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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Growing Doubt on Hybrids

An article from Autoweek concerning direct injection engines got me thinking. Direct injection engines are gasoline engines that through a complex process I do not completely understand, are able to take low sulfur gasoline, and get mileage comparable to a diesel car. Direct injection engines are now only available, or will soon be available, in Europe. For America, because we use oil with too high a sulfur content, we will have to wait. It's a similar situation with diesels: because we use too dirty of diesels, we can't get all the latest common rail diesel engines, which means we can't get cheap diesel cars.

Soon however, the US will be adopting lower sulfur diesel, and perhaps in the future, lower sulfur gasoline. Let's say that our government institutes these changes, what then? My belief is that they could be the end of hybrids.

Hybrids tied to larger engine vehicles seem to give a questionable amount of additional mileage:

Honda Accord Hybrid combined highway/city fuel mileage: 32 mpg
Honda Accord v6 Automatic mileage: 24 mpg

The above comes from the government's fuel economy website here. There is a six thousand dollar premium in price to pay for a hybrid. What if that v6 automatic had a 15 percent increase in fuel economy? Combine that with no additional cost in MSRP, and you have a steal. The purpose of the hybrid is negated. You might argue that a battery married to an engine that uses low sulfur gasoline will produce even better mileage. But the same conundrum returns. You would still have a six thousand dollar surcharge, and your mileage would only be improved by a few miles per gallon.

If the government institutes cleaner gasoline as they are doing with diesel, a car company that offers a regular engine without a hybrid system will be able to undercut their competitors. The hybrid, instead of being a necessity, becomes yet again a higher trim level that only conservation types will purchase. This is all in the face of steadily rising gas prices, as I predict.

I think clean diesel and gasoline are the solutions for the longer term, rather than hybrids, unless the price of hybrids falls dramatically. The people who need fuel efficient vehicles aren't the middle and upper classes of American society, they are the lower classes. Small diesel cars are their answer. Unfortunately, there aren't any on the market. It seems strange, but the middle and upper classes, the people who can afford to drive less efficient cars, are the only ones able to purchase the most fuel efficient vehicles. Also, unlike a common rail diesel or direct injection car, hybrids require costly battery replacements. That means poor people will not be able to purchase used models, because the cost to maintain them will be too high. All this seems to point to hybrids being a fad, and the real solution to ever increasing fuel prices lies in smaller vehicles, that run on clean sulfur fuel.

This is important, because if gasoline hits three dollars a gallon as the national average, many people will not be able to afford cars, yet have desperate need of them because their public transportation systems are not suitable near them. In most parts of the country, public transportation is inadequate. An enormous market is being overlooked, and possibly being legislated against, as the government has been slow to implement diesel changes that would allow diesel cars to be sold in great numbers here. The MSRP of a diesel Golf TDI is around 18 thousand. With an automatic transmission it gets 36 mpg. A Honda Civic with a normal gasoline engine gets 39 mpg combined, and costs almost 15 grand. In Europe for those prices you could get a car with significantly higher mileage. There are also cars in the ten thousand dollar range with comparable mileage. It's a market that is being ignored. There aren't many used cars with good mileage, as most of the used cars on the lots come from eras where fuel was cheap and abundant. The first automaker that can produce, or is allowed to produce for America a car that is cheap and gets great mileage, and is small is going to make a lot of money.

Comments:
Here's an article that talks about Hybrid diesel busses vs. standard diesel busses using low sulfer fuel.
http://www.navc.org/HDemission1.html

This provides more information about large hybrid performance than Honda's partial-hybrid Accord.
 
That's an interesting link. What would be really interesting is whether a common rail heavy diesel system on low sulfur fuel would significantly reduce emissions as well an increase mileage. Do you know what the costs are for a heavy duty hybrid system are? At this point in time they would probably be too expensive for the mass market I would think.
 
im not sure where the $6k price difference for a hybrid came from? a toyota prius cost is about $21k which is less than a similar sized nissan altima or pontiac G6. a good site for info on on the advancements of diesel, biodiesel, gas, hybrids and more is www.greencarcongress.com i would also like to add that companies such as fedex already have diesel/hybrids in their fleet...hybrids are here to stay
 
Much of the premium for hybrids is due to the fact that the systems are nwe and you don't have the same economies of scale. That difference should evaporate over the next five years. Also, what makes you think hybrid engineers won't take advantage of the newer engine designs and other advances to push their mpg up as well?
 
Any significant change in engine design costs money, and in the case I wrote about above is dependent on the government to institute nationwide a new, cleaner fuel which will cost millions if not billions. It will probably always be cheaper to alter an engine rather than hybridize it. I doubt that hybrids will ever be the same price as a normal engine, and hybrid disposal is very polluting, so it might not be the right choice anyway.
 
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