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Value vs. Values

I'm always a bit baffled by the accusations that buyers of hybrid-electric cars are foolish, because the savings from the improved gas mileage won't make up for the increased cost of the car. That's probably a fact (barring another big spike in gas prices), but entirely irrelevant. What's the return on investment of a sun roof? Or four-wheel drive? Or ability to go three times the speed limit? People don't buy hybrids because they save money, they buy hybrids because of their underlying meaning: hybrids say something about their drivers, just as do family sedans, mega-SUVs and high-power sports cars. Further, I suspect many hybrid drivers -- like me -- bought in part to demonstrate support for a better vehicle technology.

The non-financial motivations for hybrid drivers are getting greater emphasis in research underway at UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies. HybridCars.com has an interview with researchers Ken Kurani and Rusty Heffner:

There are common meanings that run through our interviews. And there are often some individual meanings as well. Preserving the natural environment is the obvious meaning of the hybrid, but it's a lot deeper than that. What we hear from people is that when they buy a hybrid vehicle, it expresses their vision of a better world, and their desire for a society and a world where people work together for common goals. One of our subjects just had her first grandchild. That was why she felt the world needed to be a better place.

(Via Gristmill)


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Comments (9)

Mark Waddle:

This is a great point which I can identify with. It is the exact reason why I bought a diesel engine, which was more expensive than the equivalent gas engine, and run it on 100% biodiesel fuel, which is more expensive than petro diesel. (yes I know that the sustainability of bio has been put into question by some, I'm still not convinced). These are decisions based on a desire to spearhead efforts for improvement. A desire to fullfil my idea of self responsibility.
Sadly for most, these desires usually take a backseat to the desire for more power (pun intended).

Exactly. When people bring up total cost, the are using an entirely different logic than they would use to evaluate other cars. Nobody think ROI when they buy a low mileage car. They think roomy, comfort, appearance, performance, safety, etc. Things that consumers actually willing to spend more money on.

I think one reason people get into this twisted logic is the quality associated with hybrid is 'save', whereas the quality associated with conventional car is 'splurge'. So they applied different logic without realizing it.

These main stream consumer are not necessary anti-conservation. Any simple reasoning to help turn their thinking around or point out the fallacy? "We're proud to pay more for green" may be a starting point.


Would all the people who agree with the statement-

"My purpose in life is to make the world a better place"

please put up their hand?

My guess is that a lot of readers of this site would put up their hands- wrong?

The reason I didn't buy a hybrid last fall when I bought a Matrix was that my wife insisted on a hatchback or wagon.
the Matrix is ok, but could be a whale of a lot better. 35mpg average over the year is in my opinion, way far below what it could easily be, knowing what we know about diesels and hybrids, not to mention efficient infinitely variable transmissions (what I am working on now).

The sunroof/engine upgrade/etc argument is one I often bring up to people who immediately whip out the calculator as soon as you mention the word "hybrid".

The saddest part is not that there are double standards, it is that people don't even notice them.

John Hench:

I think hybrid technology will get really interesting when any of the following things starts to be implemented:

The energy storage of the batteries becomes large enough to allow for an electric only mode for 20-60 miles, coupled with an option to top off the batteries from the electric grid at less than $1/gallon equivalent (such a system is being proposed by http://www.edrivesystems.com/, among others).

The use of flexible fuel engines, either gasoline/ethanol or diesel/biodiesel engines in hybrids.

The advantage of such an arrangement is that it creates conditions for elastic pricing in the automobile fuel market. Hybrid drivers would be able to merely switch fuels/modes if there is a sudden price increase for one type of fuel.

David Gross:

It's really funny how hybrid-vehicle owners think their cars are magical devices that somehow alter the laws of physics. Not only is the reality altogether different, but it seems the car industry is pulling the same scam with hybrids as they did with SUV’s.

Let’s look at combustion engines. The technology used in the Honda Civic non-hybrid 1.8L VTEC engine is the same as the technology used in the Honda Civic hybrid 1.3L engine. That is, from a purely thermodynamic standpoint, these engines are the same: The percentage of potential chemical energy converted to kinetic mechanical energy that runs the moving parts should be no different. If the state-of-the-art in efficient engine use is, say, 20%, then this 20% should be standard across Honda’s engine range.

If thermodynamic efficiency is the same across Honda’s engine range, then that means the 1.3L engine and the 1.8L engine release the same quantity of pollution for every gallon of gasoline burned. That is, they will both convert 80% of the gasoline into heat and pollution. Thus, the hybrid vehicle produces the same total quantity of pollution as its non-hybrid counterpart.

Now, supposedly, the electric motor in these hybrids does some of the work of the combustion engine over some speed range, but they are ultimately recharged by gasoline. If the thermodynamic efficiency of these motors is less than that of the engine (a likely scenario since there are no gasoline-powered electric motors), then they probably consume gas at a disproportionate rate. Of course, they are probably not on long enough to cause a noticeable drop in fuel economy.

So why does a hybrid-vehicle get better fuel economy? It’s probably because these vehicles under-perform compared to their non-hybrid counterparts. They are not more efficient; they simply use smaller engines (in terms of bore and stroke) that burn less fuel at the cost of performance (this, btw, is how these vehicles get LEV ratings. Since the bore and stroke of the cylinder is smaller than comparable vehicles, the amount of fuel combusted is therefore smaller and the amount of emissions is reduced, as is power. It’s the difference between igniting a cup of gas versus five cups of gas at once). That’s why every hybrid vehicle has the smallest engine in a car’s lineup. That’s where you’re fuel economy is coming from, not from some new or better vehicle technology.

In fact, the whole “hybrid” label is just a way for companies to sell at a premium price what should otherwise sell as a base model. A Honda Civic with a 1.3L engine should be the base model in Honda’s lineup. It should start at a price point below the 1.8L VTEC DX sedan. And if it were a regular car, it would. But with the magic appearance of the “hybrid” label, some engine-management reprogramming and some tin can prop the salesman can point at, a $15,000 car becomes a $25,000 car.

This is the same scam that carmakers pulled with SUV’s. By classifying these vehicles as light trucks, SUV’s did not have to be made to the same standards as a car, greatly reducing the cost of manufacture. But SUV’s at least offered ride height and passenger/cargo capacity. The popularity of these features is what drove demand and the high price of these cars. Hybrids appear to be nothing but hype.

If you think I’m wrong then ask yourself why these small engines aren’t offered in the non-hybrid models. Because it would make a lie out of the claim that electric technology works as well as advertised.

David, you're making some problematic arguments here.

First of all, the ICE component of hybrid engines is not always identical to the ICE in non-hybrid versions. It may be in some cases (e.g., the Civic -- I'll tentatively accept your characterization) but in a number of hybrid models (e.g., the ones based on the Toyota synergy drive), the engines are designed specifically to reduce emissions.

Secondly, you seem to labor under the misconception that the only way for hybrid batteries to be recharged is through the action of the gasoline engine. The primary recharge method is regenerative braking; coasting with the engine at very low RPMs also helps. Charging from the engine in lean-burn is very much a secondary or tertiary method.

Thirdly, and most obviously, your argument as to why hybrids get better mileage is demonstrably false. It's simply not true that "every hybrid vehicle has the smallest engine in the car's lineup." Both the Accord hybrid and the just-announced Camry hybrid have the most powerful engine in their respective lineups, yet still get 30-60% better mileage than their non-hybrid peers.

Lastly, the smaller engines are offered in non-hybrid models -- just not in the United States. American consumers have a real demand for engine power, and 75hp engines (what the Civic Hybrid ICE does without the electric assist) generally don't cut it. The small engines are usually put in smaller cars (i.e., not a Civic or the Toyota equivalent), but guess what -- they *still* don't get the mileage that the equivalent hybrid does.

There are many plausible reasons to be dismissive of hybrids, from being overpriced to being insufficiently advanced or efficient compared to what's possible, but claiming that they're "nothing but hype" isn't one of them.


As a consumer who is seriously considering trading in a very reliable SUV for a hybrid, this discussion is exceptionally timely.

One reservation I have about hybrids is the after sale maintenance costs. For instance, I've heard that hybrid tires are 'specially designed' and cannot be replaced as readily as typical tires. In other words, my hesitation is based not on the initial purchase price but the increased cost of maintaining the vehicle properly within an acceptable budget.

I happen to reside in the northeast where four wheel drive (or all wheel drive) is seasonally a necessity. A previous front wheel drive vehicle could not reliably climb my winding hilltop street, or my very steep 1/4 mile long driveway in wet/icey wintery weather.

I've been examining the pamphlet on the Ford hybrid SUV but the difference in mpg doesn't appear to make enough of a difference from the non-SUV version.

It would be nice if every environmentally conscience consumer could fit into the current cookie cutter hybrids. I'll keep my 'fully paid for' and extremely reliable SUV until I can convince myself that my family's safety, comfort and auto expenses suit my needs. For now, I've simply altered my use of this 15 mpg vehicle to necessary trips only.

Auub Naqvi:

Without a doubt electric hybrid will have a higher efficiency and low emission, but in my opinion initially the hybrid vehicles will prove to be can of worms owing to the lack of trained service engineers and knowledge about new technology. it will take quite a few years before
it will prevail in all respects.


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