Rude Awakening for Hybrid Dreamers

Hybrid-electric cars are the flavor of the moment for environmental campaigners.  Activists like Arianna Huffington, Larry David and Leonardo DiCaprio urge us all to “break the chain” and drive them.  Al Gore, meanwhile, used the previews last week of the scientifically implausible disaster film The Day After Tomorrow to commend them, saying, “I think the new fuel-efficient vehicles represent ethical choices.”  Yet there are a few problems with this dream of a hybrid tomorrow. Surveys show that people are highly resistant to them; their owners are starting to realize that they aren't quite as fuel-efficient as advertised; and when it comes to their expense, a new study suggests that lack of access to affordable cars hurts minority employment. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Global marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates recently completed a survey, the 2004 Consumer Acceptance of Alternative Powertrains Study, which looked at what drives people to choose hybrids, conventional gasoline cars or clean diesel-powered autos.  The study revealed that current hybrid owners are very different from conventional car owners:


“The attitudes and opinions about economics, technology, and the environment held by owners of hybrid-electric cars distinguish them from the other groups.  Issues on which the owners of hybrid-electric cars hold extreme positions are: interest in helping reduce vehicle pollution, willingness to pay extra for “green” products, and thinking of oneself as an avid recycler.  Owners of hybrid-electric cars also have the most extreme expectations that fuel prices will be higher in the future.”


It should come as no surprise that current hybrid-electric owners tend to be pessimists who think “green,” but that should also underline that people who don't think “green” are much less likely to turn to hybrids.  Value-for-money is more important to most people, and the $4,000 premium attached to hybrids puts many off.  Even if the current high price of gas continues to rise, the average time that people own their hybrids is not enough for that premium to be paid off by savings in gas purchases—and that holds true even considering that hybrid owners hold on to their cars longer than other owners.


As the Power study concludes, “The value, familiarity, and low cost of the gasoline engine are challenges to the wide acceptance by consumers of any alternative.”  The chiding of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Hollywood celebrities and Vice Presidents-turned-movie critics is unlikely to affect that much.


Yet even those who already own hybrid electric vehicles are beginning to turn restive.  It seems, for instance, that the owners are simply not getting the fuel efficiency they thought they were buying.  John DiPietro, a road test editor of the automotive website, explained in a recent article on (“Hybrid Mileage Comes Up Short“, May 11, 2004) that hybrid drivers hardly ever experience the actual miles per gallon advertised by the EPA (Brock Yates alerted TCS readers to this issue back in 2002).  Most automobiles would have actual miles per gallon performance of approximately 75 to 87 percent of the EPA's rating.  However, data from Consumer Reports' extensive road tests suggest that the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius averaged well under 60 percent of the EPA's reported miles per gallon when operating on city streets. The Civic Hybrid was getting only 26 mpg in the city.


Pete Blackshaw was particularly passionate about hybrid technology and greater fuel efficiency when he bought his Honda Civic Hybrid, so much so that he started a blog on the subject.  Yet his experiences did not turn out the way he expected, as he encountered the problem of lower-than-expected fuel efficiency coupled with inadequate customer support from Honda.  After his blog was publicized on Wired and Slashdot, he was deluged with a wave of advice on how to drive his car:


“Don't drive fast.  Check the tires. Careful on hills. Don't drive fast. No quick starts. No short trips. Turn off air conditioner. Use cruise control. Don't drive fast. Don't use the stereo. Ignore the meter, focus on the actual tank! Read the manual! Wait for 5,000 miles. No speeding. Wait for 10,000 miles. No, 15,000 miles. …

“I now feel smarter and wiser. But not terribly satisfied. I've tried just about everyone of those tactics, with little success. Perhaps I just picked the wrong hybrid.”


As Blackshaw points out, there is a serious problem if the cars are being marketed on the basis of fuel efficiency (and the J.D. Power study confirms that this is the main reason anyone outside the environmentally-committed would buy them) but they do not actually achieve the advertised efficiency (at least without having to adopt specialized driving habits).  He is right to call this a potential Achilles' heel in the advertising strategy for hybrids.


Yet perhaps there is another factor to bear in mind.  A recent study by University of California researchers Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll found that lack of access to affordable automobiles was contributing to the black-white employment differential.  Simply put, African Americans without cars are unable to enter the suburban job market as they simply can't get to their potential work places (Hispanics are less badly affected because they are not as segregated residentially from the white population).  The researchers found that “raising minority car-ownership rates to the white car ownership rate would eliminate 45 percent of the black-white employment rate differential and 17 percent of the comparable Latino-white differential.”


So those who are urging fuel-efficiency laws that would have the effect of raising automobile prices or who want everyone to drive already expensive hybrids might stop to consider the unintended consequences of their demands.  By restricting access to cheap cars, they would put minorities—especially blacks—out of work.  There's no doubt that alternatives to the conventional gasoline engine (like clean diesel, which the J.D. Power study found more attractive to the ordinary consumer than hybrids) will become more affordable and practical as time goes by, but trying to force the issue, especially by calling it an “ethical” matter, runs the risk of producing some very unethical outcomes.