January 9, 2013

Why Discrimination is as Senseless for Cars as it is for Humans

Vive la différence, right? Among humans is precisely our riotous, exuberant spectrum of differences that makes our social interactions so riveting. Even the Dutch, that most egalitarian of societies, sort their young into different high schools: vocational, college bound, educational, etc. according to their ability and inclination.

But if the Dutch government were to institute a rule that says only kids taller than 6ft may attend the college bound high schools, that's called discrimination. Because your height has nothing to do with your scholastic potential.

Such an arbitrary line has been drawn in the vehicular world, in the exclusive favouritism bestowed by the US administration's on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Let me be clear about this: I think hybrid and EV technologies are marvellous, and certainly bring us a large step closer to a reduced carbon footprint and reduced dependence on oil imports. But if you're really into an "all of the above" approach, it's time to broaden the scope of what constitutes a "green" car. Because EV and hybrid technologies have their limitations.

The REAL emissions of an EV.
While it's true that EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, they derive their electricity mostly from power plants that run on fossil fuels, that convert heat to electricity with an embarrassingly low efficiency. An EV running on coal-generated electricity can have a larger carbon footprint (per mile) than a frugal conventional car with an internal combustion engine (ICE) running on gasoline.

So unless your EV is powered by your solar array or windmill, you may not call it a zero emission vehicle.

Some hybrids are more equal than others.
Sure, a hybrid SUV will have higher MPG than a conventional ICE one. But all the hype surrounding them masks a pesky but crucial detail that many hybrid SUVs still have fuel efficiency that is significantly lower than those of high-efficiency gasoline (or diesel) powered cars. Think of the Cadillac Escalade hybrid, of which the fuel efficiency is distinctly underwhelming: 20 / 23 mpg (cty/hwy).

In the EPA's list of 2007 hybrid family sedans (see table below), the Toyota Prius takes pride of place: no surprise there. The Honda Civic Hybrid does nearly as well, but the other six cars in the list get less than 40 mpg. There are non-hybrid cars that do better than that.

For instance, the 2012 VW Passat TDI gets 43 mpg out of its turbodiesel engine, better than six out of eight hybrids from the EPA's list from 2007. It does that without the environmentally problematic manufacture of large batteries, and without the weather sensitivity.

In Germany you can buy Passats that do quite a bit better than 43 mpg. So it's not surprising that hybrids and EVs are much less popular in Europe than here in the US. Their energy labels on new cars indicate the per-kilometer carbon emissions: only that determines the sales and road taxes, quite independently of engine technology.


2007 Hybrid Family Sedans

Lexus GS 450h
Saturn Aura
Honda Accord
Nissan Altima
Toyota Camry
Honda Civic
Toyota Prius
VW Passat TDI (2012)

Six years on, better hybrids have reached American shores: the Passat is now bested by eight MY2013 family sedans and crossovers, up from two in 2007 - but there are still plenty of hybrids that do worse than 43 mpg.

I repeat: I've nothing against hybrids and EVs. If I lived in a climate that was kind to EVs, that is what my family would drive. But if you're serious about bringing down the total carbon footprint of the national fleet you can't afford to put all your green eggs in one basket. (Just the green eggs, no ham: ham has a huge carbon footprint).

Eventually, of course, we need to reconsider the way we move ourselves around. But for now we need to deal with our inherited infrastructure of sprawling suburbs, so we must stay open to whatever technology will help lower our total footprint, as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

A carbon tax would help immensely: a tax on fossil fuels would be directly proportional to the number of miles you drive, and inversely proportional to your car's MPG, just the right kind of incentive to drive the national MPG up fast, without the need for a tracking device in your car.

As far as perks like reduced parking fees or reduced highway tolls: It's easy to install a device that, when queried, will respond with the MPG of your car as evaluated by the EPA. The higher your MPG, the lower the tolls or parking fees levied: wouldn't that be a cool way to put in an incentive?



  1. I have to admit that before reading your blog and really looking at the numbers, I always assumed a hybrid of EV was a better option because it had to get better mpg than a regular gas engine. Right? Boy was I surprised. I am glad to see more higher MPG cars in the US, but I wish the trend would move faster.

    We just purchased a new vehicle (well, about a year and a half ago now). I was so disappointed to find that in the 10 years since we had bought our last car, the MPG had not changed one single digit! We are a family of 5 and need a larger vehicle so we were looking at mini-vans. OK car makers, you have another 10 years! Let's go!

    1. Good news, Kristina: as CAFE2025 kicks in (which requires the national fleet of light cars to have an average of 54.5mpg by 2025), we are going to see a widening choice of gas sippers. Already, the average for new cars sold in May 2012 was 6% higher than for May 2011. I think you will have a pleasant surprise the next time you look for a new car.

  2. I am really excited to see a shift toward better gas mileage. I thought we would have seen more demand for it sooner, along with smaller cars, because of the steep rise of gas prices. I can't figure out how people have become so complacent about it all. Whether it's a hybrid or an EV or a better conventional car, I do hope we see some real changes sooner rather than later!

  3. It’s a good thing that car dealers and companies are now producing electric cars (EV) cars which is one way of promoting campaigns for green movements. It’s just that dealers should also provide enough charging stations and car parts to support this car so that they could attract more consumers.


You have an opinion: Let's hear it.
(Comments are moderated; please be patient).