Hybrids Out, Electric Cars In

Hybrid cars are losing their luster. As noted in a number of articles, including this recent commentary on the Reason Foundation website, they don’t get the superior gas mileage claimed in their EPA ratings. Hybrids may reduce gasoline consumption modestly but not enough to justify the handsome premiums charged by auto manufacturers — as my wife, who paid about $5,000 extra for a hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander last year can testify.

Hybrid sales are slowing, and Ford Motor Co. is backing away from a pledge to ramp up its hybrid production by 10 times, leaving the market mainly to Toyota. Ironically, the federal tax credits for hybrids and the special privileges, such as the right to travel in HOV lanes, will induce American motorists to buy Japanese cars manufactured in Japan. (Most hybrids are made in Asia.) Now, there’s an industrial policy that we can all be proud of!

Meanwhile, the humble electric car is making a comeback. The Wall Street Journal has an article in its personal section today, “The Electric Car Gets Some Muscle.” Manufacturers are shaking up the image of electric cars as a golf carts with windows by improving performance, extending their driving range and adding popular features such as sunroofs. Tesia Motors Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up, is selling a roadster that it claims can reach speeds of 135 miles per hour and run 200 miles per charge. (Let’s hope Tesia’s numbers aren’t as inflated as the hybrids’.)

What does this mean for Virginia? For starters, the economics of electric vehicles are more favorable here because the cost of electricity is below the national average. Indeed, Dominion was pushing electric vehicles a decade ago, only to give up, apparently for a lack of interest. But, then, gasoline prices were a lot cheaper than they are now, and the technology less advanced.

When the state Energy task force looks at energy alternatives for the Commonwealth, it should take a look at electric cars. Short of providing subsidies, always a bad idea, the task force should ask, what regulatory barriers can the state remove to facilitate the widespread use of electric cars? For instance, do Dominion and American Electric Power offer off-peak electric rates for cars that recharge their batteries at night when demand is low?

As I’ve noted before on this blog, every $.20 increase in the price of gasoline sucks about $1 billion out of the pockets of Virginia motorists and transfers it, in part, to countries where mullahs and imams use it to finance American-hating Islamic madrassas or, worse, terrorists. Inducing Virginians to drive electric cars won’t do much to starve the mullahs, but at least it would substitute home-generated electricity for oil, keeping those dollars circulating in our local economy and insulate us from oil-supply disruptions in unstable and war-torn countries.

Everyone agrees that we need to wean ourselves from our oil addiction, but Virginia legislators act as if they are powerless to do much of anything. The Energy study group needs to seriously rethink Virginia’s energy-intensive transportation and land use policies, as noted frequently on this blog, but it also needs to think creatively about ways to jump-start the adoption of electric cars.


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16 responses to “Hybrids Out, Electric Cars In”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Wait a minute, my wife and I each drive similar 4.5 passenger cars. Hers is a VW Jetta, and Mine is a Prius. Prius gets 52 actual MPG and VW 25. At todays prices that’s $3700 difference after 60,000 miles. Even if you bought a few years ago and didn’t have current prices, it is still $3000 difference.

    Her car cost $2000 MORE than the Prius. (She has a luxury model, but still.) Her car is more exhiliarating to drive and more fun (if you like driving), but mine is more civilized all around. No shift lag, more room, quieter, better AC, and sound. Compared to say, a Chevy Cavalier, there is a world of difference. Even without the mileage, the Prius is still a nice car.

    If I let myself get lazy about driving the Prius and drive like a maniac with maximum acceleration and not using the cars best features, then you can get much less mileage. You can get as low as 40 if you really screw up.

    Maybe the people who aren’t getting the claimed and possible mileage have themselves to blame. Maybe it’s like the antilock brakes: once people discovered they could stop better, they started driving closer. The Prius burns so little fuel, you don’t mind wasting a little if you are in a hurry.

    Sure, I’d love to have a Tesla, But at $100 grand its a little out of my reach. Who in their right mind needs to go 135 anyway? (My wife’s Jetta would probably do that, and not even be breathing hard. Totally nuts.) Their production model will be around $80,000, and in a few years they plan to have a sedan for $40,000. You could buy a Prius and gas for a lifetime, with change left over.

    I’d be the first to admit that my wife’s car is insane, particularly for the purposes she uses it. Certainly there is a place electric cars, and for her putting around it would probably be perfect. If the numbers work out as well as they do for the Prius, I’d push for it.

    But isn’t pushing Dominion to provide off peak power at a discount just the government requireing someone ELSE to provide a subsidy? If it was really cost effective to do that, why aren’t time sensitive electic meters more popular for all uses, not just cars? It’s the chicken and egg thing again. Why would Dominion offer a discount to a customer base that doesn’t exist, yet?

    I would guess that the cost of actually producing electricity at night is the same as in the daytime. What is different is the capital cost that is required to meet peak load requirements. You are going to have that capital cost, anyway. So, all Dominion gets by selling power off peak is a little more use from that capital (and more wear on the equipment.) Since the peak load equipment often burns fuel oil anyway, you are changing the location of fuel use more than the amount. And generating and distributing electricity is notoriously ineeficient. That is why cogeneration (community power)makes sense. On a very small scale, that is exactly what Hybrids do: they generate, use, and recapture electic power locally.

    Will we have electric cars and co-generation? Sure. As soon as it makes sense.

  2. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    If cars were built properly there wouldn’t be a “next car”, just new parts.

  3. Charles Avatar

    The way the tax credits law was written, Toyota cars won’t qualify after September of this year. The credits only applied to the first 80,000 hybrids sold by each manufacturer, but also had a 3-month reporting interval. Toyota has already exceeded the limits, so at the end of the interval the credit will be gone.

    The Prius is MUCH better for the environment because it has such low exhaust emissions. There are days in some cities where the Prius would actually CLEAN the air.

    Around here, most people who bought the hybrid did so to save hours of commuting time each week. That is probably worth it to them, even at $5000.

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar
    Toomanytaxes

    Another issue with alternative fuel vehicles that must be addressed is: How would they be taxed to support the roads? With all the hue and cry that more efficient gasoline-powered vehicles are wrecking havoc with the transportation “semi-trust fund” (which can still be raided in tough times despite the campaign promises of many politicians), what would be the impact of a growing number of vehicles on the road that pay no gas tax at all?

    Would the solution be to eliminate fuel taxes and move to a tax based on the miles driven and the weight of the vehicle? GPS and RFID. What about people who drive their trucks and cars outside Virginia? Do they get unfairly taxed as if they drove all their miles in Virginia?

    Or will political leaders break the user-fee link by raising funds from broadbased taxes such as the income and sales taxes?

    If, on the other hand, the state imposes taxes on hydrogen and electricity, how does it ensure that only those who are using these “fuels” for transportation pay or would we create more subsidies for “environmentally correct” drivers by taxing all uses of these “fuels”?

    These issues need to be discussed now or they will be decided by whoever has the most effective lobbyists in the future.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    TooManyTaxes, Those are really excellent questions, which I had not considered. I suspect that we would have to move towards a system that charged motorists on a Vehicle Miles Driven basis — perhaps the mileage could be ascertained during state inspections and reported to DMV. The drawback would be that such a system would not tax the not-inconsiderable traffic of non-Virginians driving through the state — and, as you point out, it would punish Virginians who do drive outside the state.

    Or perhaps there could be special electric meters for car charge-ups. Electric utilities could add a surcharge to the electricity consumption the same way that gas companies add the tax onto the charge for gasoline purchased at the pump.

  6. Virginia Centrist Avatar
    Virginia Centrist

    This is rubbish science. My dad’s hybrid gets good gas mileage. Every other person I’ve met…their hybrid works…

    Rubbish…

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I’m with Virginia Centrist on this. The gas tax penalizes those who drive long distances, and it penalizes them less if they drive cars that poison us less. It penalizes those that drive heavy vehicles that tear up the roads more, and penalizes them less if they drive heavy vehicles that poison us less, as in hybrid transit buses.

    What is not to like?

    If the problem is that more people are driving more fuel efficient vehicles, why is that a problem? We should give them a medal for investing the extra money in order to poison us less.

    Granted, low pollution congestion is still congestion, and the roads still need to be paid for, but all this says is that we are stark raving mad for not having adjusted the gas tax since 1987.

    If the gas taxes were ratcheted upward to match todays realities, such that hybrids were paying their fair share, everyone else would still be paying more. I don’t see the problem.

    As for VMT: nuts. It makes no difference what the gross VMT is. What matters is what we get in return.

    What you are proposing is a guaranteed black market in odometer resets. Either that, or a whole new level of technology and government intrusion through GPS. The gas tax at least gets thse who buy gas on the way through Virginia. (Of course, with a hybrid, you might conceivably make it from one end to the other without buying gas here.)

    If your wife follows your precepts, and drives only short distances every day, then sure, it is going to take longer to get a payback. Why would you pay more for a fuel saving vehicle, if you don’t burn much fuel to begin with? If the answer is ecological ethics, then what is the complaint? Conservation costs money, get used to it.

    I don’t know how many times I have to say this: economically and ecologically, what goes around comes around. There is no free lunch and conservation is not free either. The sooner conservationists wake up to this, the sooner they will have a message that can sell. People will pay the most for things that they think have value.

    If you are going to charge me by the mile, then I might as well drive my dump truck, the ultimate urban assault vehicle, as drive my Prius. If you have a systenm that charges farms three times as much intaxes as they cost in services, then why do you wonder that farms are disappearing?

    If the landowners are continually facing more environmental taxes and restrictions on one hand, and ever increasing proffers and development restrictions for getting out on the other hand, then who can you blame for them wanting to get out sooner?

    Even at today’s gas prices, fuel is cheaper and less polluting than electricity. Especially if you have to create a whole new infrastructure for charging for charging, so to speak.

    Yes, we could use alternative enrgy sources, and we could do it today, if we choose. But, if we do, we will be poorer than those who choose to continue to burn fossil fuels. (At least for the time being.) And we will help them become rich because we won’t be competing for the best resources.

    Basically, fuel augments manual labor. Therefore, those countries that already have cheap manual labor get a lot more augmentation for their fuel dollar than we do. Anything we do to reduce consumption of fuels helps them exponentially. But in the end, we will all be in the same boat.

    What we don’t know yet is when is the right time to begin to switch. I think that time was thirty years ago. I think Jimmy Carter was right. I think that by failing to increase the gas tax when we needed to, we set, more efficient cars, and electic cars, back by fifty years.

    For sure, we set our road system back by thirty years.

  8. Jeremy Hinton Avatar
    Jeremy Hinton

    A couple random comments. First, before the all-electric car makes a comeback, i would expect to see more of these or similar:

    CalCars

    – Electric motor for city driving
    – Braking energy reclamation for improved electric efficiency
    – Conventional engine for long, non-stop trips.

    I already know of two companies with Prius conversion kits, with more models on the way. There are of course the natural debates over whether this will actually save money, or just send it somewhere other than the oil companies.

    Personally, my ideal vehicle (for individual personal transport) would a be a plug-in diesel/electric hybrid running on biodiesel. Of course, i don’t expect to see mass production of this vehicle anytime soon (atleast in the US).

  9. Virginia Centrist Avatar
    Virginia Centrist

    All I’m saying is that this study that claims that hybrids don’t get good gas mileage is phony…I imagine it’s funded by someone or some industry who doesn’t want higher gas mileage standards and wants to deflate enthusiasm for alternative vehicles.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Virginia Centrist, The claim isn’t that “hybrids don’t get good mileage,” it’s that “hybrids don’t improve miles-per-gallon as much as the hype led many consumers to expect.” There have been numerous articles in the popular press on this topic, and it’s confirmed by my wife’s experience.

    Does her hybrid Toyota Highlander get better gas mileage than a regular Highlander? Probably so. Does it get as much mileage as the EPA mileage ratings said it would? Not by a long shot. When you pay a $5,000 premium for a vehicle, you want a significant improvement!

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I don’t understand what the problem is. My Prius comes very close to getting what is advertised, and I use it mostly for highway driving, which is not its strong suit.

    I will say that I didn’t get that at first. It took a while to get used to using the mileage meter instead of the speedometer, and getting a feel for what would produce the best mileage without obstructing traffic.

    I tend to think that the driver is more at fault than the vehicle. The tests that are used to determine mileage are not very real world, but they are consistent from vehicle to vehicle, so while the numbers might not be accurate, they should at least be conisistent.

    At one time my wife and I had identical rabbit diesels. Mine got almost twice the mileage as hers, and my brakes lasted twice as long. When she would complain about her mileage, we would switch cars and I couldn’t find anything wrong with the mileage. Go figure.

    Anyway, with your wifes SUV the mileage may not be that much greater, and yet the actual gallons saved is higher than say the comparison between my wifes Jetta and my Prius.

    I couldn’t be happier with the Prius. Smooth, quiet, comfortable, and thrifty.

  12. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    Hate to be the voice of doom, but electric cars will lose some luster when the capped rates come off and Dominion is charging 10 cents per kwh in 2011. Maybe your extension cords can reach to North Carolina, where the same company will be selling the same power for half that….

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    That’s when cogeneration starts to make sense. You fire up the generator (or PV cells, windmill, etc.) to charge your car and use the waste heat for your space heating and hot water.

    Makes more sense than heating Lake Anna with nuclear power.

  14. kimberly Avatar
    kimberly

    The electric car in a great innovation nowadays, i think is a goop option not only to save money even more now the fuel is very expensive, but it could work to save our planet of the pollution environment. i think costa rica investment opportunities must be approach.

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