Top 10 Myths About Hybrid Cars ~ Hybrid Car Review
Hybrid Car Review: Top 10 Myths About Hybrid Cars

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Top 10 Myths About Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars have become synonymous with a lot of things lately. Love them or hate them, it seems everyone has an opinion on what they are, what they should be and what they are going to be in the future. Surprisingly, and despite all the talk, there are still a lot of people who think that hybrid cars run on electricity alone, or that they cause more pollution than a Hummer.

I'd like to recap some of the biggest myths surrounding hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and, hopefully, at the same time tell you something you didn't know about these cars.

First, the basics you need to know in order to understand what I'm saying below. If you have more than a basic understanding about hybrid cars, please skip ahead to the myths below.

Modern day hybrid electric vehicles are powered by two different engines. The first is an electric motor powered by a battery pack and the second is an internal combustion engine (ICE) that runs on gasoline. The battery pack is recharged in one of two ways, by regenerative braking and/or by the gasoline engine. They all have start-stop capability (the gas engine can shut off when the car stops), and when you start the car, the gas engine may not even come on.

Logos from the Major Car CompaniesMyth #1: All Hybrid Cars Are ____
But hybrid cars are not all the same. There are currently over a dozen hybrid cars on the market, with more on the way. This includes the Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Mazda Tribute Hybrid (soon), Nissan Altima Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Lexus RX 400h, Lexus GS 450h, Lexus LS 600h L, Honda Accord Hybrid (retired), Honda Insight (retired), Honda Civic Hybrid, GMC Yukon Hybrid, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, Saturn Vue Green Line, and Saturn Aura Green Line.

There were a couple of (mild) hybrid trucks available from GM, but they are retired. GM will be bringing back full hybrid version (ex: Sierra Hybrid) using their dual mode hybrid system, plus the Escalade Hybrid. Meanwhile Chrysler is bringing a hemi-hybrid to market, and Honda is promising a global hybrid that they believe will be a Prius killer.

A lot of companies are experimenting with diesel hybrids (although, so far, no one seems willing to double the cost premium and bring one to market) and the larger companies are testing plug-in hybrid cars.

While some hybrid cars can be moved at slower speeds on electric power alone, no gas is used at all (called full hybrids), others cannot move at all without the gas engine running (called mild or assist hybrids). Some are built for fuel economy, others were built for performance. Some have been wildly successful (see the Prius), while others have failed (see the Honda Accord Hybrid and the Insight). Some are large (see the GMC Yukon Hybrid) while others are small (see the Honda Civic Hybrid). There are hybrid SUVs, hybrid trucks, and hybrid sedans out there. Some have large battery packs, while others have small ones.

At the end of the day, you need to investigate each one and see what it is capable of. If someone starts talking about how hybrid cars don't improve fuel economy, for example look at the Honda Accord Hybrid (I've seen a lot of stories that take this premise over the years), you need to look closer than that.

Prius in a BootAlso, each driver is different. While some hybrid drivers are very careful about how they drive and try to maximize their fuel economy (hypermilers), others simply assume the hybrid engine will do the work for them. There is a myth that hybrid drivers are smug about what they are doing. People see them driving slowly in the right hand lane, or driving alone in the HOV lane and assume they are showing off. They also assume that hybrid cars can't break 100 mph.

But hybrid car owners are no better or worse than anyone else. Despite the myth, they still get caught speeding, they do get tickets (see the image, supplied sfjim123 by flickr who says the picture was taken in SF and the driver is a scofflaw who hasn't paid for at least five tickets, thus the boot.)

I admit it, I'm always surprised when I see a Prius pass me going 80+ on the highway. But I shouldn't be. Nor should I be surprised when I see someone suing the car makers for lying about what kind of fuel economy they are getting. Each driver is different and each person will get different mpg numbers.

Each hybrid car and each driver is different and should be treated that way. It doesn't make my life easier since I write about them so much, but there is a lot of diversity out there.

Myth #2: Hybrid Cars Need to be Plugged In
This one is surprising to still see, and yet not surprising at the same time. Hybrid electric cars do not need to be plugged in. The problem, however, is the next generation of hybrid electric cars, called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) will need to be plugged in.

So this one is a myth and not a myth at the same time.

Every time I see a story on how you need to plug in cars overnight, I sort of cringe at the bad reporting. There are no publicly available PHEVs on the road right now. There are test vehicles, out there from the car makers, because the time is coming when they will be available to the general public (as soon as 2009 for the Saturn Vue plug-in, for instance). But they are not out there now.

It's understandable why people believe this one. All of our electronic gadgets need to be plugged in, from cell phones to iPods to laptops. And everyone keeps talking about those battery packs and how similar they are to what you already have. But as of right now, they don't get plugged in, and you don't even have the option to do so.

Myth #3: The Battery Pack Wears Out / Needs to be Replaced in 5, 6, 8 or 10 Years
This one is harder to refute and yet it is still a myth. We have been conditioned by our personal gadgets, again those laptops and iPods and cell phones, to expect the battery will need to be replaced. We just expect it to happen.

But the truth is different.

Hybrid cars were designed differently. The battery packs are actually controlled by the computer to stay within a certain charge level. By keeping it from becoming too full and from being depleted, the battery packs are able to last 'the lifetime' of a car. What that lifetime is still uncertain.

There are no massive returns on hybrid car battery packs. Yes, there has been a recall, there have been exceptions to the rule where the battery pack just won't hold a charge in a single vehicle, but these have been exceptions to the rule. And in every case that I've heard about, the hybrid system, including the battery pack, has still been under warranty. Which means we still don't really know how much it costs to replace the battery packs. A recent search on E-Bay (see the prior link) showed a used battery pack for the Prius cost around $1,000.

If you know of a real case where someone had to pay upfront for the cost of replacing a hybrid battery pack, please let me know about in the comments.

Myth #4: You Will Have to Pay $10,000 to Replace the Battery Pack in X Years
Similar to the Myth above, people assume the battery pack is going to need to be replaced, and at a high price. The truth is the hybrid system, including the battery pack, are supposed to last the lifetime of the car. But if it doesn't chances are very good the car company will replace the battery pack for you for free. The warranty of 100K or even 150K almost guarantees it.

This myth is a little more sinister in that it puts a downward pressure on the used hybrid car market. But so far, it has had little affect, as hybrid cars tend to retain their value even better than their all gas counterparts.

Myth #5: Hybrid Cars Are Worse For the Environment that Hummers
This myth comes from the CNW Marketing 'study' that declared Hummers use less energy in their life cycle (dust to dust) than the Prius. Slate recently debunked this one, so I won't go any farther into it.

But I did want to mention that, like the batteries in normal cars, most of a hybrid car battery pack is recyclable. Toyota even has a $200 bounty set for each pack for when it is sent in.

Myth #6: Hybrid Cars Don't Pollute / Don't run on Gasoline at AllPrius Emissions
Hybrid Electric Cars run by bringing two different hybrid sources together, electric and gasoline. While the electric motor doesn't emit anything, the gas engine does. Since the gas engine is needed less, the emissions are less. Some hybrid cars have won awards because they are so green, and the Prius and Civic Hybrid are usually right at the top of any 'green' list. But that doesn't mean they don't emit something (see image from Bjørnar Haveland via flickr who comments "Those things are supposed to be running on volts and amps, aren't they? Funny thing then, that it comes with the same wee plume of smoke as its carbon-fed colleagues. Hint: Even Priuses are only environmental-friendly if you keep them on an electric diet. ").

If emissions are important to you, you need to investigate the mpg. While the relationship isn't one-to-one, the emissions from a car are highly correlated with the mileage. As I mentioned before, each hybrid car (truck or SUV) is different and your mileage, and therefore your emissions, will vary.

Which brings me to a very important point. Just because it's a hybrid that doesn't mean it's going to have stupendous fuel economy. More and more people are coming to that conclusion, including government agencies. Which is why you are going to see more and more restrictions on hybrid car perks than we have in the past. Just having a hybrid doesn't mean you can enter the HOV lane or get free parking anymore.

Police Blue LightsMyth #7: Emergency Workers Are Getting Hurt When Hybrid Cars Are Involved in Accidents
This one is again hard to refute, because how do you prove that it hasn't happened? (If you've seen a story, please let me know about it).

Hybrid cars do have large battery packs inside, with high voltage wires that emergency workers need to be aware of. Car makers have made the battery shut itself off from the rest of the car when it is involved in an emergency.

They also need to be more aware that the car is a hybrid, because when it is stopped the gas engine may not be running even though the car is still on. First responders are being trained to be aware of these issues (you certainly don't want to cut through a high voltage wire if you need to cut someone out of a car), and you definitely don't want to assume a car engine is off when it really isn't.

But the truth is they are being trained on these issues. Just like they are being trained on avoiding cutting through air bags. I realize that emergency workers are very aware of all the things that can go wrong during a rescue, but as of right now, the precautions they and the car makers have made are working.

Myth #8: You Won't Get Your Money Back on the Premium
This is a hard one to understand. What other car out there do you wonder about getting your money back on? I guess it's understandable since you are paying more for that second engine and battery pack than you would for a single ICE, but it's still funny that only hybrids and diesels are held to this particular standard.

Be that as it may, the standard is there and it has been passed. I know it's hard to believe it because everyone does that initial calculation (if gas costs this much, and I drive this much, and my mileage is so and so, I'll save $XXX a year over buying this other car). Unfortunately, this is a very naive way of calculating how much a car is going to cost you.

By some estimates about half of a cars costs comes from the resale value. (Keep this in mind anytime you see a reporter talking about the hybrid premium. If he doesn't bring up resale costs, he's not giving you the whole story). And used hybrid cars are very hot for a lot of reasons. People are hoping to buy a used hybrid and start saving money on gasoline. That puts a lot of upwards pressure on the used car prices.

Another good percentage of how much a car costs to own is its reliability and its maintenance costs. Well, as I've already mentioned, the hybrid system including the electric motor and battery pack are covered under warranty for a very long time. They also require very little or no maintenance. That just leaves the gas engine and the rest of a car's normal maintenance. Comparably speaking, that should put you even.

But the truth is hybrids tend to be even more reliable than their gas only counterparts. They also cost less to maintain because you need to change the oil less and the brake pads last longer (the regenerative brakes take up some of the strain on the brake pads, which means they last longer). That means maintaining a hybrid car costs less.

Now this assumes you can avoid going to a dealership for maintenance, or at least have a great deal with them. If you end going to them all the time, your costs can escalate quickly.

Hybrid Car Sales Are Up And DownMyth #9: Hybrid Car Interest in Waining/Waxing, Just Look at This Months Numbers
The truth is hybrid cars are very popular and gaining in popularity. All you have to do is look around at all the sites and the number of hybrid cars the car makers are bringing out to know that. But reporters need to talk about something and when they talk about popularity, they usually talk about sales numbers. The problem is they don't seem to want to investigate availability.

Hybrid cars are very popular right now, but they are still being limited in sales. Some car makers are still losing money on every hybrid car they sell (see Ford, GM, and Nissan), but they don't want to be seen as being not 'green' or not being innovative. So they are bringing the hybrid cars to their dealerships in low numbers.

Each hybrid car they sell may be at a loss.

But with enough time and enough sales, the economy of scale will take over and they will start making money off of them. Toyota is making money and I believe Honda is as well (it's not like I know for sure... I'm not part of any car companies and I haven't bothered to ask them if it's true). Mostly that's because they were so far ahead of the others in introducing hybrid cars, which means that the others will catch up.

In the meantime, car makers are trying to make up the difference by selling a lot of premium equipment (NAV units and other luxury items) as non-optional equipment. That way they won't lose as much money.

In the meantime, in general, hybrid car sales are limited by their availability numbers. That's not the case for every hybrid car (see my warning about the differences between each car above, plus the failure of the Honda Accord Hybrid), but it is true overall. That's why it's such a big deal that Toyota is expanding its ability make the Prius. Since one out of every two hybrids sold in the US is a Prius, where it goes, the market goes.

To get a real glimpse at how popular a car is relative to it's availability, you need to see the 'days to turn.' That tells you how long a car spends on the dealership lots before being sold. The Prius has been below the average, even though it's now one of the top 10 cars sold in the US. Which means the demand still isn't being met.

Myth #10: Hybrid Cars Have Only Been Around for About a Decade
This one is sort of a half myth. Modern hybrid cars have only been around for a decade or so. The rebirth of the hybrid car occurred when the first two modern hybrid cars, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, came out almost simultaneously.

But they weren't the first hybrid cars to ever be.

In fact, although it's not well known, gas engine and electric engines competed fiercely way back when the car was first invented for pre-eminence. Eventually gas engines won out through cost and power, but it wasn't a given. And hybrid electric engines were tried out (see the 1917 Woods Dual Power) and have been tried again whenever the cost of gas has become a real issue (see the plug-in hybrid car from GM in 1969).

Honda and Toyota may have begun a real revolution in how hybrid electric cars are made, but they just weren't the first to try.

Conclusion
So that's it. That's my top 10 myths on hybrid cars. This article is longer than I first anticipated, but I still feel like I've left out a lot. It seems I've learned quite a bit about hybrid cars over the past couple of years.

What do you think? Which one is the most annoying myth to you? Do you feel like I left something really important out? Leave a comment and let me know what you think about my list.

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2 comments:

Green & Clean Mom said...

Wow! Thanks for this. It is a lot to sort through but you did a good job at summing it all up. My husband should read! Thanks for the research and information!

Mike said...

I'm glad I could help in some way. I didn't cover everything, but I certainly tried to get the major issues out there.

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