A rant on the futility of plug-in and electric hybrid cars

Several of my workmates have recently been getting hybrid cars to replace their perfectly functional gasoline fueled transport.  While I don’t particularly care for hybrids I feel that replacing a functional car with a new car “just because” is dumb.  You don’t replace your house “just because” do you?  Next to your house and your children the family vehicle is likely your next largest expenditure of your hard earned dollar.  So you buy a hybrid because you’ve swallowed the “save the environment” kool-aid without actually doing any research of your own.  That’s exactly what many short-sighted, narrow field of view, tree hugging hippie types would love for everyone to do and here’s why I think it’s dumb.

The EPA’s “new MPG” calculation estimates mileage at a much lower value than my personal experience of calculated fuel economy.   In the past the EPA mileage matched my calculated mileage to within 1 mpg of real-world use.   Why the change in calculation by the EPA then?  To make *electric* cars look more attractive.  Not hybrids, though they certainly benefit, but pure electric cars.  IMHO economy of a vehicle shouldn’t be measured in miles per gallon, it should be in dollars per unit of distance.  The reason for this is that as plug-in electrics become more common it *will* drive electric utility costs up as the public utilities grow infrastructure to meet demand.  It is inevitable if plug-in electrics are adopted en mass.  This pisses me off because that means that I, as a non-plug-in owner, will be subsidizing your electricity consumption for your plug-in vehicle.  I guaranty you will not be charged a higher cost per kWh than I am but generating that much more energy comes with an associated infrastructure cost.  You don’t subsidize my fuel costs, why should I subsidize yours?  I’m already subsidizing your car through federal government credits ($1,450 on the Honda Insight and a staggering $7,500 on the new Chevy Volt)  but you don’t subsidize my car do you?  Manufacturers know they can’t produce these cars at a reasonable price point so they look to Uncle Sam (that’s the 53% of us that don’t get our income taxes back) to bail them out, again.  Remove those subsidies and recalculate the real-world cost of these cars and they very quickly become unattractive.  An additional real-world variable the calculation should include the cost of periodically replacing the very large NiCd or NiMH battery pack that most hybrids and plug-ins.  If you make these assumptions I suspect the difference is no where near as great.  According to Wikipedia the cost of the battery pack for a Honda Insight is $1,968 with approximately $900 additional in labor.  There are cited examples of people replacing the used-up battery with a $300 aftermarket or reconditioned battery.  Do you trust your life and the lives of your passengers to a battery that costs 85% less than what the manufacturer can produce it for?  If you’ve ever seen a NiMH or Lithium battery burn you know what I’m talking about.  This is a another testament to the short-sightedness of people jumping blindly onto the hybrid/plug-in band-wagon.  I fear what happens when they realize their well intentioned misgivings and nickel-based or Lithium-based battery packs start showing up in large quantities as electric cars are abandoned to scrap.  The haz-mat equipped recycling centers will *NOT* be able to grow fast enough with the current EPA guidelines.

If you truly want a tree-hugger car get a 2002 VW Jetta TDI.  As reported by real owners to the EPA,  the 2002 Jetta TDI gets between 44 and 52mpg.  A friend of mine that has one gets between 47 and 55mpg depending on how much freeway and traffic time he has.  Added benefit, you don’t have to replace the batteries at a huge expense and there’s not the grotesque environmental impact of caustically mining the nickel for the batteries.  If you’re an informed tree hugger, that’s what you get.  If you want to maximize your economy in a car that will last a long, long time that’s what you get.  If it made financial sense to replace my 1996 F350 turbo diesel that’s what I’d want to replace it with.  With 340k miles on it there is little indication that it’s going to fail any time soon.  It weighs 6000lbs but still manages to get 20mpg which makes it impractical to assume a car payment until diesel and regular unleaded gasoline are separated by at least 50%.

There are a couple dirty little secrets about diesel engines.  One  is that gasoline is a solvent while diesel is a lubricant.  Guess which one is more conducive to engine wear?  Diesel engines just last longer and have more energy per gallon of fuel than gasoline.  They also typically require much less maintenance than gasoline engines do.  There’s a reason why long-haul trucks and freight trains use diesel engines.  It used to be that diesel fuel was the cheapest since consumers wanted gasoline but that started changing in the last decade.  Since EPA began requiring ultra-low sulfur diesel for all public road travel and as diesel becomes more commonplace the cost of diesel has steadily increased.  Currently it is priced on par with or higher than premium unleaded.  Even then it doesn’t make fiscal sense to get rid of my 3 ton truck.

Diesels used to make that ugly soot and clatter like mad.  Modern diesel engines have none of that.any more.  Diesels always run with more oxygen than the fuel can burn thus the soot. Manufacturers, primarily in Europe where diesel is approximately $6/gallon or 25% cheaper than gasoline at $8/gallon, have met customer demand and that is no longer the case.  A modern turbo-diesel lasts a long time, gets greater return on energy per gallon of fuel and of course significantly better mileage.  If you want the ultimate in electric hybrid get rid of that stupid gasoline engine and put a small turbo diesel in.  Run the generator off a constant velocity transmission much like diesel locomotives do.

Diesel also has the added benefit of being significantly less flammable than gasoline which will be useful when your plastic hybrid car gets crushed by a city dump truck, long haul truck or the last ghettoized Cadillac.  Obviously that doesn’t mean it won’t burn, it’s just harder to get lit without compression.  That reduced flammability will at least make the body easier to identify.

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