Should you buy a hybrid car?

Last summer we were driving up north, in our Prius, and one of those coal rollers tailgated us for a while, then passed us. On the right. On the median. Jerk.

When we were trying to decide whether or not to buy a Prius, last winter, I looked into the usual things one looks into. I learned from the internet and various people that we’d never recover the extra cost of buying a Prius, because they were so expensive. So I got a little information together and called a dealer.

“I’m thinking of buying either a Subaru Forester to replace our old and beat up Forester, or a Prius. But I’ve been told we won’t recover the costs with the mileage savings,etc., so I thought I’d give you a chance to convince me that is wrong.”

“A Subaru Forester costs a few thousand dollars more than a Prius, so by buying a cheaper car, you will recover the costs on day one. Then, you’ll use half the gas forever. So yes, come on in!”

I double checked and he was right. Plus, there are additional advantages to driving a Prius. Like the coal rollers. We can be amused by coal rollers.

Anyway, there is a new study out and a great blog post about that study. The blog post is so good I won’t bother spending much time on this other than to point you to it (below). But first I wanted to show you this graph I made, based on the data provided in that study:

Price of gas goes up, more people buying hybrids. You can't explain that!
Price of gas goes up, more people buying hybrids. You can’t explain that!

Anyway, the blog post about the study is: Prius pushback: Hybrid inspires some hatred

I think someone should make an all electric car (plugin) with a small biodiesel generator. And a solar pane on the roof that runs a small ventilation system for when you are parked in the sun. I want that to be my next car. Made in America by union workers would be nice.

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52 thoughts on “Should you buy a hybrid car?

  1. Greg, have that car run on butanol (or a gas/butanol mix). Can be produced from switchgrass, which grows well in non-arable plots of land (so as not to displace food crops). Butanol was produced in the early part of the 20th Century as a gasoline substitute, and has some remarkable properties as a liquid fuel. (Much better as a bio-fuel than ethanol.)

  2. That would be good. I was thinking, though, of “sustainable biodiesel” which is almost free to make from waste vegetable oil.

    A mix of sources of liquid fuel is of course good.

    No gas though. No fossil carbon. Keep it in the ground!

  3. I should have said something to the tune of “you can mix butanol directly with gasoline to serve two purposes: cut gas usage (by diluting it with a sustainable non-fossil substitute) and to tide us over as auto manufacturing transitions away from gasoline engines and the FF industry transitions to producing/selling essentially pure butanol as our major liquid fuel.”

    The waste veggie oil works on the small scale, but there aren’t enough restaurants to fuel all of us. And some municipalities don’t allow it…

  4. I thought all the used cooking oil streams were already claimed.
    There are Prius options for solar powered fan. I just park in the shade and leave windows cracked. Plugins are not available in all states, the owners manual for mine Prius plugin says “don’t operate below -30C, and don’t ever expose it to -40C”, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t available in Minnesota.
    Of course with any plugin or EV you could also put PV on the house/garage, and in some net demand sort of way generate as much or more than you use. But I’m not sure how well EVs do in cold climates. Prius gets much better milage in warm weather than cold like maybe 5-10mpg summer to winter difference (and thats for whimpy California winters).

  5. Your pushback link requires that I sign up for the Chicago Trib.

    I use the Clean Car Calculator to compare hybrids with non-hybrid models. Just tell it where and how you drive and it will estimate cost savings and emission reductions. You can even compare the Prius models to each other:
    http://iee.ucsb.edu/CleanCarCalculator/#.VEfyK_nF9yI

    Setting aside that specious comparison of Prius and Hummer, for a while the hybrids didn’t seem to payback, but it had a lot to do with what sort of driving you do and what sort of resale value the cars maintain. If you drive bumper to bumper into the city and back, the Civic mild hybrid beats its gas-only twin. If like me, you mostly take three hour highway trips every few weeks, hybrids aren’t as rewarding.

    Someday I’d like to get a human/electric hybrid like the Twike or the Elf, but for now I just bike to work.
    http://www.twike.com/
    http://organictransit.com/

  6. I know that you are all having a laugh here – but even so it is worth keeping the bigger picture in mind. There are a myriad of developments on biofuel from sustainable sources. Anything adopted in US should apply to the rest of the Western World – After all are the poorer nations to get paid for producing fuel? Because it will not be free. Also you have to stop the Corporations doubling the price and Governments from taxing it. Surely some of us are going to benefit?? And while we are talking about it – why should there be many different makes when we only need one?

  7. Daniel, according to that calculator we saved over 6K over 5 years. Pretty close to my original calculation, but I was more conservative in assumptions about gas prices because we live near a refinery.

  8. I think it’s going to be interesting over the coming decade to watch the progression as EV’s become more the norm than the exception. I pity the person who buys a big gas guzzler truck today, because right about the time they want to trade it in… It’s going to be worth zero. No one will want it. They’ll have a 7 year old vehicle they have to sell for $900 of scrap metal.

    What then happens with the gasoline infrastructure as well? If people are purchasing less gas, you might think the price would fall. But the challenge will be, all the overhead and distributions costs have to be born by an ever smaller market for the product. And it’s not getting cheaper to extract oil. I think the price of gas will continue to remain fairly high even as demand falls.

    It’s starting to look like an end game.

  9. Rob, I expect we’ll see a class system of vehicles as in Asia now. Rich people will still drive long range cars with liquid fuel, or with fuel cells or with a lot of batteries like the Tesla. Middle class people will drive electric four, three and two-wheelers with much shorter ranges. Poor people will ride bikes or walk.

  10. More than half. My wife does most of the driving. When we had two identical cars, I would just use mine and she hers. But now, when I need to go somewhere and she’s home, I use hers. So it has halved her gas use, and reduced mine slightly.

  11. Donal… I wouldn’t be too sure. Wealthy people have a way of being very practical. Maybe it’s just where I live (SF Bay Area) but there are Tesla’s popping up everywhere here. I can’t go out without seeing 6 or 7 of them driving around.

  12. Also, just for fun I save up the credits on my grocery shopping card which, whigh gives a tiny bit per gallon off at a nearby station whenever I buy groceries (I buy most of the groceries) and use it on the rare occasion that I fill her car. So, the money savings SEEM much bigger (though I know they are not, really) when I put 6 gallons in the Prius for 20 cents off per gallon.

  13. Re: “What then happens with the gasoline infrastructure as well?”

    The liquid fuels industry can’t go away completely; we can put nuclear reactors in large ships, but smaller boats & aircraft will still require high-energy-density liquid fuels to operate.

    To placate the gasoline industry and get them to co-operate as they work to protect their large infrastructure investments, we need to get them to transition to distributing butanol as a liquid fuel in place of FFs.

  14. What are the limitations on electric boats? It would seem that short term (like for use on a lake) they would work very well, maybe better than gasoline powered boats.

    (esp once the energy recovery on the braking system is worked out!)

  15. When I replaced my standard gas-powered sedan with a Prius, my gas mileage tripled (17 to 51 mpg). I drove round-trip from L.A. to Yellowstone NP (the “long way”) and closely tracked the gas mileage. In 2995 miles we burned only 59 gallons of gas. So, yes, I’m saving a lot per month on fuel costs.

  16. “What are the limitations on electric boats?” Small boats (e.g., fishing on a small lake) can work fine on batteries, but how well does that scale? Think about commuter ferries, for example. It takes a lot more energy to move a large boat through water at a good clip than if you drove a car/truck on a road. Sure, you can load the bilge up with batteries, but how long can you afford to idle it while it recharges? They’re too big to simply swap out a la a Tesla.

    Then we have trucks (semis) — practical to operate via battery power? I don’t see it. Railroads? Their wheels are certainly electrically powered, but they have diesels to generate the current — you’d need to make them nuclear powered, or use an alternative liquid fuel, too.

  17. In the long term, most liquid fuels ought to be biofuels.
    People worry about food vs fuel, reasonable, but it helps to know:
    A) Agriculture history in US, ie Earl Butz.
    B) How much corn goes to meat
    C) How much goes to HFCS, along with sugar beets.

  18. There’s a great deal of surface transportation that can be done with electric. Aviation is the big nut to crack. The energy density of jet fuel is pretty damn hard to beat. And it has a secondary advantage in aviation. As you burn your fuel the aircraft gets lighter and requires less fuel to keep aloft. Can’t do that with batteries.

  19. The best biofuel is butanol; ethanol is possible the worst. Methanol might be a good choice, but butanol has too much going for it:

    “One of the most important bio-butanol advantages is the fact that its use will reduce carbon emissions. The EPA has released data showing that hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide releases can be greatly reduced by use of bio-butanol. Another advantage is that bio-butanol has a higher energy content than ethanol, almost 20% more by density. Due to its similarities to conventional gasoline, it is able to blend much better than ethanol with gasoline. It has even shown promise when using 100% bio-butanol in a conventional gasoline engine. Besides these, bio-butanol experiences a lower chance of separation and corrosion than ethanol. Bio-butanol also resists water absorption, allowing it to be transported in pipes and carriers used by gasoline. A very exciting advantage of bio-butanol is that vehicles require no modifications to use it. This means that with effective pumping systems, it can be implemented immediately. Currently, funds are quickly rising for bio-butanol production and the only requirement is a cheap and fast modification to the ethanol plants which already exist. As yield efficiencies rise, the cost of bio-butanol will continue to drop from its already reasonable price.”

    http://www.biobutanol.com/Resources.html

    It can also be made from switchgrass, saving the use of food stocks for producing it.

  20. Interesting fact about aviation fuel. Most small aircraft in the US operate on AvGas, which is just high octane (100) fuel. It’s such a small market, and the cost of refining is going up, so some producers are starting to pull out of the market.

    There’s one small aircraft maker who is producing a high performance twin diesel that runs on JetA in anticipation of the phase out of AvGas and to take advantage of biofuels that come onto the market for commercial aviation.

    http://www.diamondaircraft.com/aircraft/da42/specs_da42_vi.php

  21. Rob #12, Recall that I picked big-battery Teslas for the rich. I doubt many of us can spring 90 grand for one of those though. We’ll be driving shorter range Leafs.

    And I now recall that Edmunds TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) didn’t seem to favor hybrids as much as the Clean Car site.

  22. Although the diesel/electric sounds good, it may not be super efficient for a car. They do use them in trucks and buses. Diesels generally like to run, not keep getting switched on and off. Gas may be better from that point of view. On the other hand you can get a non-electric, fully diesel Volkswagen that generally does 42 miles to the gallon, and is a sizable comfortable car. http://www.edmunds.com/volkswagen/jetta/2014/?sub=diesel It has the advantage there are not something like three computers to go wrong, each one worth @ grand.

  23. Sailor, I understand that you can make a small diesel engine that can go on and off. But in any event, the idea would be to have a plug in electric car that has a small diesel engine that would turn on when the batteries were at a certain level to add range. It would be a super efficient system because it would be a small engine you would just turn on and run at the same exact speed (the optimal speed) until you turned it off later.

    The problem with just switching to a diesel car (or my hybrid idea) is that a) it is still using carbon from the ground (though less) and b) we probably only want to use “diesel” up to a point, where most of it is “sustainable” and if a bit more is used, from plant biomass. No fossil fuels.

  24. Tesla: MSRP: $69,900 – $93,400

    It is now a luxury car.

    Volt: From $34,345

    Electricity bought at night to charge your car is about a fifth of the cost of gasoline. It would take a long time to pay off a Tesla with that, but it would make a volt (which is an all electric with a gas generator) less painful.

    If you put solar panels on your roof and charge your car from that (because you have a night job!) then it is free!

    By the way, the cost to build and run an electric school bus is at present less than the cost to build and run a diesel school bus. The problem is the up front costs are higher. But that could be dealt with.

  25. The vast majority of people in airplanes flying around don’t need to be there. So the first thing you do is improve trains and reduce flying.

  26. That’s actually how China is approaching it. Have you ever seen the map of Chinese high speed rail? Holy-b-haysoos!

    http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/projects/images/xrl_scope_map02.jpg

    The advantage China has is their large population. When you get into smaller markets you just can’t justify the infrastructure cost. That’s the advantage that aviation does have. You have 3000 feet of pavement and… that gets you just about anywhere.

  27. Hybrid and electric cars are only going up in numbers. In aviation, there are a number of electric training and light sport aircraft being designed and built. It works well for short flights. In boating, there are an increasing number of hybrid and electric boats, useful for canal boats (where fuel consumption can be cut in half or less), and sailboats, where regenerative power (recharging the batteries by turning the propellor) is an option. If a boat is travelling relatively slowly, a diesel-electric system is more efficient than a low RPM diesel.
    Finally, if you look around a large city, you’ll see a lot of former gas stations, or lots that are now something else. You’d probably find more charging stations than gas stations in Manhattan or Paris, for example.

  28. Rob #23, I’ve read predictions the Model III will have to cost at least $50K unless battery costs come down. If they can start selling EVs with a reliable 250 mile range – that doesn’t decline with age – for $35K that will really be something.

  29. Yes diesels can go on and off but they are also significantly heavier so there is a cost to carrying them around in a car. Not so much in a boat. There was for a while a lot of enthusiasm for electric drives with a big bank of batteries and a diesel generator. Quite a few cat installed them. They work Ok and have some interesting features – for example when sailing you can use the prop to charge them Th enthusiasm seems to have died down a bit – probably because although they work as auxiliaries, they don’t quite pump out the power you might like for hour after hour of motering, which too many sailor do.

  30. Sailor: Of course, the navy still uses electric motor run sea craft all the time, but they have a pretty big power source, not diesel.

  31. Butanol-powered hybrids, folks… Butanol-powered hybrids. Lightweight engines reusing current designs & production infrastructure; Reuse of current liquid fuel delivery infrastructure. Less industry resistance, more reuse instead of rebuilding (a greener strategy itself). And no conversion of food crops to make low EROEI bio-fuels.

  32. Its not just the savings on gas costs. With a hybrid due to regenerative braking you will rarely if ever need new brake pads. Also you are placing less wear and tear on the gasoline engine and transmission, and that should save over the longterm on some of the maintenence costs.

    Hybrids/EVs are very quiet compared to ordinary vehicles, you will start to hate those noisy combustion engine sounds around you, that have been so ubiquitous we don’t even notice them.

    I expect gas prices to decrease (not increase) because of hybrid/plugin/EVs. Oil production will contiunue, and supply versus demand means the same amount of oil is chasing fewer customers. We’ve already seen oil/gas prices begin to plummet, as a result of fracking plus more efficient vehicles.

    Long range trucking is not amenable to being electrified, but short range inside the city trucking is. Also stuff like buses and garbage trucks that start/stop a lot.

  33. Greg, the car you’re describing (almost) exists today:

    Chevy Volt

    The only difference is the REx engine burns only high-octane gasoline. The real problem is that ~65% of the miles driven by Volt owners is electric-only. Protecting the engine from fuel degradation is hard enough with gasoline, hence the requirement for premium gas; it becomes significantly harder with biodiesel, as the fuel simply doesn’t last as long in storage. Figure out how to store a tank of biodiesel and keep it viable for a year or more at a time, and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got the car of your dreams. Until then, the Volt is as close as you’re going to get.

    Full disclosure: I’m a proud, satisfied, Volt owner, and I’ve yet to drive a single mile on gas. Nor am I likely to any time soon.

  34. Electrics & hybrids gain a good portion of their mileage benefits from regenerative braking, which comes into play most when starting/stoping. Long-range trucking, by definition, doesn’t stop much — but would go up/down hills, where regenerative braking would come into play — but you would need to balance mileage efficiency against the impact of carrying that much more weight in batteries (to act as a capacitor, in this use case). As with aircraft, we might be better using liquid fuels (bio-butanol) for long-range trucking. Better: Stop using trucks and start using trains again for this kind of transport.

  35. Actually, hybrids gain much of their advantage not from regenerative braking, but from NOT running the combustion engine when little to no output is needed, like coasting to a stop, or waiting for a red light to change.

    Brainstorms @42 is right about longrange trucking. Range between charges is important, as is the amount of time waiting to recharge. The biggest benefits for EVs/plugins/hybrids comes during the low demand portions of a drive, high speed longdistance travel isn’t the best usage for them. Where I could see a hybrid model helping, it avoiding trucks sitting for hour idling (sometime overnight). Sometimes this is bacuse of airconditioned cargo, othertimes???? But in any case trucks idling for long periods of time would seem like some low hanging energy fruit.

    Note energy efficiency of longdistance trucking can be greatly enhanced by better aerodynamics (boattail like backends), and airdams to divert the flow around rather than under the vehicle. It would make more sense to harvest these gains before trying to electrify trucking fleets.

  36. Late to this, but a comment about trains. We often talk a lot about Fancy Dan tech for super high speed. But we could get a vast improvement with the stuff we have right here and now. It takes three to six hours longer now to get from NYC to Chicago than it did when my father’s generation made the trip in 1960; the 1947 schedule from NYC to Raleigh shaves three hours of the current one. (Go ahead and look if you don’t believe it).

    The real problem with passenger rail isn’t the power source — everything in the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington is basically electric (powered by fossil fuels largely, but still). The issue is just maintaining the tracks and re-opening the right of ways that still exist, and building new tracks so passenger and freight aren’t always sharing the same routes.

    With exiting stock and a relatively inexpensive fix-up of tracks, (putting them BACK on the Bay Bridge) I could run trains every hour from SF to Sacto and to the trip in 4 hours or so, topping at several places on the way. The same line runs all the way across the country through Nevada and on ward to Chicago and the East.

    Same thing with the run from LA through the Southwest. Add another track on the same right of way and you can run at 70 mph+ on 90 percent of it. That’s a good clip and as good or better than a car, since the speed is more consistent.

    All this with no investment in new trains at all.

    Now, for slightly more money, one could straighten a few routes that haven’t had a going over since 1890. You needn’t build ramrod-straight — the Swiss do it on winding tracks and they have a very good system — but you do need to blast a few more tunnels.

    The trick is to treat these things as systems. The run from SF to LA could be done in six hours with current trains and tracks — if they were maintained and the connections to the old station in LA were any good i.e. links to the local transit network and the airport. Restore the connector to San Diego, and then you have something people can really use.

  37. Electric cars are not that green!!
    The batteries are a long way from being green and how do you charge the ungreen batteries – with coal fired electricity.

    Electric cars are just a load of rubbish, of which you can’t even go on a good days drive, or you’ll never get home. You have to stay overnight to recharge.

    1. Your argument about where the electricity is from is invalid for several reasons. Making electricity from fossil fuels and using it to run electric motors to move a vehicle is actually inherently more efficient than making millions of tiny explosions in a car engine. Here in Minnesota, where we get a large amount of our electricity from coal (our nukes are small, virtually no hydro or gas) it is at present more efficient or almost identical to charge an electric car with coal made electrictiy than to run gas (this transition is just now underway).

      Just as importantly, we can’t wait until every part of the system is in place in order to put the first part of the system in place. Over short and medium term we need to be switching to electric, with pioneer purchasers now driving lower costs so eventually there will be affordable models, and at the same time push for non-fossil carbon electricity production.

      Every aspect of the manufacture of every thing involves environmental costs. You are forgetting about the environmental costs of not just burning a gallon of gas, but also, getting the gas from Kuwait to Car. Or Bakken Crude to car.

      SO, no, you are totally wrong about this, but I understand where you are coming from. I had made the same assumptions you are making before I did a pile of research.

  38. Hybrid vehicles are way cheaper to maintain and operate. However, if you haven’t been taking care of your battery that well, then you must have about $4,000 to 7,000 prepared and stowed away somewhere. Replacing an electric or hybrid vehicle’s battery is just not cheap. And not to mention, if your hybrid car’s battery is in need of replacing, prepare some more extra cash because this will also entail some tweaks and repairs on its computer system.

    1. On the other hand, a replacement or rebuild of a transmission or engine, and constant maintenance in the engine, etc, is not a factor, if you go all electric.

  39. Personal annecdote. Both of our hybrids are over a dozen years old. One has about 180,000 miles. Battery is still good. Dealer says they have to do very few replacements. Our other hybrid had some bad cells and the whole battery got replaced…. on warranty. No charge. Car has about 125,000 miles on it. If the dealer made any computer tweaks, I wasn’t aware of it. Cost to me thus far for hybrid batteries….. Zip.

    Dealers who depend on expensive repairs for profit are probably not going to be very happy when the carbon burning vehicles get replaced with electric cars. Funny how our society creates these highly kludged institutions (e.g., the car industry) where the loss of new car sale profits due to higher quality and longer lasting cars gets supplanted by expensive repair and replacement services. Then along comes the electric car industry, and all sorts of new ways of making a profit will have to be formulated.

    1. From above:

      …entail some tweaks and repairs on its computer system.

      With more “ordinary” cars having navigation/entertainment systems based on software and touch screen based interfaces these computer tweaks are becoming standard in vehicles of all types.

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