October 11, 2008

280 SL

This 280 SL was spotted at Pep Boys in State College. It's registered in New York and appears to be in running order (or at least close to it) and though rather rough around the edges has a lot of potential.

State College Clio

Please forgive the image quality, but this was a spur of the moment shot taken on a cell phone. 
Spotted here on campus at Penn State was this Mexican registered Renault Clio. There seem to be a few oddball cars via Mexico running around these parts, such as an MG ZR seen last year. If an opportunity should present itself when I see this car again and have a camera, I'll post something a little more extensive.

October 6, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth About Hybrids

Above: Arguably the world's first 'hybrid' powered car. 1901 Lohner-Porsche

In the late 1990s Honda developed the Insight – the first mass-produced hybrid car to hit the market. It uses both a small gasoline engine and an electric motor powered by both a generating system and nickel cell batteries. The Insight was cute looking, purportedly got 70 miles per gallon, and rated as an ultra low emissions vehicle. There are a few reasons why a person may want to purchase a hybrid-powered vehicle. With the cost of gasoline now over $3.00 per gallon, the appeal of a vehicle that gets better fuel economy is easy to understand. With growing concerns over the environment such as global warming, a car that is rated as having ultra-low emissions is also appealing. So what’s not to like about the hybrid car? Driving a hybrid car is a symbol of just how much you love our earth and are also craftily avoiding paying as much at the pump. If you still wish do drive an obnoxiously large vehicle, you can even get hybrid SUVs from a few different manufacturers.

Unfortunately, what most people don’t realize is that it’s not quite that cut and dry. Somewhat ironically, the biggest problem with a car called the Insight (and hybrids in general) is what you don’t know about them. In the greater scheme, hybrids can actually be bad for the environment and most likely will never save you any money at all, if not simply end up being very expensive in the end.

The notion of an expensive economy car is of course oxymoronic. Yet essentially, this is what vehicles such as the Honda Insight or Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius and Camry Hybrid are like. According to Honda’s website, a base model Honda Civic with a standard gasoline powered engine lists for $15,400. This car is capable of 36 miles per gallon from a four-cylinder engine with 140 horsepower. Respectable statistic for a relatively inexpensive car. The Civic Hybrid meanwhile lists at $23,550. It’s capable of 110 horsepower and can get up to 45 miles per gallon. While this is 9 miles per gallon better than its more conventional brother, the $8,100 more price tag is a bit of an eye opener. Lets say for the sake of example that the average person drives 15,000 miles a year. If you divide that by the fuel economy of each vehicle respectively, you will find that the annual savings in fuel by driving the hybrid civic is 84 gallons. Therefore, if gas is around $3.50 per gallon, you will save just under $300 in fuel per year. That means that at the current fuel price, you would have to drive the car for over 25 years just to break even in regards to initial purchase price.  Rarely do people keep a car – especially an economy car such as a Civic – for anywhere near that length of time.

To look at it another way, CNN Money recently published an article citing a similar example of their own stating: “A hybrid Honda Accord costs about $3,800 more than the comparable non-hybrid version, including purchase, maintenance and insurance costs. Over five years, assuming 15,000 miles of driving per year, you'll make up that cost in gasoline money if the price of gas goes up immediately to $9.20 a gallon and averages that for the whole period.”

Lets say now that just for another example perhaps you actually were willing to keep a Honda Civic Hybrid for 25 years, or in the case of an average 15,000 miles per year, until it reaches 375,000 miles. According to an article published by The Second Supper, the Honda Civic hybrid requires that its battery packs be replaced approximately every 80,000 miles. The cost of replacing them averages around $5000. Therefore, a hybrid with 375,000 miles on it would have had new batteries replaced at least four times in it’s life at a cost totaling $20,000. Remember that the car cost $23,500 to begin with and has undoubtedly depreciated significantly. Those maintenance costs are based on the hybrid battery packs alone. This does not include anything else likely to fail in that time such as the other electronics, the engine and electric motors, and normal wear and tear.

An article on hybridcars.com points out something called the “Dust-to-Dust” report that studied all the new vehicles produced in 2006 and rated them on energy consumed over their lifetime. This factors in production, running, and finally disposal of the vehicle. It then breaks it down further based on the cost of the energy used and the likely lifespan of the vehicle and will actually show the cost per mile of driving each car. The industry average was $2.28 per mile. The Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius both ranked over $3.20 per mile, which is actually more than a Hummer H2 at $3.02 per mile. For comparison a non-hybrid Civic came in at $2.42.

So this leads into the actual environmental impact of hybrid cars. Not all hybrids are rated with the lowest possible emissions ratings as one may expect. In fact, Honda’s Civic Hybrid is rated ULEV or Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle. Interestingly enough though, the Porsche Cayenne SUV rates the same as well. While hybrids do use less fuel and also produce fewer exhaust emissions, they require a significant amount of nickel for their batteries. The nickel is mined from the earth in open cast mines. This sort of mining can be highly detrimental to the surrounding environment. As one source stated, a mine in Ontario that supplies nickel to Toyota has effectively created a wasteland within a 10-mile radius from the pollution and destruction of the process. The nickel is then shipped to a factory in China where it is processed for use in the battery packs. From China, it is then sent to Japan, where the Prius is manufactured and lastly, as in the case of a car purchased in the United States, the finished car is shipped overseas for sale. The amount of energy used in transporting the materials for production and back to the North American market alone must be astounding.

So to sum this all up, yes, hybrid technology does sound like a promising proposition and I’m not claiming there aren't some benefits to it. The problem remains however that this budding technology still leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive purchase a hybrid and clearly not worth it from a purely economical standpoint and the environmental impact is far greater than one would really expect. Raping the earth for material to build hybrids is not a good way to show the earth you care about it. There’s a lot of hype and deception surrounding the hybrid car and anyone considering purchasing one should be made aware of it. 

(This was a speech I wrote for a class at Penn State University. Nevertheless, I think it's worth publishing here as well.)

Below: The Honda Insight - based on an idea Porsche abandoned over 100 years ago.