The Right Coast

November 17, 2004
What Are Hybrid Cars Good For?
By Mike Rappaport

This piece argues that hybrid cars are not the answer to our environmental problems. But they may make us feel good (until we realize that they are not the answer). Here is an excerpt:

Of course, if gas mileage is the ultimate goal, all of these strategies [used by hybrid cars] could be applied to a “standard” car. A non-hybrid model with the equivalent modifications would significantly narrow the mileage gap with its hybrid sibling. In fact, in normal use, the margin between truly comparable hybrid and non-hybrid cars could be less than 10%-- hardly enough to justify the extra purchase price. And, lest we forget, the hybrid’s gas-saving advantage is not without its own particular environmental costs.

Gas - electric hybrid engines use several large batteries. Creating these power cells requires a couple of hundred pounds of heavy metals-- not to mention the copper used in the large electric drive motors and the heavy wires they require. Mining and smelting lead, copper and other heavy metals is an energy intensive process that generates both air pollution and deforestation. Disposing of the batteries when they outlive their usefulness also raises environmental challenges.

So, if the hybrid’s mileage advantage is minimal, and the technology has its own set of negative environmental side effects, why is hybrid technology so popular, both in the marketplace and in the glossy pages of the car mags?

Americans are fond of turning to simple silver bullets to solve complicated problems. The hybrid solution seems ideal. Want to be environmentally responsible? Buy a hybrid. A hybrid car offers instant gratification, PC-style. It relieves consumers of both guilt and personal responsibility for the broader impact of their daily energy consumption habits. Heaven forbid that a hybrid owner should switch off their central air, or buy less disposable products, or use their car less, to help protect the environment.
Hat tip: Orin Kerr at the Conspiracy.