Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Green Mileage Myth

I like the concept of hybrid vehicles and realize driving a hybrid can be fun. Not like autocrossing or flogging a sports car along a winding road, but it does have entertainment value. Hybrid technology is also interesting to me, even if it's not new. The Germans started using hybrids almost a century ago. They called them U-boats.

Where I have a problem with hybrids, is when they are labeled a “green” technology. There is nothing green about manufacturing batteries, a process which requires mining metals and the use of toxic chemicals, all of which give off the same greenhouse gasses you’re trying to reduce by getting better gas mileage. Disposing of the batteries presents another problem. You can’t throw them in the trash or dump them. They’ll leak toxic chemicals and contaminate groundwater. You can’t put them in your recycling bin either. I doubt battery disposal is something a hybrid owner would attempt on their own, but you see my point. Whatever environmental gains made by driving a hybrid are at least party negated by the manufacturing and disposal of the technology that makes them possible.

It is also a myth that hybrids get better gas mileage than normal cars. That point was conclusively driven home in a recent issue of Car & Driver, where the editors tested the Honda Insight against the Toyota Prius and a ten year old Geo Metro. I won’t keep you in suspense, the Metro lost. It wasn’t as fast or as comfortable as the Insight or the Prius. Certainly it wasn’t as safe and if Car & Driver had rated the exhaust emissions from all three vehicles they probably would have found the Metro pollutes more than the other two cars combined. But the one place the Prius and the Insight could not beat the Metro is the one place they had to—fuel economy. Yes, the Metro beat the Insight, which got 38 m.p.g. in the test and tied the Prius at 42 m.p.g. The fuel economy numbers are based on Car & Driver’s real world driving and if you think the numbers are biased, the EPA’s mileage ratings put the Metro in striking distance of the Prius as well.

I think people by hybrids as a status symbol. In this way Prius owners are no different than Porsche or Hummer owners. But if you're on a crusade to save the environment, buy a Metro or another cheap, highly efficient car or use public transportation. The money you save would cover the cost of adding solar panels to your roof or installing a geothermal heat pump, and you'd have enough change left over to buy florescent lights. These things would easily double your green factor over driving a mere hybrid.

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