Hybrid vs Diesel, an MPG Falacy

N/A • 12 Feb 2009 • EDITORIAL

South Park was first to rip apart the hybrid owner who confidently believes he/she is saving mother earth through their choice of car. In the episode, South Park residents suddenly become eco-warriors proudly showing off their newly purchased “Toyanda Pious” hybrids. But their new found eco-arrogance creates a giant cloud of toxic “smug” which threatens to devastate the town.

That episode warmed the cockles of my heart! I have seen the smug first hand. A few minutes in the Whole Foods parking lot is all it takes to spot the hemp carrier bags full of eco-narcissism being carried proudly to their hideous looking boring brown Prius. Their owner casting the occassional but easily spotted condescending looks at the unenlightened petrol burners in their midst.

But the joke doesn’t stop with South Park. The real joke is in the real-world value of the hybrid versus other alternative energy vehicles (AEVs). While the hybrid is by far the most popular AEV, it is fighting a losing battle. Our European brothers know much more about efficiency than we do (mostly due to exorbitant fuel taxes) and they have been putting that knowledge to work for years. It’s the dreaded diesel. (Diesel in the US still qualifies as “alternative” in my opinion.)

Stymied unfairly as dirty, loud and inconvenient, diesel has only been in the hearts of big industrial transportation in North America. The tainted image of diesel was created during the last energy crisis when it last tried (and failed) to break the US consumer market. Back then it actually was dirty, loud and inconvenient. My father had a Cadillac diesel. It was horrible. It was even worse when his friend borrowed it and filled it up with regular unleaded. But much has changed.

Thanks to a recent surge of new technology from our friends in Germany, diesel is now squeaky clean and amazingly efficient. And unlike the Japanese hybrid engineers, the Germans didn’t amputate all the oomph from their power plants. And while the hybrid initiative strives for even more smug with plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) that charge off of the power grid, diesel has introduced new fire breathing, turbo-charged, direct injected, ultra low sulphur power plants that actually don’t bore you to death. They whoop the hybrid’s backside in just about every category including efficiency and tree-hugging.

Compare the “revolutionary” Toyota Prius hybrid with a basic 2007 Volkswagen Polo diesel from Europe. If you drive the Prius like a nun with an anxiety problem, you might just get about 45MPG in a decent following wind. The Polo on the other hand gets a whopping 70MPG even if you have a pulse and an occasionally twitchy foot. And as you can see, it comes in more colors than boring brown.

To make matters worse, the Prius is a complicated beasty. It has two interconnected power systems. As a result, it carries a $3,000 to $4,000 premium for the cost of the batteries, electric power plant, energy recovery systems and flux capacitor. The Polo is plain Jane simple but is backed by an airplane hangar full of German engineers who never J walk and debate particle physics on Saturday nights.

The batteries on the Prius are made up of exotic and toxic materials like Nickel Metal Hydride or Lithium Ion Polymer which are heavier than a dead body and only slightly more useful. They are large and expensive and like the battery in your Blackberry, they eventually last for only 10 minutes before they go completely dead. Every time you drive your smug Prius, you are dragging this pile of dead weight around with you. In contrast, the Polo has one tiny battery and a simple yet reliable work horse of an engine that will require modest maintenance to keep it running for 100s of thousands of miles.

The worst aspect of the Prius other than its looks or its owners, is its complete lack of anything remotely enjoyable. It has the acceleration of a three legged horse. You might be saving the planet but you are killing yourself slowly in the process. The Polo doesn’t really do much better performance wise but diesel can scale to monster power sizes. Audi’s R10 LeMans race car has a bi-turbo V12 diesel power plant putting out over 650HP and 1,100 Nm of torque. One of the reasons Audi continues to win LeMans is the diesel engine lets them go further for each gallon of fuel. Diesel is efficient in all sizes.

A little closer to Earth than the exotic Audi R10 racer is the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, the world's first clean green racing series based around the new super efficient and clean Jetta turbo diesel. VW wants to hit home that fun and efficiency don't have to be mutually exclusive. The series features 30 identical Jetta TDI cars that are ultra low sulphur, low emissions but yet race like proper stock cars achieving 170 HP and still get 25MPG in racing conditions. I don't see a Prius racing series anytime soon.

Leaving the Prius alone for a moment to recover from my insults, let’s look at other hybrids in the US market, specifically so-called “green” SUVs. The Ford Escape, the Saturn Vue and the Toyota Highlander hybrids all barely scrape 30MPG. That is great if you’re driving an aircraft carrier or moving an entire continent otherwise it is simply appalling. There is one inescapable fact that we Americans need to embrace: you don’t need to drive a car the size of your house to pick up the kids from soccer practice. If you want efficiency, think small. Think Mini. Think Smart. There is no such thing as a green SUV. It isn’t possible. This is another area we can learn from our European brothers.

The “I feel safer in a larger car” argument doesn't wash when small cars continue to get 5 stars in the Euro NCAP safety tests. Admittedly, being surrounded by SUVs on the 405 in your tiny SMART may be a slightly daunting experience but you're actually more or less equally safe. If you really want to be scared, try crossing the street in Los Angeles. You’ll be dodging SUVs doing 50 with their drivers absent mindedly yakking on the phone. If you think your little girl needs 5 tons of pedestrian liquefying metal wrapped around her when she gets her learner’s permit, take her to a skid pad instead. The best defence is a good offence.

I will admit that diesel doesn’t break our energy dependence on countries that we’ve meddled with and now don’t like us very much. But, I challenge you to name an immediately marketable solution that can cut the energy umbilical chord today. Keep in mind that with minor modifications, diesels can get along very nicely with biofuels. We have a lot of work to do in the area of biofuels before they achieve the right efficiencies but the eggheads are working on it. In the meantime, diesel does help us to use less of that nasty foreign oil. It’s a step in the right direction and it’s available right now.

Finally, hybrid aficionados promise us that the new plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will push efficiency closer to the elusive 100MPG mark. But they are no better than Enron in doing basic math. They always fail to include the cost and impact of the power being sucked from the grid. It isn’t magical fairy dust. When you plug in your PHEV car, you are most likely pulling energy from a mercury belching coal-fired power plant that will expect you to pay for it. So even if you can’t immediately smell or taste the exhaust, you may be eating, drinking, or breathing it later. And you will certainly be paying for it. You are pushing the pig down the pipe. (I love that expression!)

The electric car does have one thing going for it. To be more precise, it has $25 billion going for it courtesy of the Department of Energy which has earmarked the money specifically to invest in developing the electric car market. While I fundamentally agree in this type of incentivization coming from government, it does not need to be limited to electric. It is a classic product development mistake. It is like going to the doctor with a mole and instead of saying "make it go away" you demand he "cut it off with a knife". Fortunately, the doctor will likely persuade you to consider a better method. In the vehicle market, the goal is efficiency, not necessarily electric. Set the goal as efficiency and let the eggheads figure out what technology to use to get there.

My next car will most likely be a neck-cracking pulse-resetting diesel with ridiculous amounts of torque. It will make noise when the engine is running like all cars should. It will have ample acceleration like all cars should. And it will have emissions but only little iddy bitty amounts of it, like all cars should. I’d go hydrogen if I thought it would be ready in time but it won’t be. Hopefully, there are more eggheads noodling over hydrogen vehicles too. In the meantime, diesel is the unsung hero that can bridge the gap. According to a JD Power and Associates 2008 survey, in-car Internet ranked more popular than clean diesel so we have some work to do.


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