You’ve seen them around, you know, the greener-than-thou yuppies-cum-hippies who own their shiny new $25,000 hybrid automobile and insist on castigating everyone about how they should be more green — you know, by buying a hybrid like they did. Nevermind the cost arguments — $25k is too much to spend on a car that doesn’t carry little Johnny’s soccer team and can’t go from 0-60 in 4.2 seconds (like Tata Motor’s Electric Car, say)— it’s all about the planet man. Didn’t you see Al Gore’s movie?

Now, I’m all for making the planet a better place for the grand-kids to live in, but thinking that your hybrid is going to do that means that you’ve succumbed to Toyota’s marketing machine. You know, Prius == Green (not Prius == Lunchbox as Jeff Dunham might have you believe. In a sense, that’s right… Toyota is getting lots of your green for that Prius. The planet, on the other hand, might not be feeling as good. There are a few serious problems with hybrid automobiles — first, the environmental impact of the batteries, second, that they have batteries at all and third that the better gas mileage advertised for hybrid was largely an illusion. I’ll deal with each of these points in turn.

First off, making batteries, especially the quantity of batteries needed for your average hybrid, is an environmentally nasty process. Mining the lead or nickel needed to make the current generation of batteries creates an environmental mess worthy of
Black Diamonds, not to mention all the copper for the added wiring or that creating batteries is a very energy intensive process that involves taking a ton of electricity from the grid (yay for coal). And the newer batteries are even worse — the old lead ones are merely an environmental disaster, the NiCAD’s and Lithiums have the added danger of being highly chemically reactive. Yum! Overall, this is a negative environmental impact that good old non-hybrid just doesn’t have. Score one for gasoline.

Second, adding an additional drive mechanism (aka the electric motor, batteries and the like) adds additional weight. Automobile manufacturers (from my quick googling) don’t seem to like listing curb weights for the hybrids because of the fact that they’re much heavier than a comparable single-fuel car ( explains this quite well). The best estimates I’ve seen are somewhere in the realm of 10-30% weight increase if nothing else is done to drop the weight of the car. While regenerative breaking will mask this in city driving, on highway driving where your electric motor is just dead weight, you’ll see your hybrid doing worse than a single-fuel car on the same chassis. Another often missed point is the comparison of energy density. Gasoline is 45 MJ/kg, while the lead acid battery is somewhere in the range of 90-162 KJ/kg. Just moving around the “fuel” takes substantially more energy for a hybrid than for a good old gas guzzler. Score another one for gasoline.

Finally, the initially advertised ultra-awesome gas mileage for hybrids is largely an illusion. This is due to an artifact in how the EPA mileage tests were conducted and this artifact favored hybrids immensely. The EPA has since revised their numbers turning your 2007 Prius from 60/51 to a 48/45. That would be a 20% decrease in estimated city gas mileage (which is still higher than what you actually get in practice. Wired has a nice bit on this phenomenon, noting that Consumer Reports was routinely getting less than 60% of the EPA numbers on their real-life road testing.

But 48/45 on that ’07 Prius is still green-good, right? Yeah, it beats the heck out of the mammoth SUV, but still pales in comparison with the real-world 72 MPG you’ll get out of an ’05 Kawasaki Ninja EX250R. Behold the power of the crotch rocket! You see, the big difference between the Prius and a standard gasoline car is not so much the battery, but the shape and engineering. If we ripped out the hybrid stuff from a Prius it would still get better gas mileage than most normal cars — because the car is engineered to be light weight (to make up for the secondary drive system) and aerodynamic. Hence why the Ninja eats any automobile for lunch when it comes to gas mileage.

As our longtime reader, the Angry Diesel Engineer will attest, this gives you a much better bang for the buck than the fancy schmancy electric drive. Why this is not obvious to consumers is largely due to Toyota’s impressively successful marketing machine and their alliance with yuppy pseudo-greens (who believe that you can save the planet with no effort beyond writing a check). I mean, we’ve always known that driving smaller (lighter) cars gives better gas mileage. Even in the hybrid era, this is still true — a shiny gasoline-only ’07 Corolla does better on the highway (and not so much worse in the city) than the larger (and much heavier) ’08 Camry Hybrid even with all that extra hybrid engineering. So instead of banging their heads to make better batteries, perhaps the car industry could take some of that advanced engineering, currently the province of the Prius and put it to use on old-fashioned gasoline cars… a 40 MPG (highway) Corolla would be really nice… and with an MSRP starting around $15k or so for the ’09 it’ll be a lot less expensive too.

Special thanks to Angry Political Optimist and loyal reader Angry Diesel Engineer for some really good suggestions for this article..