The Toyota Prius is a hybrid vehicle that gets about 50 miles per gallon (mpg), which seems like a gift to Mother Nature during this period of evident climate change events. However, marketing has boasted the Prius and has blinded consumers by the “green” car. Here are some reasons why:
Electric Cars Will Always Outshine Non-Electric Cars
It’s said that burning gasoline has a larger carbon footprint than using electricity does. Generally, it’s conclusive that in many states, driving a mile on grid power produces less “wells-to-wheels” carbon than driving a mile in an average gasoline-powered car.
With some exception, the Prius is slightly better in some states with the dirtiest grids – such as in West Virginia and North Dakota – that use coal almost exclusively. However, with time, America’s power grids will become cleaner with the increased use of both natural gas and renewable energy, and little to no coal power plants. With this being said, electric cars are simply cleaner and will, over time, become exponentially cleaner than hybrids like the Prius.
What’s more, the added cost of fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver several years to have saved money (from fueling costs) relative to comparable new models using conventional engines. It’s now predicted that, in the six years an average individual owns a car, gas prices would have to reach about $8 per gallon before substantial savings from these hybrid cars could be realized.
Hybrid Cars Discourage Driving Less
In our culture, it often seems that we have the habit of improving technology instead of improving ourselves. This exceptionalist mindset means that we believe our actions are incapable of altering the Earth’s system because we can “fix” the issues by creating technologies that allow us to not require a change in our behaviors. However, we must instead create a society that values cleaner behaviors like walking, cycling, driving less, and taking public transportation.
Public transportation is much more efficient than personal-use automobiles. As an environmental activist, I’m excited by the idea of a highly fuel-efficient car being popularized in mainstream society. However, with that development comes the chance that our plans to increase the use of public transit will take a backseat (no pun intended) in comparison to the implementation of hybrid vehicles.
Not Quite the Payback Period We Hoped For
A buyer who chooses the Nissan Leaf versus the Nissan Versa would need to drive it for almost nine years (at today’s gas prices) before the fuel savings would outweigh the nearly $10,000 difference in price. Similarly, the Chevrolet Volt, which costs about $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit, could take up to 27 years to pay off compared to a Chevrolet Cruze. The payback time could drop to about eight years, but only if gas costs $5 a gallon and the driver remained exclusively on battery power.
To clear the air, I’m all for energy-efficient cars, but right now their prices are too high to become a normality in our society. For instance, hybrid vehicles only make up about 3% of the auto industry market. If prices were to come down, perhaps by saving some money on the producer end by limiting material shipments or even through increased government incentives, then maybe hybrid cars could become more of a reality for the common individual.
The Prius Creates Some of the Worst Pollution in North America
It’s speculated that the Prius takes more combined energy to be produced than a GM Hummer does. The nickel alloy found in the Prius’ battery is mined at plants in places like Ontario, Canada, and has caused ample environmental damage. NASA has even used this new “dead zone” around this plant to test moon rovers. This factory has also spread sulfur dioxide waste across northern Ontario, exacerbating the problem even further.
As if it couldn’t get any worse, acid rain caused by the high levels of sulfur dioxide produce great casualties to the environment, such as having harmful effects on infrastructure, plants, and aquatic animals. To top it all off, that very battery is transported through Europe, China, Japan, and the United States. That volume of transportation also has a large carbon footprint considering the fuel that is used to transport these items across the world.
Also, the total combined energy needed to produce a Prius – including electrical energy, fuel, transportation, materials and other factors over the expected lifetime of the car – is greater than what it takes to produce a Hummer. With this in mind, the Prius costs an average of $3.25 per mile driven over a lifetime of 100,000 miles (the expected lifespan of the vehicle), while the Hummer costs only $1.95 per mile over an expected lifetime of 300,000 miles. With these figures, the Hummer will last three times longer than a Prius and will use almost 50 percent less energy doing it.
Hybrid cars do require more energy to produce than conventional cars by emitting more greenhouse gases and, ironically, burning more fossil fuels during the manufacturing process.
Nickel Versus Lithium Batteries in Hybrid Vehicles
The world’s most renounced hybrid manufactures – Ford, Toyota, and Honda – all use nickel batteries in their vehicles. It’s said that switching to a lithium battery would mean “at best a 1 to 2 percent improvement in the vehicle’s performance.” However, I don’t think that takes into account the dramatic weight difference between nickel and lithium batteries that results in different fuel efficiency ratings.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid uses a lithium battery and weighs a staggering 263 pounds less than the Ford Fusion Hybrid. This weight difference is seen in the better gas mileage of the Sonata. According to experts, Honda is consequently switching from nickel batteries to lithium batteries for all of its hybrid cars.
It’s generally important to map out policies when theorizing solutions. Since the nickel and lithium batteries are presumably okay for right now, our policies should model progress in the energy sector. We shouldn’t just come up with easy solutions, but rather plan for the future. We should provide incentives to create new ways, perhaps even cleaner ways, of operating a motor vehicle.Featured Image: Aerodynamic Profile of a 3rd Generation Toyota Prius.