Newsletter Archive Index

~~~ Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 0026 ~~~
Moderator: Bradley Berman [[email protected]]

Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
Gas prices are back through the roof. Yawn. How long will it take for everybody to realize that three bucks per gallon is the new reality—and that it’s really not that expensive by world standards, and that relatively high prices are the best way to curb consumption, and that it helps boost the market for alternatives? This issue looks at the storm created by this price spike, as well as the upcoming low-cost hybrids, the "real" energy costs of hybrid technology, and an interview with climate change activist Laurie David. We also offer links to new videos posted to Don’t miss the recent South Park episode featuring the “Toyota Pious,” the “Honda Hindsight,” and a cloud of hybrid smugness that decimates San Francisco.


  • Nissan’s Reluctant Release
    Last month, Nissan released preliminary details about the 2007 Altima Hybrid, due to go on sale in the U.S. early in 2007. The hybrid—based on the redesigned 2007 Altima that goes on sale this fall—will be sold in only the eight states certified to meet California emissions requirements: California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey.
  • Rumors about Gen 3 Prius
    An unidentified Toyota engineer told the U.K.-based site AutoExpress that the company is aiming to have the next generation Prius on the road in 2008 —and that it will could deliver as much as 90 miles to the gallon! The engineer said, "The whole electrical system has been redesigned to improve economy." Meanwhile, General Motors apparently put a gag on a breakthrough announcement scheduled for last month’s Stockholm Auto Show: that the Saab Biofuel Hybrid Concept vehicle has plug-in capacity. According to the website “Trollhattan Saab,” Detroit ordered the Saab’s trunk emblem glued shut to hide the 220-volt intake. See the smoking gun report.
  • IRS Decides on (Some) Hybrids
    On April 10, the I.R.S. confirmed exact credit amounts for Toyota and Ford vehicles. The IRS numbers were nearly identical to the estimates previously published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The credit for the 4WD Toyota Highlander Hybrid was the one exception. The IRS grants a $2,600 credit for the 4WD Highlander, rather than the estimated $2,200. Buyers of the 2006 Toyota Prius will receive a $3,150 tax break, the highest allotted. No word yet from the IRS about credits from other carmakers, and no clarifications about credits used to reduce Alternative Minimum Tax liability.


In the past five years, Hyundai has fought a hard battle to improve the quality of its vehicles—which were once viewed as inferior, budget-constrained choices. It looks like the South Korean automaker has won. It is now consistently ranking near the top of quality surveys by consumers and auto industry market firms. According to BusinessWeek, Hyundai "has emerged as the fastest growing of the major automakers."

Now, Hyundai’s entering the hybrid game. Fresh from showing it can make affordable cars without sacrificing quality, the carmaker is now ready to make hybrid technology affordable.

In December 2005, at the third annual Guangzhou international exhibition in China, Hyundai revealed a hybrid version of its Accent sub-compact. The automaker said the Accent Hybrid would combine a 16-horsepower electric motor with a 1.4-liter, 90-horsepower, continuously variable valve-timing engine. Hyundai promised a 40 percent increase over the conventional Accent’s 32 mpg, and said the vehicle might be ready by the end of 2006. Kia plans to launch a Rio hybrid model alongside the Hyundai Accent hybrid.

Generation Hybrid
Hyundai appears to be very serious about hybrids. They are developing their own design for their hybrids (to stack up against Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist, Ford’s Toyota-esque technology, and GM’s two-mode hybrid system). "Hybrids are the next-generation growth engine. We plan to shift our R&D focus from fuel cells to hybrids," said Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo

Hyundai will face competition from Honda in the nascent "economy hybrid" market. The Hyundai Accent is likely to face off against a Honda Fit hybrid subcompact. Both cars will sell in the $15,000 range, but the Honda Fit —based on the current buzz—will approach 60 mpg, while the Accent is slated for about 45 mpg.

> See our exclusive report on the Honda Fit Hybrid.

Honda has not confirmed plans for the Fit Hybrid, while Hyundai has made a firm commitment to release hybrid versions of the Accent, and Kia Rio, by late 2006 in Korea. It doesn’t hurt that the Korean government plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years to help develop technologies needed for hybrids, fuel cell vehicles and other advanced automotive systems. How did Hyundai manage to get so much assistance from the Korean government? Clues emerged in late April when Mong-koo was arrested on suspicion of illegally creating a $100 million slush fund to seek favors from the government.

The ultimate beneficiary of the South Korean’s government investment in hybrids may be an entry-level buyer who previously has not been able to afford a hybrid. Hyundai also has plans to develop a Sonata hybrid in late 2007.

> More about the Hyundai Accent

So many questions, and so little time. Instead of answering your emails in one-sies and two-sies, we pulled the most common and useful questions, and offered our best short answers.

Q: If so much heat goes out the tailpipe of a car, is there anyway to make use of it to improve mileage?

A: That’s the idea behind the BMW "Turbosteamer" concept vehicle, which has a steam-powered auxiliary drive that uses the waste heat present in the exhaust gases and cooling system. As Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress says, "Think of it as a gasoline-steam hybrid." This design is not commercially available. cartoonist J. Lemon thinks an auxiliary drive powered by hot air from automakers’ promises might be the answer to sustainable mobility.
> The Turbosteamer
> J. Lemon’s Cartoon "Power of Speech"

Q: What’s the best way to find a local independent mechanic to service my hybrid?

A: Master hybrid technician Craig Van Batenburg, of the Automotive Career Development Center, has a small but growing list of independent shops that receive his training and get certified. What are Craig’s fundamentals for choosing an alternative shop to work on your hybrid? They should have a good reputation, employ ASE-certified technicians, and have Internet access and familiarity with automakers’ online data/advice about hybrids.
> See Craig’s List

Q: Which hybrid models are available in E85 or flex-fuel versions?

A: None of the current hybrids are flex-fuel vehicles. Ford took baby steps in that direction in January, when it unveiled a version of the Escape Hybrid with a flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV) engine capable of running either gasoline or ethanol blends of up to 85 percent (E85). The Escape Hybrid E85 is a research vehicle, not even as far along as a concept car.
> Discussion of flex-fuel hybrids
> Benefits of an E85 Hybrid

Q: Do any of the hybrids have solar cells to gain some solar power? Why or why not?

A: The general consensus is that the amount of energy produced by a rooftop solar panel on a hybrid would be insignificant.
> See discussion

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.

As you might expect, the media had a field day. The impression left by the media coverage was to cast doubts on the real benefits of hybrids.

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 CNW President Art 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. The current Prius, for all intents and purposes, will be the Model T."

> Full article on CNW Report

We recently caught up with global warming evangelist Laurie David—just before the media blitz began for her film “An Inconvenient Truth,” starring Al Gore. Laurie is determined to "turn one voice into a million voices" and to make so much noise about global warming that it no longer can be ignored.

Bradley Berman: How much responsibility for global warming do you place on the auto industry?

Laurie David: First of all, I place the responsibility for global warming on all of us. We’re all guilty. We’re all part of the problem. And we all need to be part of the solution. But a big portion of global warming is coming from transportation. There’s an article in today’s New York Times about how the auto industry could be focusing on raising fuel economy. Instead, they’re still focused on how to make cars go faster!

That’s really disturbing, isn’t it? With everything we know now, having been through Katrina, and seeing these cyclones happening, unbelievable flooding everywhere, and unprecedented droughts, the auto industry is still not getting it. With gas prices what they are. They still don’t get it.

BB: You’ve taken some steps to try to get Detroit to wake up, namely the Detroit Project.

LD: We produced [a series of] commercials. They were a parody at the time of the Bush Administration’s drug war commercials. And … they sparked the debate about SUVs, and gas-guzzling cars, and where the money was going. We tried to connect the dots between what you are buying, what you are driving, and support of the economies of Middle Eastern countries that don’t like us.

BB: They were produced about three or four years ago?

LD: Yes, that was three years ago. I produced them with Arianna Huffington, Lawrence Bender, and Ariel Emanuel. We tried to buy commercial time on all the networks. We could not get a single network to take our money.

I had a conversation with the president of ABC at that time, where he said to me, “We’re not going to be running those commercials." But everyone saw them anyway, because we got an unprecedented amount of free media with them.

BB: Tell me about your shift from traditional media to online activism, represented by the campaign, which you started.

LD: It’s a virtual march. The idea is that if you want to build a grass-roots movement, and you want the government to hear what you have to say, you might march on the streets. But marches don’t work they way they used to work. So the idea is to march on Washington—but let’s do it virtually on the Internet. And let’s count every single person who joins, and let’s turn one voice into a million voices, and let’s make so much noise that we can’t be ignored.

BB: What’s your vision for the future of cars?

LD: Cars that are now getting 45 miles to the gallon will soon be getting 100 miles to the gallon. You’ll be able to get gas from it, and plug it in. And eventually, we can wean off gas altogether. We’ll have biofuels and a lot of other choices for cars. The only question is how long it’s going to take.

Read the entire interview

Here are some highlights from recent entries from our in-house Hybrid Cars think tank:

Walter McManus: Should We Raise the Gasoline Tax?
"Gasoline prices have been steadily rising year-over-year since 2002, and spiked above $3/gallon last year [and last month]… It’s time to consider raising the tax on gasoline to encourage conservation and increase sales of more fuel-efficient vehicles." When Walter wrote that we should, at least, consider a $2 per gallon gas tax—and graphed the potential effect of such a tax on vehicle sales—user comments spiked even higher than gas prices. Join the debate here:

Michael Milikin: Rehab, Not Rebates
"It may feel good—or sound good—to lambaste the oil companies for greed or China for guzzling up ‘our’ oil, but that path is simply a diversion from the only real solution possible: a reduction in oil consumption. Cheap gasoline…was a temporary—albeit long-lived—economic condition. But it was around long enough at the low price to get entire nations hooked."

David Miller: Best Business Plan in the World — Nuke + Oil
"Oil prices are the talk of the town, and the summer driving season hasn’t even begun. Iran’s ‘unstable’ president and their nuclear ambition is a little lower down on the front page, but it is front-page news and doesn’t seem to be going away. Benefiting from all of this are the mullahs in Iran. They have always relied on oil revenues to support their activities (from repressing women to supporting the bombing of pizza parlors and buses), but when backed up by nuclear ambitions and some other forces (China/India, huge fleet of SUVs still on roads, etc.) the business model is golden."

Felix Kramer: Why No Cars at Carmaker Summit?
"President Bush will be meeting the ‘Big Three’—GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler–in Washington, D.C., on May 18. Invited: GM’s Rick Wagoner, Bill Ford and Chrysler’s Thomas W. LaSorda. Rewind to May 1993, the last time the Big Three met the president. The NY Times recalls that it included ‘an opportunity for the companies to show off their cars. They lined up 120 automobiles in an event called ‘Drive American Quality.’ Mr. Clinton, a car buff, strolled among the gleaming vehicles, stroking the side panels of some and gazing avidly at others. There are no plans for any kind of auto show this time, officials at the companies said." (Why aren’t they proud of their current line-up?) "

> Check out all our recent blog posts


South Park: "Smug Alert"
You should not miss the South Park episode entitled "Smug Alert," which aired originally on Comedy Central on March 29. If you’ve never seen South Park, brace yourself for enough irreverence to offend everybody. In this episode, Stan persuades all the citizens of South Park to buy hybrid cars. Just as everyone starts to feel really good about what they’re doing to help save the earth, scientists discover a stormy, dark mass accumulating over the town. Soon it all involves a storm of smugness emanating from the new hybrid drivers of South Park, the residents of San Francisco (who enjoy the smell of their own farts), and George Clooney’s 2006 Oscar acceptance speech.

TreeHugger TV at the 2006 New York International Auto Show
It’s a little embarrassing, but there I am at the auto show. Thanks to the good people from TreeHugger.

Prius’s Intelligent Parking Assist
Did you ever wonder how the Japanese version of the Prius handles its auto-parking feature? This short industrial video, produced by Toyota Netherlands, demonstrates the Toyota Prius’s "Intelligent Parking Assist" function.

Well, that’s all for now. The gas prices made April an incredible month. I hope you enjoyed our little snapshot. Hold on to your hats. What May will bring? Let’s hope for the best.

Happy Driving,
Bradley Berman
[email protected]

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