Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Hybrids and Hypotheses

Ross Richie from Boom! Studios, in order to cheer me up as I ride the percoset smoothie, sent me a link to this CNN story. Car hackzors are tweaking the Prius, adding a plug-in technology to get in the vicinity of 250 miles per gallon. Toyota itself just kicked out some promo on its new concept car, the Fine-N -- a fuel cell/battery hybrid. (via Treehugger) Sure, for now just a concept -- but the Prius was just a conecept car less than a decade ago.

I drove the last model Prius for two years, and have driven the 2005 model since March. The first Prius was the best car I've ever owned ... until the second. The hatchback Prius won a slew of awards from car magazines, and I can honestly say that while the old Prius felt a little half-steppy (and was undeniably a compact), this new one is just a straight-out fine automobile. The fact I spent barely over $200 bucks on gas -- living in LA no less -- for the all of 2004 was a sweet kicker.

I'm constantly hearing how there's no economic advantage to owning a hybrid over the course of the car's lifespan. Well, bullhockey. I don't doubt that number's technically correct, but I believe it's the wrong metric.

First, what you really want to look at is the effect on your actual monthly living expenses. The Prius is no more expensive than cars in its class, so its monthly payments will be equivalent. When you factor in how much less you're paying per month on gas, that seriously changes the amount of actual cash-out-of-hand we're talking about.

Second, we're not really comparing the Prius to other cars in its class. The relevant meta-comparison is to the SUV's which flood our roads now. THOSE are the vehicles that need replacing, both for safety's sake and our dependence on foreign oil. When you do that comparison, it's not even close. My car only (?!) gets twice the mileage as a friend with a comparable compact -- it gets FOUR TIMES the milage of the SUV's the majority of my friends drive.

Third, most people are unaware that the Prius is super-low emissions rated. This creates an overlooked cascade effect. The longer a hybrid spends in its battery-driven mode, at low speed, the longer it has zero emissions. Cars spend longer times at low speed in heavy urban areas and highway gridlock scenarios. Essentially, the worse the traffic, the greater the comparitive benefit of the hybrid's pollution profile. The cities that need the help the most would automatically get the greatest benefit.

Kevin Drum recently quoted (and no, I'm way too stoned to track it down) a study which re-iterated that there's no "real" advantage to buying a hybrid. It's only just as convenient -- so if you're driving a hybrid, you're doing it for some other reason than financial incentive.

That made me think: what a perfect example of just how fucking useless as a society we've become. We can't even bring ourselves to do the right thing when it's only JUST as convenient as doing the wrong thing. And that's not even considered odd. Even sadder.

To tell the truth, I think Toyota's done a shit job of marketing the Prius/hybrid idea. The fact I still need to explain, several times a week, that I don't need to plug in my car is just ridiculous. I understand that's about to change, and I look forward to the new PR push.

However, all this is related to larger issues we as a people have with technology. It's all about the grand gesture -- Bush promises to dump billions into the hydrogen economy, which is still decades away. The Space Shuttle should have been retired or evolved away ten years ago minimum, but we needs our bipeds in space. Our biggest threat now is loose nukes, but we spend pennies on that while pissing money up a rope to build our magical missile defense space shield. Don't even get me started on "Mars, bitches!"

Note that I'm not saying we should stop spending money on those other projects (well, missile defense at the very least needs a vicious, thorough project review, but that's another rant) -- what I'm saying is that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A coherent, grown-up use of science in public policy will include the things we can do today, not just the things we want to accomplish in ten years. But there's no fun in that. Just realism.

This may even be related (or, might be the drugs talking) to a deeper disconnect in our society between everyday life and science as it's perceived. Science -- particularly as it's taught in high school -- is presented as a rarified world/skill set to which one a certain few need apply. This mindset supports the whole "duelling experts" theory, which flourishes simply because most people don't apply their own common sense to the science they read about. They simply shrug and move on.

But all science is no more than streamlined common sense. It's a toolbox, a way of thinking. That's the beauty of the scientific method -- anyone can make a hypothesis, test it, compare the results. It's both elegant and ruthless. The scientific method is the original open-source code. A great number of the current scientific "controversies" would disappear when explained simply, and the available proof shown. Of course, in science as in so many other things, some people's careers depend on making an issue appear more complex than it actually is.

We need to change the way we think of "Science" -- capitol-S the mysterious realm of geniuses and experts -- and start as a society valuing "science" -- small-s the method of using reason to examine and understand the world around us.

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

My b/f is a Toyota tech. I drive a Scion xB, he drives an older Corolla. We both plan on switching to the prius (or if it's out yet, a newer hybrid) within the next 10 years. I don't understand how people can NOT drive a hybrid. They cost exactly the same (and in some cases LESS) than other cars. You pay less in gas for the lifetime of the car. They're cleaner. And god damn the prius is a cute car.

--Anonymousey

Jean-Paul Cardier said...

You know, I grew up loving the idea of the hydrogen economy. But just over 18 months ago, I read a great Scientific American issue that changed my mind.

The writer pointed out that the biggest polluters in fact are not cars, but coal plants. And that moving to a hydrogen car where the fuel was being generated by coal was not in fact an improvement, but a change in where we were polluting.

His point was that what we should be doing is to move our cars to hybrids as soon as possible. Retire coal plants in favor of natural gas, build more Wind, geothermal and solar plants. Once coal and preferably nuclear power are retired, then move to hydrogen.

This is a lot more doable than trying to get our economy off of petrochemicals all at once. And it takes time to build the infrastructure necessary to support hydrogen, or electric, or whatever alternative.

peejay said...

As much as I love the idea of hybrids, the thing you didn't touch on at all was the issue of battery disposal. Battery packs like that used by Toyota in the Prius, contain up to 28 groups of six Ni-MH battery cell. Nickel-metal-hydride also contains electrolyte that, in large amounts, is hazardous. More on that and the lifespan of said batteries at:
http://carpoint.ninemsn.com.au/portal/alias__carpointau/tabID__6491/ArticleID__5487/DesktopDefault.aspx

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute there, Rogers.

You *don't* plug it in?

Where do they electrons come from? Hamster on wheels?

Do some of what Toyo ain't: explain.

Anonymous said...

jean-paul brings up an interesting issue with hydrogen/fuel-cell vehicles. It's not much help if you're just moving the pollution over to the generating plant. However, it should be pointed out that an ordinary car's combustion engine is monstrously inefficient compared to fuel-cell vehicles. Converting other fuels to hydrogen or electricity for fuel-cell vehicles can already reduce the overall pollution produced and hopefully that will improve even more in the future.

I don't have numbers to compare that to hybrids though so I couldn't say what's better and by how much. Hybrids of course have the extreme advantage that you can use them anywhere right now, just like any other car. Fuel-cells need to be recharged (slow) or refueled with hydogen (not available everywhere).

TimB

Bill Cunningham said...

The major switch in the public's viewpoint toward hybrids will come about not through "how fuel efficient it is" or "how good for the environment it is," BUT when Toyota reaches deeper into the psyche of the motorist and makes a car that people can ask, "How sexy is that?!"

Hummers came to their status through rarity and their symbolism of power and authority. Same goes for other SUVs.

You make a hybrid sexy, and the public will beat a path to the dealership...Don't have the stars talk about being responsible (Leonardo DiCaprio), but how sexy the car is...(we all know that most stars are the most irresponsible creatures anyway. We don't listen to them for responsibility lessons. We look to them for fashion advice, style, and how to have fun).

You tell a guy that he can get laid in his hybrid - sold!

You tell a woman how cute she looks in her hybrid - sold!

Then you tell them they're going to save money on top of that!

SOLD.

The Awful Writer said...

I'm waiting for a hybrid mini-van. I need more space than a sedan or the typical SUV. I might have to wait awhile as mini-vans seem to be low in the list of vehicles to hybridize.

Mike said...

Anonymous:

Nope, you don't plug it in. The battery recharges from the friction of the brakes. If you don't use the brakes enough (like when you're cruising on an Interstate), then the battery recharges from gasoline.

That's why the Prius gets better mileage in the city than the highway.

Mikhail Capone said...

Hybrid car batteries should last the life of the vehicle according to pretty much all sources, and at the end of their life they can be recycled. Toyota even gives money when you send your battery back.

And if hybrid batteries are such a big deal, why don't I hear the same people who complaint about them complaint about regular car batteries? After all, they've been around much longer and there's infinitely more of them around.

Mike said...

Awful Writer:

The Toyota Sienna hybrid minivan is coming, but probably not until 2007.

Meanwhile, I think the Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV and Ford Escape hybrid SUV are out now.

But I can't vouch for the quality of ANY of these vehicles.

Mikhail Capone said...

Toyota already has a hybrid van in Japan. It's a big smaller than the North-American Sienna, I think.

Kent said...

Toyota isn't marketing the Prius because they don't need to. They sell themselves. And they could be selling a whole lot more if critical constraints in the supply of components such as batteries wasn't restricting current production levels.

I think Toyota intends to come out with 7 new hybrid models by 2007. Once the component supply bottlenecks sort themselves out and Toyota starts to get into serious volume I expect you'll see serious marketing.

Myself, I'm waiting for the hybrid Sienna. Told my wife the other day that we've bought our last gasoline vehicles. We're going to drive the cars we currently own until they either die or until an alernative fuel solution is available. Currently I do a lot of driving with 5 or 6 people in the car so a prius isn't viable. But a hybrid Sienna certainly would be.

Alex Epstein said...

Soon as they make a hybrid I can fit my whole family into, I'm buying it. Until then, it's gotta be the PT.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. The PT is considered a light-truck. Its existence allows GM to create more polluting SUVs etc because of the way light trucks are weighted when computing pollution averages for manufacturers.

CKL said...

My wife and I have had our 2005 Prius for just over a month, and we love Love LOVE it.

The funny thing is that the highly visible energy monitor and consumption graph have totally changed the way we drive-- it basically turns the car into a video game. So far, we're averaging just over 47 MPG and drove more than 450 miles on our last tank of gas.

Something else rarely mentioned is that the Prius is pretty powerful, since it can use both the gas engine and electric motor to propel itself. I don't have the specs handy, but my wife says it feels comparable to the Ford truck she used to drive-- and that sucker was geared low.

Keith said...

A friend in Maryland told me there's a waiting list 18 monthes long for the Prius up there, so I don't think it's necesarily the marketting that's flawed, though I agree with Bill Cunningham, if they're smart, they'll slap a mustang-style body on a new model and do some adds to pimp that thing. The waiting lists would double over night.

Emily B. Langton said...

I've been coveting a Prius since the new models came out. My mom and stepdad have one so I've driven theirs and I just love it. It's the perfect LA car - it's small enough to park easily and gets the best mileage in stop-and-go traffic.

My stepdad is a physicist who used to build and race electric cars as a hobby. This is the first commercially produced hybrid he's bought, which I consider a pretty strong recommendation.

Rogers said...

Alex:

space was an issue with the last car, but the new one is frikkin huge. five adults comfortably plus the hatchback.

DougBot said...

I think there's a six-week waiting list for Toyota and Honda hybrid cars where I live. They can't keep up with production NOW, let alone if there were more demand for them.

If only our domestic auto manufacturers had this problem. Instead, they crank out the H3, which only gets a third of the mileage of my car, instead of a quarter! Now that's progress, I guess...

When was the last time the feds raised the fleet standard for mileage for auto makers? The Clinton years? (Seriously, I've been trying to track this down for a while now.)

Gas hit $3/gallon today, so that 12 mpg in a Hummer has to really hurt at this point.

Bill Cunningham said...

The problem is that even with all the waiting lists and whatnot, they are still selling cars to just those who are predisposed to buying this type of car anyway.

What needs to be done is a marketing campaign where it is actually unsexy to have an SUV. Unsexy to have a Hummer or an Escalade. Unsexy to be a gas guzzler.

That market segment is the one that needs to be attacked (metaphorically speaking). Otherwise, you have a huge divide in the market. What you want is to swing the other guy around to your point of view.

A "sexy hybrid" campaign would do that. Remember - grab them by the balls and the rest will follow.

The Awful Writer said...

Enough about hybrids. The real point of Mr. Monkey's post was the poor state scientific thinking in the US. Let's talk about that.

>the beauty of the
>scientific method -- anyone can
>make a hypothesis, test it,
>compare the results.

I'm not so sure this is true. Some people just seem incapable of thinking like this. They leap to illogical conclusions, base their choices on 'gut instinct', scoff of your well reasoned argument because they don't like your looks, or think that the only useful knowledge is that which is revealed from the divine.

And maybe that's not such a bad thing. If everybody thought the same way, then everybody would come to the same conclusions, and then what would happen to art, culture, and innovation. Nope, I believe the world needs both the rational and the irrational to keep from becoming a sterile, boring place.

What a trick! I totally diverted the topic from what Mr. Monkey was talking about. Sorry about that. Oh well. I’ll post it anyway.

Anonymous said...

they are still selling cars to just those who are predisposed

This is true, but they could be hitting all of the people who want them, not just the ones who know several weeks (or months, depending on where you live) in advance that they need a new car.

When my wife's car dies, we will need another car right then -- not several weeks down the line. The plan, of course, is to get the money together & actually order the thing before we need it, but how often does that happen?

And as a side note, my friends who bought a Prius right after they were available not only did the weirdly counter-American thing of waiting for it, they did an even-further weirdly counter-American thing by saving their money ahe, and buying it in cash.

Anonymous said...

they are still selling cars to just those who are predisposed

This is true, but they could be hitting all of the people who want them, not just the ones who know several weeks (or months, depending on where you live) in advance that they need a new car.

When my wife's car dies, we will need another car right then -- not several weeks down the line. The plan, of course, is to get the money together & actually order the thing before we need it, but how often does that happen?

And as a side note, my friends who bought a Prius right after they were available not only did the weirdly counter-American thing of waiting for it, they did an even-further weirdly counter-American thing by saving their money ahe, and buying it in cash.

Woodstock said...

I have to agree with the person who commented about the waiting times: while Toyota may not have done a spectacular job of marketing to Jane and Joe Sixpack and getting them to switch from their gas-guzzling, American-made SUV, they've grabbed all the low-hanging fruit of people who are only *slightly* aware of hybrids (certainly, they've blown the doors off Honda's attempts to sell the Civic and Accord hybrids). Though whoever thinks the Prius is cute, I think, needs to take a closer look at something that's actually cute for comparison. It looks like a bug; the instrument panel's in the wrong place, and from the outside at least (none of the dealers here have them for test drive so I can only judge from my peeping Tom peerings when one is parked on the street) it looks like you're sitting in a hole in the ground.

I don't think it would hurt anything if people started asking car makers: So, when are you coming out with a hybrid? After all...if we want to buy it, they'll build it, right? ;-)

Dave Lartigue said...

Excellent article. Our next car will undoubtedly be a hybrid (our current car would be one if we could afford to switch right now). The point about how it's not enough for the right thing to be the right thing, it also has to be demonstrably more convenient than the wrong thing.

vhsiv said...

Here's the article about several Prius owners who have modified their vehicles to get well over 200 miles to the tank:

Engineers modify hybrid cars to get up to 250 mpg - SFGate.com

Rogers said...

instrument panel's dead ahead over the steering wheel -- what you're seeing is just the energy monitor/mapquest screen. And again, it might seem to ride low fomr the outside, but inside is pelenty high enough and plenty comfortable. The only hink is getting used to that short hood.

Justin Mason said...

'What needs to be done is a marketing campaign where it is actually unsexy to have an SUV. Unsexy to have a Hummer or an Escalade. Unsexy to be a gas guzzler.'

Is that not just an LA point of view? I've always considered SUVs to be about as sexy as a sumo wrestler's belly, so that's already the case. I can't wait to replace my current car with a Prius, in a year or two.

Bill Cunningham said...

But Justin - everyone around the world watches what LA does! With all the celebrities here - "what happens in LA doesn't stay in LA." It gets plastered all over magazines and broadcasts all over the world.

Snoop Dogg calls up Chrysler and asks for a couple of free cars - and they give it to him! It's good PR for Snoop to be seen riding in the car.

This is what we're fighting.

The Dummy said...

Very thoughtful post.

sunny said...

Hybrid can be sexy cars too!

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