Hybrids not so promising a panacea

Retired General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz claims that the high production costs of hybrid vehicles is pushing up the sticker price of non-hybrid cars.

“GM will lose money on hybrids,” he said recently. “We will continue to build them — and the cost will be spread across other cars.”

Lutz also believes hybrid cars will never make up more than 10 per cent of the U.S. market — now the market share fluctuates between a lowly one and two per cent in North America.

Toyota — the biggest hybrid manufacturer — disagrees. In response, a Toyota release revealed, “We will strive to make a million hybrids a year and as we achieve economies of scale, hybrid prices will come down.

“Hybrid vehicles are more complex, so there is a premium over non-hybrid vehicles, but we believe the overall cost of ownership, with the lower running costs, outweigh the initial purchase costs over non-hybrid cars.”

Hate to be a party pooper, but I think both are optimistic projections. There’s much talk about the eco-desirability of hybrids by people in my circle but when it comes down to actually buying one, few do. Hybrids have been around for more than 10 years and there are more available now than ever before yet the technology struggles to crack the two-per-cent market-share barrier.

The difference in CO2 emissions between hybrids and cars powered by conventional gas engines can be significant. However, costs to the consumer are what drive most purchase decisions, not eco-friendliness.

The BC Automobile Association 2009 Hybrid Cost Study is not encouraging. The Honda Civic Hybrid was the only success story in pure cost savings. After five years of driving, the savings were calculated to be a measly $1,771 when compared with the regular Civic. The Toyota Prius was ranked against the Toyota Matrix, as it exists only as a hybrid, which maybe a fair comparison but not a favour-able one. Though the former spewed out 51 per cent fewer emissions than the latter, the Prius cost $4,732 more to operate.

It was a much worse story with most other hybrids currently produced. You would likely have to own most hybrids for at least seven or eight years to get into the break-even territory, which, I wager, is just not practical for most people. And the numbers will get worse after the new Harmonized Sales Tax wipes out the current Provincial Sales Tax Exemptions on hybrid purchases.

Plug-in hybrids are on the horizon, which will enable limited all-electric propulsion for short distances, thus reducing operating costs. However, we have no indication what premium will be tacked onto the already expensive hybrid car sticker prices.

For urban use, the greatest hope seems to lie with all-electric cars. In the case of extensive highway travel we will likely look to such cars as the Chevy Volt, which is essentially an electric vehicle drawing energy from a gas driven generator once the battery has drained. In 10 years, just maybe we will be driving fuel cell vehicles, but don’t hold your breath.

One last observation. It seems most taxi companies in these parts are operating fleets dominated by Toyota Prius hybrids. The way I see these vehicles driven around town — accelerate, brake, accelerate, brake — I doubt they are achieving anywhere near the fuel economy or emission reductions attainable when operated in a more judicious manner.

Photograph by: Handout, Automobile Journalists Association of Canada