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Green Technology: Are Hybrids Ready for Prime Time?

Posted Apr 23 2008 12:00am

greencar.jpgHybrid and alternative fuel vehicles are a great example of rapidly evolving technology that will improve our lives. The question is, does it pay to be an early adopter? Environmental concern and cost savings are typical purchase motivations. Hybrids can also provide a means of publicly projecting that environmental commitment. Flex fuel vehicles (many larger domestic vehicles that can run on 85% ethanol, or vegetable based alcohol) and diesel vehicles (all of which can burn biodiesel, or refined vegetable oil) are also increasingly common.For hybrids, every analysis has come to the same conclusion: they don’t pay for themselves. That $3-$5,000 premium will never come back in fuel savings. Flex fuel vehicles may not cost a dime more than standard (many people don’t realize they drive one), and the fuel costs the same as gas, but ethanol provides less energy per gallon. Thus, flex fuel vehicles actually get lower fuel mileage. Biodiesel, even with a $1 per gallon Federal subsidy, is still more expensive than petroleum diesel. Still, with no cost savings to be had, isn’t there yet a large environmental benefit?With both flex fuel and biodiesel, farm subsidies artificially lower the cost of crop-based fuels and disguise their environmental impacts. Farming consumes LOTS of petroleum, for everything from operating equipment to transporting crops to making the fertilizers and pesticides that are applied. Much ofgettinggas.jpg that fertilizer and pesticide ends up in rivers and lakes, too. The tailpipe emissions from flex fuel and biodiesel are better than their petroleum equivalents, but overall it’s unclear that there is currently any net environmental advantage with eitherHybrids are expensive not so much because of the additional design work and electronics, but because of the increased material content of the vehicle, the electric motor/generator and the battery array. The batteries in particular are typically heavy and made of expensive and toxic materials that are processed in phases around the globe. The hybrid premium goes primarily for dirty industrial manufacturing and transportation, rather than clean design engineering in an office. Plus, if you really compare apples to apples, hybrids only get about 20% better mileage overall.What is a budget-minded and/or environmentally conscious driver to do? Until progress is made on the real promise of alternative fuels, such as growing oil-rich algae in sewer water, we need to remember the basics: keep your tires properly inflated, drive slower, carpool, take public transit, buy the wagon rather than the SUV, etc. Later this year Volkswagen will introduce the cleanest running car on the planet, a turbo diesel Jetta that will get 40/50 miles to the gallon, or 30% better than its gasoline equivalent. Superior mileage, cleaner emissions and apparently more powerful than a hybrid: Wow! But will it draw the proper approving glances in the Whole Foods parking lot? We shall see…–“Tech Dad” John Svoboda is a consumer electronics enthusiast, manager and business owner since the time of the 8-track, and holds a Master of Science degree in Telecommunications

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