Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hybrid Cars Finally Worth Considering

Until recently, I harbored mixed feelings about hybrid cars.  On the one hand, they decreased fuel consumption significantly, while on the other, they were very expensive, and entailed more parts than a standard combustion engine car, which translates to more maintenance costs down the road.  I would never have recommended that anyone buy one.  At best, an environmentally conscious consumer could undertake a lease, pay a bit more in total costs, but feel they'd done a small service for the atmosphere.

In 2012, it seems to me that hybrids have rounded the bend, and crossed a very significant threshold.  In some cases, it appears that the purchase of a hybrid is, in addition to environmentally considerate, cost beneficial.

A new technology like hybrids had a lot going against it in the early going.  Purchase prices were high since production quantities were low and R&D costs were significant.  Also, new technologies are less reliable than tried and true ones; they have not been through the iterations that come through multiple generations of development.

Well, hybrids are no longer the new kid on the block, and I am prepared to endorse them, and am seriously considering buying one myself.  Yes, there are still more parts, which irks the engineer in me, but this is balanced by increased efficiency and serious innovation, which pleases him.  Today's hybrids bring fuel consumption down by a factor of about two.

Hybrid cars require significantly less fuel for city driving than does a regular car, since there is a lot of braking that takes place.  This is where the design of the hybrid is most effective.  In a normal car, braking entails converting the automobile's kinetic energy entirely to heat.  When a hybrid car brakes, its wheels act as generators, thereby converting much of the kinetic energy of the car into electrical energy, to be used later, for accelerating or cruising.

Hybrids have gradually come down in cost.  Let us do a quick cost comparison between two similar vehicles: Mazda 5 (combustion engine) vs. Toyota Prius v (hybrid engine).  I choose the Toyota brand because it had a head start in this technology, and is the clear leader of it.  Let us say that the brand new Mazda 5 costs $26,000 all told (standard equipment, taxes, etc), and that the equivalently equipped Prius v costs $32,000. 

Consumers may look at this and say that the $6,000 difference is a fair bit, but let's examine the amount of money that can be recouped on gas.  Let us say that you intend to drive the car for 8 years, logging 180,000 km before selling it and getting a new one.  If you do a mix of city and highway driving, the fuel economy on the Mazda 5 should work out to 9L/100km, while that of the Prius v will be more like 5L/100km.  This means that the Mazda will burn 16,200 L of fuel over the course of those eight years, while the Prius will burn 9,000 L.  That is a difference of 7,200 L of fuel (about the contents of 7 stoves!).

The cost for one liter of fuel varies depending on where you live.  Let us take it to be $1.25 today.  It will likely be around $2.00 eight years from now.  Let us assume that the average cost of fuel over the next eight years will be $1.65 (it could very well be much more).  In that case, the Mazda owner pays $26,730 in gas alone over the course of eight years. 

That's right folks: we've reached the point where many cars cost less than the fuel they will require to power them... Yikes!  Imagine if a child's toy had a price tag of $150, but required $175 in energizer batteries to power them.  I think this would seem like some kind of scam.  My suspicion is that most consumers have not sat down to do the arithmetic on the car that they currently drive. 

The Toyota Prius v will cost $14,850 in fuel to traverse 180,000 km.  So, while the hybrid cost $6,000 more up front, it offered $12,000 in savings over the course of eight years and 180,000 km.  Without going into the details of amortization, the hybrid seems to have the economic edge.  This edge should more than account for the higher maintenance costs down the road.  A hybrid will have better resale too (can you imagine how antiquated your gas guzzler will seem in the year 2020?).

The final comparison point that should be addressed is the performance of the two vehicles.  For this, I suppose a test drive is a good idea, as the feel of a car is quite personal.  Some enjoy the energy feedback they get from their hybrid as they drive (what percentage of energy has come from the electrical motor), describing it as some kind of video game.  Others need the constant rumble sound you get from a Ford Mustang in order to be satisfied.

I think this decade will see hybrid car sales escalate significantly.  By 2020 however, the fully electric car will become the smart choice.  It is conceivable that less than half of the cars on the road will require gasoline by the year 2030.  Here's hoping.

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