Issue 002: Mar. 2004

~~~ Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 0002 ~~~
Moderator: Bradley Berman []

In This Issue:

Hybrid Gas Pedals
Maximizing Fuel-Efficiency
Low Speed Driving
Real versus Actual Miles Per Gallon
Hybrids, SUVs, and Safety
Hybrids in Cold Weather and Long Inclines
The Longevity of Hybrids
Shopping Tips

Greetings Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,

The response to the first newsletter was fantastic, so here comes newsletter number two. I receive a lot of email with technical questions about hybrid cars. It’s not hard to stump me on these questions. I’m strictly an end-user. I love that drivers don’t need to know the first thing about hybrid cars to enjoy the benefits of great fuel efficiency.

To help me answer your technical (and philosophical) questions about hybrids, I recently interviewed Craig Van Batenburg, a hybrid car fanatic, and apparently one of only three people in the country teaching independent auto technicians how to service hybrids. This extra long issue (about 7 pages) is dedicated to an excerpt of our conversation. (This may very well be the start of a series of conversations with the top-thinkers in the hybrid car field.) Please let me know if you like the longer, more conversational format.

~~ A Little About Craig ~~

Craig Van Batenburg grew up in Odgen, Utah, in the 1950s where his father had a used car lot and repair shop. Craig’s earliest memories were sitting inside the cars in the back lot, turning steering wheels, and pushing and pulling on the levers and gears. When he was nine, he replaced the water pump on a 1956 Cadillac. At age sixteen, he began working at a motorcycle shop, where he learned about the holistic business and engineering principles of Honda founder Soichiro Honda. He was hooked.

At 22, he got a job at a Honda car dealership. Craig explains, "The oil embargo hit the same year, 1973. I bought a 1974 Honda Civic the second year it was introduced. It was a revolutionary car-front wheel drive, 30 – 35 miles to the gallon. I was politically inclined to think that we should be efficient anyway. I was in my early twenties. It became a political statement. The same reason I drive my Honda Insight today."

In 1977, Craig opened up Van Batenburg’s Garage in Worcester, Mass. specializing in Honda and Toyota. The shop provided excellent service to a large loyal clientele for 27 years. (He closed his shop on January 16th of this year.) In 1998, Craig achieved his long-held dream of opening a training center to teach auto technicians the fine arts of automotive repair, with a special emphasis on cutting-edge technologies. He is an ASE Master Certified Technician with advanced emissions skills. You can access his web site at

~~ Hybrid Gas Pedals ~~
BB: You can get a manual Honda Insight of Civic Hybrid, but you can only get the CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission) or automatic version of the Prius. If you are comfortable driving a manual transmission, will you get an additional boost in fuel efficiency?

CVB: If you want a [hybrid] stick shift, the only option of course is Honda. If you look at the fuel economy numbers on the Civic, the five-speed is higher than the CVT. That’s correct, but to say that CVT is less fuel-efficient than a five-speed, technically you could get away with it, but the automatic transmissions are so sophisticated today, they can equal a stick shift.

BB: You’re saying that stick-shift’s are not necessarily more fuel efficient than automatics.

CVB: Not necessarily. Here’s the other thing. A key point. The Prius does not allow the operator to do much except send signals to a computer. With rare exception, other than putting it in "B," you don’t have a lot of control over anything. Toyota has taken the control away from the throttle, your foot. If you step on a gas pedal on a Prius, you’re sending a signal to the computer with a sensor, a pedal position sensor. PPS.

You’re sending a signal to a computer that then sends a signal to the throttle that opens it electrically. So you have no control. If you send a signal to the computer, for example in the Prius, while you’re sitting in park in the driveway, and you want to floor the gas pedal, the computer will say "Why would it do that? It’s in park." It will let you go to 1,800 rpm’s, and that’s as far as it will go.

So, the Toyota takes away your ability to operate the gas pedal. It takes your ability away from shifting the car. If you take that away from the consumer, you’re going to get better fuel economy because you can’t be an idiot, even if you are one. The computer won’t let you be an idiot. You follow me?

People that drive stick shifts can do really stupid things. They can over-rev the engine, and go into what we call "fuel cut," where the computer starts taking over and backing off on how much fuel injector pulse width or how much fuel goes in. You can drive in the wrong gear. You can rev it up too much. You can slip the clutch. You can burn your clutch up. You can do all kinds of things in a five-speed to destroy your fuel economy.

BB: Does the Civic Hybrid also take away control from the gas pedal?

CVB: No. It doesn’t as much. On the Honda’s right now, it may change, the Civic and Insight, you can control the throttle with a cable. So, your foot is connected to the throttle opening. They’re doing that to keep costs down. That’s an expense thing.

And if you have a five-speed, you’re shifting. Now, I’m controlling the shifting and the throttle with my five-speed Hondas, where I can’t do either one of the things with the Prius.

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~~ Maximizing Fuel-Efficiency ~~
BB: What hints do you have for people on how they can maximize their fuel efficiency?

CVB: Leave earlier. I’m serious. It’s a lifestyle. I have a two-family house and I rent out the apartment upstairs. The woman who lives upstairs is always late for everything. She’s a wonderful woman. She drives a Toyota Rav4. She must get horrible fuel economy because she runs downstairs, starts it up, throws that thing in gear, and wham down the highway she goes. She’s not going to get fuel economy that way.

You leave early so you can drive slowly. Enjoy your ride. The difference in drag, wind resistance, between fifty miles per hour and seventy-five miles per hour is not like 25 percent more. It’s like 100 percent more. You’d have to talk to somebody who knows physics to give you the exact numbers.

BB: When you think of the political or social impacts of how much gas we would be saving if people, without ever getting a hybrid, simply change their driving habits. It could make a huge difference.

CVB: [Sighs.] We’ll never get this conversation done if we go down that road. [Laughs.]

I got this number from Toyota. All the Prius’s sold since the day they started in the United States have saved about 125 million gallons of fuel. They’re comparing it to if people bought a comparable car, like a Corolla instead of a Prius. We would have used 125 million gallons more fuel in the last four to five years.

In the L.A. basin area, 33.5 million gallons of fuel are used every three days. In less than two weeks, just in L.A., they’ve consumed something like 125 million gallons of fuel.

BB: So you’re saying that really the contribution that the Prius has made, and you could add the Civic Hybrid and the Insight, has been very small.

CVB: Infinitesimal when you look at our thirst. A buddy of mine was driving from Philadelphia to Worcester to attend a conference I was holding, and he got stuck in a traffic jam. He had his laptop. He spent the time computing how much fuel was used for all the cars idling in those eight miles of road. It was an astronomical number. If all of those cars were hybrids, Honda or Toyota, all of those engines would have theoretically been off. So just the amount of fuel consumed at idle is huge. And where you live do they have the tollbooths where you can drive through rather than stop to give money? Just getting the little transponder so you drive through instead of stopping, how much fuel does that save? A tremendous amount.

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~~ Low Speed Driving ~~
BB: As a Civic Hybrid driver, sometimes when I stop, especially in the colder weather, I don’t get the auto-stop (feature to go all electric at idle) to work. It seems like the Prius model of keeping more of the electric motor running at lower speeds is…

CVB: It’s superior.

BB: What else do you have to say about the relative technologies as they relate to city versus highway driving?

CVB: If you know you’re going to be in gridlock, buy a Prius. Couple of reasons why, especially with the 2004 model now. You’re going to get into idle-start more often. You’ll be able to creep along electric-only. And little nuances, like in the Prius, and unlike both of the Hondas, there’s a small electric pump built into the heater system, and people need to understand how the heater system works, where we take antifreeze, and circulate it through heater hoses into a small radiator under the dashboard called a heater core, like a tiny radiator, and back out again. We put a fan behind it, and blow air across that. And that’s how heat gets across to our cabin.

In a Prius, when you’re stopped in the winter time, and the engine shuts off, the little electric motors continues to circulate the coolant, the antifreeze under the dashboard, so you continue to have heat. You don’t have that in the Civic Hybrid or Insight.

So in the dead of winter when it’s really cold outside, when your [Honda hybrid] car goes into idle-stop, which sometimes you can force it into, and you leave the heater on, you’re going to start blowing cold air in thirty seconds. So the Prius is heads and shoulders above Honda’s technology on the idle-stop feature for sure.

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~~ Real versus Actual Miles Per Gallon ~~
BB: One of the big complaints that new hybrid drivers make is that they don’t get the advertised gas mileage. Some people get a lot less. Obviously, they’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, some people seem to get super mileage. There’s a lot of variance in terms of mileage. How do you explain that?

CVB: There are things we cannot control that have to do with fuel economy. Which way the wind is coming. I don’t mean to say that in a silly way. Are you in a head wind or are you in a tail wind? Huge difference. The weather. Are we driving on snow? Are we driving on ice? Are we driving on asphalt?

The actual commute that you take. Are you in an area where you can never really get up to speed? Are you always accelerating and decelerating? Always.

BB: You’re saying that it’s not the manufacturing or construction of the car?

CVB: Not at all. With the Internet today, we know what the average person is getting on a hybrid vehicle. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. If you’re not getting that, you better take a look at the way you drive, the conditions you drive in. Or take a look at the car. Not meaning that Honda made a defect. Here’s an example. The Honda Insight when it gets a wheel alignment, what they call the toe adjustment, is set at zero. That’s highly unusual. You never set the toe at zero on any car because it doesn’t handle as well at zero. But, it gets better fuel economy at zero. So Honda made a trade-off. It won’t give you great high-speed handling, but it’ll give you better fuel economy.

Now, the customer goes in, drops the car off at a tire store. If that store isn’t up to date on hybrids, there could be a problem. They buy some tires. The guy doesn’t put high-pressure tires on, and he aligns the tires by using the Civic’s specifications because he couldn’t find it for the Insight. You’ve just lost ten to fifteen miles per gallon with the wrong tires and wheel alignment. Those things happen.

BB: So there are cases where it’s not the fault of the manufacturer but because settings aren’t observed…

CVB: After it was manufactured, somebody altered something. This could happen at a dealership as well. Get to know your service tech. A few days after the service, if you are happy, go back with a ten spot and drop it on the tech. You will get great service after that. Not too many people respect and thank their techs. And I mean talk to the tech directly-no one else.

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~~ Hybrids, SUVs, and Safety ~~
BB: Some people stay away from hybrids, at least the current offerings, because they feel that they’re not safe. They don’t have a lot of metal around them, the way they might with a truck or SUV. Are hybrids less safe in any way?

CVB: No. Absolutely not. You look at the Star ratings. Somebody’s going to drive what they’re going to drive. If the fear factor is big, you’ll put the biggest car you can around you. And you’ll die at a higher rate, as you probably know. SUVs, in deaths per miles driven, is I think 2.5 times higher than passenger cars. Did you know it’s that high?

BB: I know it’s a lot higher.

CVB: It’s huge. If that’s their reason for not buying a hybrid, then they’re just looking for a reason to justify their SUV because it’s not a valid reason. If you’re driving an SUV, you’re probably under attack from time to time, so you’re going to find as many reasons as you can latch on to. That’s one of them.

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~~ Hybrids in Cold Weather and Long Inclines ~~
BB: Probably the most common question I get relates to winter driving. Not only the cold temperatures, but also the snowy conditions and clearance.

CVB: I drive an Insight with full snow tires with steel rims in Massachusetts in bitter cold. I’ve had four winters now. I get about twenty to twenty-five percent less fuel economy than in summer. Partly due to the tires, and driving through the snow. I warm my car up. I start it up, warm it up, and go back, and hug my wife and have a cup of coffee, when it’s really cold, like 20 degrees. And let it run for five or ten minutes before I get in it. That’s hurting my fuel economy. [Laughs]. You know what I mean?

I can live with that. So I’m going to get between a 46 and 52 in winter, where I’m going to get between 52 and 65 in summer for average numbers. But they’re perfectly fine. Hybrids are just as good as anything else. In some ways, when the electric motors kicks in, when you’re going up a hill. It’s all torque and no horsepower. So, it’s great. When you’re going in snow, you want to have torque. You don’t want to spin the wheels. So you put it into low gear, and you nail the throttle, and your little LED lights light up, so that your "assist" is on, and that sucker is perfect in the snow. I love it. It’s lightweight, so you better not go fast. Nobody should go fast on ice.

BB: I got this question from somebody who lives in the Southwest. You mentioned before that the computer sets the batteries to always be charged at least thirty percent, and never more than seventy percent [to increase the batteries’ longevity]. Is there any chance that the batteries could run all the way down if the assist is on for a long time?

CVB: No. Not unless something is wrong with the car.

BB: Could you reach a point where the assist is no longer working?

CVB: It’s happened with me.

BB: At that point, you’re 100 percent on gas?

CVB: Right. And then the car takes some of that gasoline power away from the car to charge the batteries back up again. So it even gets worse. It sill has reasonable power.

BB: So there’s no risk, for example, in damaging the car or having to replace the batteries? You’re just going to remove the extra benefit of having the electric assist?

CVB: All of the sudden, your Insight turned into a Geo Metro. You’ll say holy cow, "I don’t have any power." You’re still going, and doing sixty miles an hour. You just don’t have any power because of that unusual and very unlikely situation you’re in. It will correct itself very quickly.

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~~ The Longevity of Hybrids ~~
BB: What are your thoughts about the lifetime of a hybrid. In terms of breaking the car in, I’ve heard that your mileage improves after a couple of thousand miles.

CVB: With any car.

BB: And what about the longevity of the car?

CVB: We’ve got an electric motor that’s going to last forever. It’s brushless. There’s only one moving part. And the bearings that support that centerpiece, on the Honda it’s the crankshaft of the engine, so unless you ruin the crank shift bearings inside your internal combustion engine, you don’t have a problem. That’s the bearing support, if you want, for the rotor assembly that is the inside of the electric motor on the Honda. On the Prius, all we have is five years of driving and lots of miles and no failures. But they’re using a bearing that’s just lubricated with transmission fluid. But so far, so good. It looks like they’re fine.

BB: So they haven’t been around long enough to be really proven, but you’re saying that these cars should lasts as long as any cars.

CVB: If not longer. The battery packs, by the way, we’re seeing maybe a three percent deterioration over a simulated 150,000 miles, where they cycle it back and forth, 30 to 70, 30 to 70. They’ve been doing battery simulations for a long time. There’s a bunch of companies that do that. In fact, I met with some of these companies out in California. At the hybrid symposium, I had a wonderful conversation with a few battery manufacturers. So these Nickel Metal Hydride’s, as long as they’re protected, and all the systems work as planned and they are, these batteries can easily go 200,000 miles, maybe 300,00, maybe forever. You just don’t replace them.

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~~ Shopping Tips ~~
BB: That would lead to the question of a burgeoning used hybrid market. I look online, and I see that there are used Prius’s out there. What should someone be concerned about when looking at a used hybrid?

CVB: The same thing as anybody buying any used cars. Has it been in an accident? Was it maintained? Was the gasoline engine maintained? Did they change the oil when they were supposed to? There’s zero maintenance on the hybrid system. Zero. So there’s no maintenance to do to make sure the hybrid system is okay. There’s nothing there. All of these cars, by the way, have a 12-volt battery, so when those get older, they need to be replaced like any 12-volt battery. The worst case is 150 bucks.

BB: Anybody’s fear about having to do a major battery replacement…

CVB: Should be gone. It just doesn’t happen.

BB: What do you think the most critical consideration is when shopping for a new hybrid?

CVB: You only have three choices. You have the Civic, the new Prius, and the Insight. The only three in production. The three are so distinctly different. People should be able to figure it out quickly. They’re not going to buy the Insight, if they need a lot of room. They’ll buy the Civic if they want a five speed. They’ll buy the Prius…the Prius loaded is now $27,000. It’s gone up. You can still buy a $21,000 one, but if you want all the bells and whistles that most people will want, you’re going to want some trim level upgrades.

BB: And that’s where the Civic Hybrid comes with a lot of that stuff.

CVB: I’ll tell you quite honestly, right now, if I was out looking for one, and money wasn’t an object, I’d buy a Prius in a heartbeat.

BB: Just to see that thing work on a daily basis.

You got to understand that my roots are with Honda. I don’t feel like a traitor for saying that, but my roots are with Honda. Now, when that Accord V6 comes out, that may change my mind. I have a lot of respect for Toyota. I recently met with them in Southern California. They have a lot to be proud of.

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~~ Newsletter Wrap-up ~~

That does it for newsletter number two. I know it was a long one, but it was hard to cut down on the interview. I only included a fraction of what we talked about. Thanks a million to Craig Van Batenburg for taking the time out of his busy schedule. I’ll be adding some of his comments to in the coming weeks. I hope his insights (no pun intended) will lead at least a few of you to arrange for a test drive.

Until the next time, happy driving.

Brad Berman

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