Hybrids and Hummers

If you thought the hybrid bashers had exhausted their list of criticisms of gas-electric vehicles—they’re small, underpowered, ugly, driven only by enviro-weenies and not worth the extra cost in any case—then you probably underestimated the creativity and persistence of the anti-hybrid crowd. The latest reason, we are told, that hybrids are not the answer is that they are less energy-efficient than conventional vehicles if you look not just at the period when the hybrid is driven, but at their entire dust-to-dust lifecycle. In fact, according to a new study by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., the Hummer H3, in terms of dust-to-dust energy costs, equates to $1.95 per mile—while the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are almost $3.30 per mile.

To produce these surprising claims, CNW went further than the traditional lifecycle study. The firm spent two years collecting more than 4,000 data points for all vehicles on the road—not just hybrids—studying energy costs for every single aspect of the vehicle’s creation, from research and development to final disposal. They even evaluated the relative energy cost of transporting workers from their homes to the auto plants in Japan, where workers are more likely to take public transportation, with the commuting costs for auto workers in the Midwest, who are likely to drive solo for 20-plus miles in inefficient vehicles. It’s not clear if CNW considered the relative diets of those workers (rice and vegetables versus Big Macs, and associated energy costs for growing, transporting, and processing those meals).

When You Assume…

Determining the 4,000 data points, obtaining the relevant data, and processing the data to produce a final dollar per mile cost for the vehicles, required—obviously—some assumptions. Perhaps the most critical one was the anticipated number of miles to be driven by each car. For example, CNW set the number of expected lifetime miles for a Prius at 100,000 miles, which, according to CNW President Art Spinella, was based on public statements from Toyota. In an interview with the podcast "The Watt," Spinella admitted that, "If you can drive the Prius 200,000 miles, and do the same levels of costs and repairs, the cost per mile obviously comes down dramatically."

As you might expect, the media and blogosphere had a field day with the study. CNW’s press releases were picked up from New York to Hong Kong. The impression left by the media coverage was to cast doubts on the real benefits of hybrids. In all fairness, it was not Spinella’s fault that journalists were not nearly as thorough in representing the report as CNW was in their research.

If reporters had dug a little deeper, they would have clearly seen what the podcast interview exposed: the Hummer H3 looks a whole lot better than the hybrids because it uses "crude old technology that has long ago been paid for," according to Spinella. On the other hand, the hybrids are new and complex, and the cost of the R&D energy required to make the necessary transformation of our cars from oversized, high-emissions gas guzzlers to something new and better has not yet been amortized over any significant period of time.


Podcaster Ben Kenney asked if the results from the study would be different if conducted again in 10 years. Spinella responded:

"It would be totally different in three years. The hybrids will look significantly better. The new hybrids they are developing now—the new ones that I’ve seen, Prius III and Prius IV—are so much more simplified. They’ll do what the current versions do, but with far less complexity, lighter motors, more recyclable parts, and longer lasting components. The current Prius, for all intents and purposes, will be the Model T."