhaps $72/barrel is enough of a kick in the ass to get some enterprising people to step it up.  It seems like a we’re goin’ to the moon by the end of the decade program might be a reasonable use of my tax dollars to wean ourselves off the fossil fuel drug.  E85 production and availability might be a good start.

While America thinks with its wallet and shells out outrageous prices for hybrid automobiles, it’s missing the fact that demand for diesel and E85 technology can advance the cause (no matter which cause it is) further and faster than our current path with hybrids only.  Ultimately, electric technology will be used to augment these other liquid-fuel solutions, creating far superior hybrid vehicles.  In the mean time, the liquid fuel alternatives are available today; more people need to get informed and demand we move faster in those directions.

 April 23rd, 2006  
 Stuff with a Motor  

The Prius Deception

I just saw Edmunds list of the 10 Hottest Selling Cars in the US. The hot 10, in order, are:

  1. Toyota Prius
  2. Mini Cooper
  3. Pontiac
  4. Scion xA
  5. Scion xB
  6. Scion tC
  7. Lexus RX400h
  8. Honda Civic
  9. Toyota RAV4
  10. 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

 March 30th, 2006  
 Stuff with a Motor