Thursday, June 16, 2005

Growing Doubts on Hybrids

I've been thinking hybrids over the last few weeks and I'm beginning to wonder if they are the intermediate solution to impending fuel shortages. I think that low sulfur gasoline and diesel combined with efficient engines from automakers to run those low sulfur fuels is the solution. Hybrids are not. Let me list some of the weaknesses of hybrids:

1. They do not get the EPA mileage they state they do. The mileage tests by the government overestimate hybrid efficiency. In the real world hybrids, unless driven in a markedly different manner than real world driving, do not get the stated mileage.

2. Cost. Hybrids cost significantly more than comparable diesel engines. Even if mass produced to an extent where the cost is negligible, auto companies will always charge a premium just because hybrids are "different". And there is no guarantee that the cost to produce a hybrid will ever be cheaper or equivalent to a comparable ICU engine.

3. Pollution. Hybrid disposal, i.e. the disposal of the acid filled batteries, is very polluting. Where will we find a place to store millions of giant batteries?

4. Replacement. Come to think of it, the cost to run a hybrid will ALWAYS be significantly more expensive than a comparable ICU car because the battery will not last as long as the engine and will require costly replacement. This prices poor people out of buying used hybrids, because the car will need maintenance that is beyond their budgets.

5. Complexity. Hybrid maintenance is vastly more complex and expensive than a regular engine. Many mechanics do not know how to, or do not have the equipment needed to deal with hybrids. If the auto companies can hinder the supply of special equipment to independent mechanics, the cost to maintain hybrids will always be expensive.

6. Hybrids only work well with small cars. A large SUV or pickup requires an enormous battery. This compounds the expense. The fuel efficiency is not as great the larger the vehicle either.

7. Electromagnetic radiation. The larger the battery, the more it produces. Electromagnetic radiation causes cancer.

8. The danger of current and acid. The larger the battery, the more likely in an accident of the danger it poses. A ruptured battery is filled with acid that can spill and burn. Also a larger battery poses more of a threat in terms of electrocution and could electrify a metal car. People trying to free someone from a wreck could be electrocuted, especially if they use something like the jaws of life to pry open the wreckage.

Common rail diesels and direct injection gasoline engines seem the more logical way to go. Automakers might be served better if they spend money lobbying governments to institute low sulfur fuels quickly. Then car companies can easily import over European models that already run on these fuels at no additional cost. The ability to create a world vehicle that complies with emission standards all over the world will finally be a reality.

I like your blog, but think you're overly pessimistic about hybrids. My responses to your points:

1. EPA milage. Most cars fail to achieve EPA milage figures in real life. This is a problem with the EPA test, not hybrids. My wife's Honda Insight has consistently come close to the EPA figures. She got 62 MPG on her last tank of gas.

2. Cost. Yes, hybrids do cost significantly more than converntional vehicles now, but that cost differential is very unlikely to last. As you note, part of the cost delta is new technology which will decrease as it becomes more common. Hybrid components are in short supply, but with the premium they can claim, the supply will increase, driving prices down (unless demand increases).

3. Pollution. Battery disposal is an issue but not insurmountable. New battery technologies are under development. Hypercapacitors are an option that could supplement or replace batteries.

4. Replacement. Definitely an issue, but the current high prices will come down with volume production.

5. Complexity. This depends upon the design. The simplest hybrid design is no more comples than a conventional internal combution powered vehicle. Do a block diagram of either and you'll have an IC engine, an electric motor, and a battery. Current designs do add to that complexity, but as designs mature, most will become simpler.

6. Small cars. The fact that no large cars have been brought to market doesn't mean that the technology won't work. This was a marketing decision. Modern locomotive engines are diesel-electric hybrids.

7. Electromagnetic radiation. A larger battery doen't produce more EM radiation. You could if you wanted to, but that's a differnt matter.

8. The danger of current and acid. The slight increase in danger from these sources is offset by a lower requirement for carrying gasoline.

Common rail diesel and direct injection gasoline are promising, but they'd be even more efficient in a hybrid vehicle.

Many of your arguments unfortunately are not well thought out. I give you a generalization about mileage not being attained and you respond that your wife gets good mileage from her hybrid. Statistically that's a sample size of one. Do you know drivers of Priuses that make up most of the hybrid market? More than one? Many of them are complaining.

Cost--you talk about cost coming down. But they will never come down as I explained above because car companies will charge a premium. And competitors who offer cheaper diesels with better mileage will undercut them always. This limits the hybrid argument tremendously.

Pollution--New battery technologies are under development you say. Where? When? How do you know this will be achieved? Technology cannot solve every problem, and I haven't read anywhere about advances in battery disposal. To hope that "technology" comes through is really a bit ludicrous. What do we do in the meantime?

Replacement--again, who can afford to have a major part of their car replaced every seven years? Not many people, certainly no one poor. Your arguments that mass production drives down prices only works if companies decide to reduce their profits commensurately. Who says they will? Maybe they'll want more profits and keep prices the same. Wouldn't you do that to make money?

Complexity--again the simplest hybrid design, basically a large alternator that GM uses for its pickup, reduces gas mileage by one mile per gallon. A complex design is required for better mileage. Again you refer to a future technology simplifying things, but that's like rolling dice.

Small cars--you missed my point here. The savings in mileage are only substantial when you use small vehicles. That is why hybrids started out on them. Also the cost is less, since hybrids cost more to manufacture.

Larger batteries--larger meaning more powerful, I guess I wasn't clear. The more powerful the batter the more electromagnetic radiation. Why would I make a large batter that has a small output?

Danger of current--gasoline is flammable but hardly as dangerous as battery acid. Gasoline explosions are far less common in cars than batteries exploding. If you use jump cables improperly you can explode a battery. Can you blow up your car by filling the tank up with gas? Very rarely.

Your last point is correct, they would be more efficient. But cost is simply too great, at least in my opinion. And their uses too limited.
I still think you're too pessimistic about hybrids. They're in their infancy and can be expected to improve, though there are no gaurantees. CRD and biodiesel may render hybrids permanently uneconomic, but then maybe not. The Chinese economy may stall, reducing demand for fuel and causing prices to drop, and fewer people will care about economy.

Most of the people complaining about milage seem to be Prius owners. One report indicated that the Prius milage was particularly sensitive to driving habits.
I disagree with a number of items especially if the goal is to curb consumption of fuel:

1. In some circumstances the mileage is not meeting EPA numbers. But it is exceeding the mileage of the same non-hybrid vehicle (Accord, Escape).

2. It's true that the OEM wants to charge more for the "different" vehicle. However that is true for SUVs (overpriced by at least $10k) and other "HOT" vehicles, e.g., the Chrysler 300 is also overpriced by nearly the same amount. I'd bet that a diesel or DI engine is priced higher than a standard SI engine!

3. The disposal issue with the batteries is not an issue since they do not contain acid. The Toyota NiMH batteries have a phone number on them to call to have them recycled if you happen to come across one of the cells on its own. There are already recyclers of the NiMH batteries out there.

4. Replacement costs should be interesting to see since Toyota claims their pack is designed for 180,000 miles. I suspect by that time other issues will likely be more pressing.

5. True. However, a series hybrid eliminates the need for a transmission. Unfortunately no such beast exists today. But as my dad points out, you can't repair a current engine yourself anyway.

6. Not entirely true. The question of optimization comes in. The larger the battery pack the more electric only driving available. The OEM can play the game of how small to make the battery but will sacrifice the stop-and-go driving mileage improvements. But it also begs the question, isn't the Lexus RX 400h a large vehicle?

7. Most of these packs are in self-contained, air-cooled boxes. I have yet to see EM measurements on these.

8. Hybrid vehicle batteries are all NiMH but Lithium Ion is on the horizon. There is no acid in these "dry" cells. Many of the current hybrids route the main brightly colored power bundle down the centerline of the floor on the exterior. A first responder most likely wouldn't have to cut through one. He IS more likely to encounter an undeployed airbag where he least expects one to be.

I do agree a diesel would be a good approach, or DI engines, but why not marry that to a hybrid unit? Even better mileage!!! And better still, go to a series hybrid with the diesel or DI engine and run it at its most efficient RPM and put a small electric motor at each wheel (AWD and no transmission!)
1. Mileage: Current numbers for the Prius II at the Hybrid Mileage Database indicates about a 12 MPG difference between USEPA and actual -- a 20% difference. This is not surprising, as Rick points out.

3. Pollution: the Prius's batteries are NiMH, not lead-acid.

5. Complexity: yes, a problem, but this is a general issue with cars as everyone and his brother (usually, the Feds) tells people how to design cars.

7. E-M radiation: unless it's ionizing, produce some studies that prove actual, not hypothetical, harm. This is BS.

8. Acid: See my answer to (3), above.
You might also add this information to your list of hybrid second thoughts.
Just a quick note. Road and Track did an article a couple of days ago about the hazards hybrids pose to emergency works at accident scenes.

Insurance Company Warns of Hybrid Danger
Great analysis. The complexity issue is often ignored, and I'm glad you mention it.

1) EPA mileage - if one drives a hybrid with an extremely light touch, one can approach the rated MPG. However, driven normally, mileage drops greatly.

2) Cost - Not only are hybrids 3-5,000 more expensive in MSRP, but the difference in actual selling prices (due to the hybrid "hype" factor) is even greater. Prius/Highlander/Lexus Hybrids sell at or above sticker, while comparable conventional cars sell at or near invoice.

5) Complexity - When one buys a car, there is the off chance one need to replace an engine, transmission, etc. This type of repair is a multi-thousand dollar repair.

Hybrids haven't replaced one technology with another, they have added a whole new layer with equally expensive components. The Prius has $15,000 (Toyota list price) worth of components dedicated to the hybrid system alone. That includes $5,000 batteries, generator motors, etc. Not to mention the cost of diagnosis and installation.

This enormous potential risk almost mandates the purchase of an extended warranty, increasing the gap in price between conventional and hybrid cars.
Having discovered your blog through the blooger toolbar, I hope you don't mind saying that I have a ebooks site/blog. It pretty much covers ebooks related stuff. Check it out if you have time.
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