The Hybrid Hypocrisy

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So we’re “addicted to oil.” This revelation comes straight from the lips of the former Texas oilman currently occupying the Oval Office, who used the State of the Union address to announce a sweeping series of initiatives to reduce the our voracious collective appetite for petroleum. A central part of his plan is an effort to improve the fuel economy of the cars and trucks plying our streets and highways. Long term, he’s excited about alternative technologies like hydrogen; in the short term, this has taken the form of a veritable blizzard of incentives aimed at buyers of hybrid cars from your federal and state governments.

Let’s add some of those up:

The basic idea behind hybrids is pretty simple, and very smart: essentially conventional cars with traditional internal combustion engines, with an additional electric motor and a large, rechargeable battery to power it.

The battery’s energy comes partly from the gas engine, and partly from braking. When you hit the brakes in a conventional car, the brake pads and rotors convert all the potential energy stored up in the car’s inertia into heat. In a hybrid, the electric motor is used to help brake the car, in the process converting your speed back into electricity to be used the next time you accelerate.

The rest of the savings from hybrid cars comes from the fact that conventional engines are sized and optimized for something you don’t do all that often: acceleration. Hybrids use smaller engines than normal, but provide acceptable acceleration by using the electric motor as an extra boost when you really need it. When you’re just cruising at a steady state, you reap the benefits of a smaller, more efficient engine.

The problem with giving incentives for hybrids as a class, though, is that at the end of the day, it’s mostly a technology to make cars go faster with less waste. Many hybrids get worse fuel economy than slower conventional cars, and are even marketed based on their performance.

“The Accord Hybrid is the first hybrid vehicle that combines superb fuel economy with truly exhilarating performance,” Honda said when introducing a new Accord Hybrid with worse gas mileage than a non-hybrid, four-cylinder 2006 Honda Civic whose wheelbase and interior legroom are nearly identical to the larger Accord. “Acceleration performance from 0-60 miles per hour and from 50-70mph is reduced by one half second compared with the already powerful and sporty Accord V-6 Sedan,” the press release continues.

The same holds true for some SUV-based hybrids, like the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Lexus 400h. In each case, the hybrid technology is being used to push an inefficient aerodynamic shape through the air faster.

Lest this seem overly negative, I do think that hybrids are a great idea. The fact that I don’t yet own one has more to do with my desire to avoid expensive depreciating assets than any instinctive or reactionary aversion to the technology. But I have to question why the government calls on taxpayers to subsidize faster luxury SUVs.

Why doesn’t the buyer of the fuel-efficient Civic get a tax credit? Or how about the people who choose not to own a car, and *gasp* take public transportation? Conserving energy will never come without some sacrifice. It’s time we admit it.

Seen in this light, hybrids don’t sound all that different from another device that’s been occasionally bolted on to internal combustion engines since the late seventies: the turbo. Fundamentally, turbochargers use a car’s exhaust gases to make a small engine make more power only when needed — when the car is accelerating. The rest of the time, a turbocharged car reaps the benefits of its smaller engine, making much better gas mileage than a non-turbo car of equivalent power. So if the government is really interested in helping find more economic ways to go faster, I’ve already figured out where I’ll use my turbo subsidy:

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