Have You Hugged a Hummer Today?

Hybrid vehicles' overall energy costs exceed those of comparable non-hybrids

Ford Motor Company did itself a huge favor recently by backing away from its pledge to bump-up its hybrid production ten-fold in four years. But, as it turns out, the company might have done the planet a whale of a favor too.

Just last fall, CEO Bill Ford was valiantly promising in a mega-million dollar ad campaign that the company would never, ever turn away from its hybrid pledge because these vehicles were central to the company's reputation as an "innovator and environmental steward."

Never mind that at the time Ford was losing $2,000 to $3,000 for every hybrid it sold because consumers won't pay the entire $6,000 extra that it costs to produce a hybrid over its gas-powered counterpart. Never mind also that in the real world — outside of the Environmental Protection Agency's tax-payer funded testing sites — hybrids don't deliver anywhere close to the gas mileage that the agency attributes to them, as auto-writer Richard Burr reported in the Weekly Standard.

Bill Ford had given his word on hybrids and you could take that to the bank (ruptcy court). But hybrids have received such a thrashing in the market lately that even Ford was forced to take-off his green eye-shades and read the red-ink on the wall.

According to Art Spinella, the uber-auto analyst and President of CNW Marketing Research, hybrid sales every month this year have been down compared to the same time last year. Even sales of the Toyota Prius — the darling of the greens — have dropped significantly. The only segment besides taxis where hybrids are still holding steady — taxpayers will be happy to note — is the car fleets maintained by the government.

What's particularly interesting is that individual consumers are defying all expectations and turning their backs on hybrids at a time when gas prices are soaring. (The average U.S. retail price of gas spiked to a record high of $3.01 last September following hurricane Katrina, and just last week it hit its second highest price ever at nearly $3.00.) Nor is the reason all that mysterious. Spinella's customer satisfaction surveys show that 62 percent of hybrid owners are dissatisfied with the fuel-economy performance of their cars given what they have paid for them.

This means that when gas prices go up, these people don't rush out to buy more hybrids. "They buy a Chevy Aveo," says Spinella. "It delivers the same fuel economy as a Prius, but at half the price."

Consumer interest might revive if the cost of hybrids goes down substantially — or the cost of fuel goes up and stays up for a long period of time, Spinella believes. Until then, however, the hybrid market is unlikely to come out of the deep freeze, a reality that even Ford had to finally acknowledge.

But despite all these drawbacks, hybrids are at least better for the environment than say´┐Ż.. a Hummer, right? Nope.

Spinella spent two years on the most comprehensive study to date — dubbed "Dust to Dust" — collecting data on the energy necessary to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a car from the initial conception to scrappage. He even included in the study such minutia as plant-to-dealer fuel costs of each vehicle, employee driving distances, and electricity usage per pound of material. All this data was then boiled down to an "energy cost per mile" figure for each car (see here and here).

Comparing this data, the study concludes that overall hybrids cost more in terms of overall energy consumed than comparable non-hybrid vehicles. But even more surprising, smaller hybrids' energy costs are greater than many large, non-hybrid SUVs.

For instance, the dust-to-dust energy cost of the bunny-sized Honda Civic hybrid is $3.238 per mile. This is quite a bit more than the $1.949 per mile that the elephantine Hummer costs. The energy cots of SUVs such as the Tahoe, Escalade, and Navigator are similarly far less than the Civic hybrid.

As for Ford cars, a Ford Escape hybrid costs $3.2 per mile — about a third more than the regular Escape. But on the whole, ironically enough, the dust-to-dust costs of many of the Ford non-hybrids — Fusion, Milan, Zephyr — are not only lower than comparable Japanese hybrids — Prius, Accord — but also non-hybrids — Seville, Civic.

Spinella's finding that a Hummer on the whole consumes less energy than a hybrid than even some smaller hybrids and non-hybrids has infuriated environmentalists. And on its face it does seem implausible that a gas-guzzling monster like a Hummer that employs several times more raw material than a little Prius' could be so much less energy-intensive. But by and large the dust-to-dust energy costs in Spinella's study correlate with the fanciness of the car — not its size or fuel economy — with the Rolls Royces and Bentleys consuming gobs of energy and Mazda 3s, Saturns and Taurus consuming relatively minuscule amounts.

As for Hummers, Spinella explains, the life of these cars averaged across various models is over 300,000 miles. By contrast, Prius' life — according to Toyota's own numbers — is 100,000 miles. Furthermore, Hummer is a far less sophisticated vehicle. Its engine obviously does not have an electric and gas component as a hybrid's does so it takes much less time and energy to manufacture. What's more, its main raw ingredient is low-cost steel, not the exotic light-weights that are exceedingly difficult to make — and dispose. But the biggest reason why a Hummer's energy use is so low is that it shares many components with other vehicles and therefore its design and development energy costs are spread across many cars.

It is not possible to do this with a specialty product like hybrid. All in all, Spinella insists, the energy costs of disposing a Hummer are 60 percent less than an average hybrid's and its design and development costs are 80 percent less.

One of the most perverse things about U.S. consumers buying hybrids is that while this might reduce air pollution in their own cities, they increase pollution — and energy consumption — in Japan and other Asian countries where these cars are predominantly manufactured. "In effect, they are exporting pollution and energy consumption," Spinella says.

But while the environment has dodged Ford's hybrid foray, Toyota has shown no planetary concerns. It is going full throttle ahead with its plan of putting one million hybrids on the road by the end of the decade. Nor is there much hope that it will back-off in the near future given that it has already sunk $2 billion just in hybrid-related research and development, Spinella points out. Ironically Ford and some of the other car makers' exit from the hybrid segment means that Toyota will be able to consolidate its domination in it even more.

Thus the only hope of prodding Toyota to get out of the hybrid business would be if its customers jumped off the Prius bandwagon and embraced non-hybrids — even Hummers — instead.

Now here's a catchy slogan for the next Save the Earth campaign: Have you hugged a Hummer today?

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is here and Reason's environment research and commentary is here.

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst





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