Getting Hosed on a Hybrid

Hybrid drivers: Nice try, but your wheels aren’t really saving the planet.

Your environmental concerns aren't over when you buy a hybrid. Photo: ## Business Journal##

Consumer Reports announced Thursday that the mileage ratings on Ford’s hybrid models were inflated. Instead of getting “47 city/47 highway/47 combined mpg” as advertised, the Fusion sedan gets 35/41/39 and the new C-Max wagon gets 35/38/37. That’s a pretty big difference — far bigger than any that Consumer Reports found for other cars.

And it can add up to a lot if hybrid drivers follow the guidance and do a ton of driving — that’s the only way to get their money’s worth, after all. An article this morning in Business Insider offers this perverse incentive for environmentally-minded hybrid owners to spend lots of time on the road:

Hybrid cars get better fuel economy, so the more miles you drive, the faster you will recoup the extra cost [of the vehicle purchase]. To get to the break-even point the quickest, you’ll want to be someone who logs at least an average number of miles annually (12,000 is typical) or more.

When you’re driving those 12,000+ miles a year, should you drive them in the city or on the highway? You’ll get better mileage on the highway, but hybrids really shine in the city, since they recharge when you brake. That’s the beauty of a hybrid! Except the more you brake and recharge that battery, the more long-term capacity the battery loses.

The conventional wisdom these days is that the concern over battery life is exaggerated, though the technology is still new enough that there’s not a lot of great information on it. Honda, Toyota and Ford all guarantee their hybrid batteries for eight years or 80,000 miles. Of course, if you’re dutifully putting lots of miles on your car to make up the purchase price in saved gas, you’re driving a lot more than 80,000 miles in eight years. Besides, eight years isn’t a particularly long lifespan for a car.

And the manufacture of a car is the most intensive polluting part of its life-cycle, so having to buy a new one sooner doesn’t do the environment any favors.

Fully electric cars have simpler motors than gas-powered cars’ engines, and experts say those can last longer because they have fewer moving parts. But hybrids have both, making them the most complex, with the most parts that can malfunction.

Hybrid drivers trying to lessen their impact on the Earth may find they can’t have their cake and eat it too. As Angie reported last week, electric cars powered by coal are no environmental bargain either. In the end, there’s still no way to drive a car without polluting, incentivizing road-building, and encouraging terrible land-use decisions.

18 thoughts on Getting Hosed on a Hybrid

  1. Hybrid or full-EV cars are certainly not “the magic bullet,” but they can have a role to play. I suggest that a lot of the problems you find in private hybrid ownership are mitigated with shared-use, and make economic sense too. Kudos to the wealthy buying hybrids to bring the technology to market sooner, but it’s the rental, taxi, and carshare fleets that can use the technology best. Ultimately, even coal-fired electricity can start to look good if its moving a full bus or train. Demerits to the communities that aren’t stepping up on deploying hybrid-diesel buses, encouraging hybrid taxi fleets, and building connections with other jurisdictions.

    Incidentally, there are already Japanese patents for lithium recovery – it’s simply too valuable a material “to get rid of.”  

  2. That article isn’t telling hybrid drivers to drive more. It’s saying that if you’re a driver who drives that much then these cars may make more sense for you.

    What it isn’t talking about is that getting rid of your car to buy one of these will typically be a net negative in environmental impact, unless your car is pretty old as you’ve increased demand for new cars.

  3. All-electric powered by renewables has potential, but it will never scale up to 20 million cars in CA (with the current technology, that is).

    It isn’t socially desirable to have that many cars here anyway, but the rural population will always be car-dependent, it seems.

  4. I generally agree that we can not hyrbidize our way out of global warming/peak energy, though I feel this post is making the perfect the enemy of better. An all electric car has no range for long distance trips (that are not practically bikable) and I can’t see why getting rid of a standard sedan for a hybrid is not an optimal choice. Also, does thew Consmer Report article give the stats of the true mpg of the C-MAX wagon, but what of the plug in version that allows you to make 20 mile work trips on no gas?

  5. Paradoxically, the most energy-efficient type of vehicle to drive is a very old one. Although the fuel consumption sucks, it pales against the energy required to manufacture a new vehicle.

    Ho hum . .

  6. Tanya, okay no suprise buyers should do the math on how a hybrid purchase will pay off for their driving lifestyle, however your comments on batteries, particularly li-ion is just bad journalism. Nearly all (99%) of automotive batteries are recycled. This includes hybrid batteries and battery manufactures have been capable of recycling li ion for some time (i.e. computer/cell phone batteries) and have made huge investments to
    accommodate automotive batteries. Do your homework before circulating stupidity.

  7. I know youre well intentioned, but I am in this field and hybrids but really electric cars are far better for us bicyclists to ride behind. 

    CA law also guarantees batteries here for 150, 000 miles vs other states. Production is offset in the first three years, it’ s fuel that makes most of the pollution.

    Thank you

  8. Frustratingly inaccurate article all the way around. 

    Canadian hybrid (and probably SF) taxi drivers are getting 600,000 mile equivalents on their first batteries.


    “Experts estimate that 10 to 20 percent of a vehicle’s total lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are released during the manufacturing stage alone.” [source:California Energy Commission].

    That leaves the far majority of 80-90%..for driving!

  9. This article is poorly researched, ostentatiously argumentative, and its conclusion could just as easily be applied to bicycles as cars: “In the end, there’s still no way to [ride a bicycle] without polluting, incentivizing road-building, and encouraging terrible land-use decisions.” As the old joke says, only the dead are carbon neutral.

    If we’re going to argue effectively for non-car alternatives, we’re going to need better ideas than pollution. Cars are getting cleaner. In fact, I suspect that as electric cars begin to take to the roads en masse, we’re going to start hearing more arguments that driving electric is less polluting “per trip” than riding a bicycle, at least using (admittedly skewed) assumptions: the car was recharged using solar, and the rider fed fossil-fuel-farmed meat.

    As usual, the Dutch might have the lead here. They incentivize bicycle use by making it faster, cheaper, and more convenient than driving. They don’t tell their populace to wear hair shirts, not that I’ve seen.

  10. How did they measure the size of the difference? 47 mpg to 35 mpg is actually a smaller difference in fuel consuption than 20 mpg to 12 mpg, even though the difference in numbers is bigger.

  11. Tanya, you wrote a completely misleading lead in the opening paragraph. Consumer Report did not report that Ford is inflating the numbers, it just said that it cannot achieve the stated EPA combined cycle number. There are many reasons for this but let’s be clear about this… Ford cannot advertize a lower number. Ford aced the EPA test and it has to live with that high number by law. No hybrids (not even Prius) can beat its EPA combined number so this is nothing new.

  12. BJToepper – It’s even easier than that to skew the numbers. They’ll just assume that the bike trip and car trip cover the same number of miles. After all, MPG is the gold-standard metric of efficiency, right? Then this will be used as a cudgel to beat down arguments for building bikeable neighborhoods.

    Never mind that few people will replace a 20-minute drive down the freeway with a 1 1/2 hour bike ride. Inherent in using a bike for transportation is living in a bikeable place, and not traveling 5 miles for groceries and most errands. A far better metric to compare the efficiency of travel modes is energy used per unit time. Time is what limits the length of most people’s trips.

  13. Given the number of comments here disputing the claims made in this posting, I think it would make sense to edit it and add some comments about how some of the statements were inaccurate. If there’s a pattern of poor writing and fact checking with these postings, it diminishes the validity of all the postings on Streetsblog.

  14. Hey all, thanks for your comments and fact-checking. @f2f14f1a1d0445e2e53f28395a35fb71:disqus I didn’t realize that’s how mileage rating worked — I changed that line, thank you. And @0de0ac75bf51fb813d15f6aef29aa83b:disqus , while the battery recycling process looks very energy intensive, you’re right that many batteries do get recycled — I couldn’t verify you’re 99% figure though. I cut that line too.

    As for the manufacturing process accounting for just 10-20% of lifetime emissions, @facebook-505675505:disqus , the source I was using, which I linked to above ( says it’s half. I’m sure it depends how much you drive and how good your mileage is. The cleaner a car drives, the higher the ratio of manufacturing emissions to driving emissions. And whether or not a hybrid or EV is nice to ride behind isn’t the point — it’s not so nice to ride next to the coal-fired power plant that’s powering it.

    No doubt, cleaner vehicle technology has a role to play in curbing carbon emissions — but cars still cause more problems than green(er) cars can solve.

  15. Good points, and I like the comment about the anticipated assumption that electric cars may become cleaner “per trip” than the bicycle.  My main problem with all the fanfare about these hybrids and electric cars are that they only seem to focus on fuel economy.  There are many, many other problems caused by motor vehicles that generally don’t get discussed very much.  Even if everyone started driving electric vehicles powered 100% by solar energy, that still doesn’t change the wear and tear on roads, congestion, decrease in quality of life in cities and the associated dangers to vulnerable traffic users, lack of exercise, huge amount of space needed for parking, etc.

  16. This article has a major flaw. It assumes people would drive more to recoup their investment on hybrids faster than they otherwise would. That is an almost ingenuous, but grossly flawed, argument.

    Hybrids might appeal more to people who already drive more and thus can recoup their investment on the premium commanded by hybrids faster. However, hardly anyone would drive more just to burn gas (or electricity) and spend less money than if they were driving a SUV needlessly.

    It is the same argument of saying that people will eat more if they buy a new and more efficient refrigerator because they need to recoup their investment on the new energy efficient model by opening its doors and changing its stock more often. 

  17. @andrelot:disqus The premise that some energy efficiency increases are negated by more usage is sometimes true. Take for example the recent push to get people to use more energy efficient lighting. Often people will opt to increase light levels once they switch to more efficient lighting. However, because CFLs and LEDs are 4 to 6 times more efficient than incandescents, there is still a net savings, even if light levels are doubled or tripled.

    In the case of more efficient vehicles, generally at best you’re talking about a tripling of efficiency by going from, say, an SUV, to something like a Prius. In most cases you’re doubling efficiency or less. Regardless, you’re correct that most people aren’t going to drive twice as far if their vehicle is twice as efficient. They might opt to make a trip they otherwise wouldn’t have made once in a while, but most of their driving will be the same commuting or running errands as before they purchased the new vehicle. I’d really be surprised if a more efficient vehicle caused people to increase their miles traveled by more than 25%. Helping this premise along is the fact that in most places driving is a chore which people would rather be doing only when necessary.

    All that said, I’ve never been much of a fan of hybrids. They combine the complexity of both a gas engine and an electric drive train for a marginal increase in fuel efficiency. For a whole host of reasons, straight electric makes more sense. And EVs already have the range for the vast majority of trips people make. Just as it makes no sense to own a moving van for the few times you move, it makes no sense to worry if your vehicle has a 300 mile range for the rare times most people might need it. Use an EV for your commuting and errands, rent a gas car for the few times a year you might be taking a longer trip. Eventually with better batteries and fast-charge infrastructure, the entire EV range issue will be moot anyway.

    Obviously, making a trip by modes other than personal auto is better, but sadly that won’t be an option for many people for some time to come. EVs represent the best interim solution.

  18. I recently leased a C-Max and love the car.  Rides like Mercedes! Awesome
    riding car!  The bad news is the gas milage is approximately 32.5 MPG.  I
    leased this car with expectation of getting 40 + MPG.

    I also lease a 2010 Prius and Insight both of which have far superior MPG
    performance (40-51 mpg).  I thought this would be a Prius Killer?  As a
    cross over buyer I feel deceived.  I want to support US companies and US
    jobs.  What was Ford thinking when they published 47 / 47 estimates?  I
    would have been ok with low 40’s but low 30’s is not even in the ball
    park.  Mark my words there will be no fix for this.  Ford will have to
    offer to take the cars back or offer cash compensation to offset the
    milage claims.   The EPA estimates will have to be adjusted to the mid
    30’s and sell the cars as is.  Which is ok as long as the consumer knows
    what they are buying.

    A wonderful car which has truly underachieved in the milage department.

    Fess up Ford and put this behind you. This is not a Prius killer.  They
    are plenty of people who will buy the C-Max with mid 30’s EPA numbers.
    But you need be honest with the milage estimates.

    My dealer’s sales and service department have been great!  There is only
    so much they can do.

    Ronald Kramer
    Yankee Ford Customer
    South Portland, Maine

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