In the past, we Angry Men have been rather rude to hybrids. Not without reason, of course (and not without provocation–as anyone who’s been nearly suffocated in the cloud of Smug produced by the Prius crowd can appreciate).

Still, the mark of any rational man is to realize when he may have been unfair, and since it’s Friday and we Angry Men traditionally want to have a bit of fun today, let’s take a look at some hybrids and electric vehicles that we might all actually want to drive:

 
 
 
 
 
 
Tesla Roadster
Tesla Roadster
($109,000)
 
 

Why, you may ask, are we spending time looking at these toys for the idle rich? Well, mostly because they’re awesome, of course (this is Friday). But, also, it’s been so long that we’ve all probably forgotten that roadsters were one of the original driving forces in automotive development and adoption. Back when cars were far too expensive for just anyone to have one, commercial vehicles and roadsters helped pave the way—two markets where bottom line price is usually not as important as other factors. Here’s hoping this is the start of a whole new way to drive!

But, on to the discussion: What will make you switch from the good old fashioned internal combustion engine? Price? Performance? Street Cred? Geek Cred? What will it take to persuade you to drink the Kool Aid?

As you can tell by reading the comments, my article on hybrids generated a ton of interest and comment. On top of the actual comments, we’ve had a bunch of discussion on our super-secret internal email list. Given the quality of the discussion in the aforementioned article, we’d like to give everyone a chance to continue the conversation.

For those of you who missed the first edition, I basically argued that hybrid automobiles only start to make sense for the typical American driver (as defined by the DOT) when gasoline reaches the economically crippling $10 a gallon. Mere “European” gas prices won’t cut it. Inflation, which is largely driven by gas and commodity prices these days, will not make matters any better as it increases prices across the board. If anything, hybrids are even more screwed.

So what do the 12 Angry Men have to say?

Angry Overeducated Catholic
Right, in fact hybrids in general (even at the SUV level) aren’t yet worth it economically. But they may be worth it for early adopters (who by definition buy such goods before it is economically rational to do so), nerds, and greenies.

Of course it would be far more worth it for the greenies to drive their old, decrepit, smog-producing VW minivan to a rally for greatly increased use of nuclear power, which would do far more to reduce fossil fuel emissions and oil dependencies than any number of hybrids.

But you can’t drive a pro-nuclear rally around to show off to your hippy friends, so that doesn’t work out…

Status good is spot on. (Note: Strictly speaking economists don’t use the term “status good” but such things would be a type of Veblen good.)

Mildly Piqued Academician
Right, in fact hybrids in general (even at the SUV level) aren’t yet worth it economically.

Well, not accounting for externalities. And “worth it” is tricky. It ain’t just gas mileage, or no one would ever get the add-ons to a car… or buy anything but the basic economy vehicle that gets you around.

But they may be worth it for early adopters (who by definition buy such goods before it is economically rational to do so), nerds, and greenies.

Right. If the nerds and greenies (big overlap there, obviously) need to justify their purchase, they can go right ahead. Fundamentally this is no different than the lawyer justifying his purchase of an Infiniti as a sign of having “made it.”As David Brooks has noted, it’s become acceptable to spend lots of money on high end “basics” such as a fancy kitchen among the bobo class, aka the current upper class.

Status good is spot on.

That’s true. But many other goods fall into that camp. Early adopter markets are quite important for the eventual broadening of the market. When fleet vehicles such as taxis, cop cars, etc., end up going hybrid you’ll see a big shift. Third gen hybrid may well push this as it will be cheaper, smaller, and better. In this case, the early adopters did
the rest of the world a big favor. 🙂

Angry Overeducated Catholic
Well, not accounting for externalities. And “worth it” is tricky. It ain’t just gas mileage, or no one would ever get the add-ons to a car… or buy anything but the basic economy vehicle that gets you around.

Right. I meant in simple economic analysis based on fuel efficiency. As you say, very few people buy their car for entirely (or even primarily) economic reasons. Otherwise the Fusion, Milan, and Altima could not all successfully compete—being the same car with different shells and options. Fortunately (for them) external options make a difference.

Right. If the nerds and greenies (big overlap there, obviously) need to justify their purchase, they can go right ahead. Fundamentally thi is no different than the lawyer justifying his purchase of an Infiniti as a sign of having “made it.”

Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with either. Both also signal to one’s peers that one is a member in good standing of the group and agrees with the aims and beliefs of the group, and such signals are of great importance to us naked apes.

As David Brooks has noted, it’s become acceptable to spend lots of money on high end “basics” such as a fancy kitchen among the bobo class.

Yes indeed. Or to spend lots of extra bucks on organic food at faux farmers’ markets like Whole Foods. I suspect part of this a legitimate interest in these things and part is a desire to be able to consume conspicuously without appearing to be a wasteful and evil conspicuous consumer.

That’s true. But many other goods fall into that camp. Early adopter markets are quite important for the eventual broadening of the market.

Yes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with status goods—together with other luxury goods they form a huge component of the economy, after all.

When fleet vehicles such as taxis, cop cars, etc., end up going hybrid you’ll see a big shift. Third gen hybrid may well push this as it will be cheaper, smaller, and better. In this case, the early adopters did the rest of the world a big favor. 🙂

Exactly. If hybrid tech pans out the early adopters will be those who kept it alive long enough to do so. And if it fails, they’re the ones who took the risk (and loss) to give it a try. Entrepreneurs of consumption, as it were… 🙂

Mildly Piqued Academician

Yes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with status goods—together with other luxury goods they form a huge component of the economy, after all.

They always feel a little “dirty” though… Why else would bobos go through so much trouble putting on counter-cultural airs? Why else would people like Richard Nixon famously go on about wife Pat’s “good Republican cloth coat” in the Checkers speech? Honestly I think that the argument that bobo-ism represents nothing more than changing tastes of the upper class is spot on.

Angry New Mexican
So, to paraphrase AOC from the comments of the original article are hybrid car owners
“driving around the block displaying your Goreon commitment to the admiring public,” like the folks who shop at Whole Foods (evidently including Obama… no wonder the wacky left opposes The Clinton Restoration(TM))? Are they really interested in engaging in self-promoting faux-greenery, namely saving the planet without sacrifice (or at least without their sacrifice… the opposition to Tata Motor’s ultra-cheap car betrays this hypocracy)?

Or on the other hand, are folks who buy hybrid just crazy first-adopting geeks (I can relate, I bought a 1st gen Iomega Zip Drive back inthe day), who will eventually help move the technology to the mass market?

Only time will tell… Readers, what’s your call?

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ObFascism Tag: Boboism is nothing new. Adolf Hitler practiced it personally—put on of being a “man of the people” while living in luxury himself—and it’s a part of the denouement of previous romantic movements.

In case you missed my last article detailing my passionate hatred for the latest bit of consumer stupidity, known as hybrid automobiles, I’m back with a sequel piece. Here I’ll be employing the mighty power known as algebra to explain why buying a hybrid automobile makes no economic sense, except in what would be best classified as a nightmare scenario. To illustrate this, I want to compare the Toyota Prius with (in my opinion at least) one of the best inexpensive cars on the market, the Toyota Corolla. The cars are of a similar size and equal seating capacity (5). So what makes the humble Corolla more than a match for the mighty Prius from an economic perspective? The answer is simple: cost.

Consider the following vital stats about the two automobiles:

Car City MPG Highway MPG MSRP Range
2008 Prius 48 45 $21,100 — $23,370
2008 Corolla 28 37 $14,405 — $16,415

According to Uncle Sam, it’s plausible to assume that the average driver puts about 15k miles on a car every year. Likewise, according to the DOT, the average American keeps their car about 4.5 years. That’s not a whole lot of time to recover the cost of the vastly more expensive Prius. But with the price of gas these days, it has to be a good deal, right? Wrong.

Assuming that the cars depreciate at an equal rate (or you just crash them into a tree and get nothing from your insurance company) and that inflation (now pushing 4% per year) drops to zero, here’s where the Prius becomes cheaper as determined by the price of gas (here we only consider the lowest end model of each car):

When the Prius Price of Gasoline (per gallon)
Costs Less $2.00 $3.26 $5.00 $8.00 $10.00
Years 22.8 14.1 9.1 5.7 4.6

So for a Prius to be more economically sensible for the “average” American, gas has to cost $10.00 a gallon. And this is assuming 0% inflation. The numbers get worse when you factor in a 3% inflation rate. Assume that the gas price listed is the price today and that the cost of gas increases inline with the 3% inflation rate (Ben Bernanke and I are both being hopeful). Then the crossover point looks like:

When the Prius Price of Gasoline (per gallon)
Costs Less $2.00 $3.26 $5.00 $8.00 $10.00
Years 36 18 11 6 5

So unless we assume that gas prices are going to head up significantly faster than the inflation rate, it’ll still take $10.00 per gallon gasoline to make the mightly Prius cost-competitive with the humble Corolla. Perhaps that’s something to think about the next time you head to visit the Toyota dealer…

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 (howstuffworks.com 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..