Hybrid FUD

I’m getting really fed up with the ridiculous FUD that people are spreading about hybrid cars.  In this post, first I’m going to call attention to some of the more outrageous garbage that people are saying about hybrids.  I’d also like to examine the various reasons why people are inclined to talk trash about hybrids.  Once we understand what drives these people, it’s far easier to see why they spread their disinformation. 

The latest, stupidest bit of crap “news” that I saw about hybrids is that hybrid cars are “so quiet that pedestrians can’t hear it when it’s starting up or idling, and they often walk right into the path of the moving vehicle.”  Give me a freakin’ break.  Sure, hybrids are quiet, but this is just stupid. 

Perhaps the most common hybrid myth is that they don’t live up to their EPA reported gas mileage.  This one isn’t exactly a myth; it’s just disingenuous to imply that it’s a phenomenon unique to hybrids.  As most people know, most cars don’t live up to these estimates!  The EPA tests are done under ideal conditions (i.e., low speeds, no A/C, etc.) and rarely reflect what people actually achieve in regular driving conditions.  These ratings are for comparison purposes – so you can get an apples-to-apples comparison of two different cars.  Depending on how you drive your car, you may do better or worse.  According to an article about hybrid fuel economy on About.com, “There are owners that meet or beat the EPA’s estimates on a regular basis, while others are below the estimates.”  ‘Nuff said.

Another popular myth about hybrids is that they are actually more expensive to own than regular cars.  While this is a fair topic, I think the people who have examined it haven’t weighed all the variables properly. 

First, there’s the sticker price.  Yes, hybrids are generally priced higher than the same car as a non-hybrid model.  However, the gas savings that a hybrid owner will realize over the life of the vehicle may very well offset that price difference.  But what is perhaps even more important is that this myth is actually bolstered by another myth: many people are under the impression that you can’t negotiate the price on a hybrid because they are in such high demand.  We’ve all heard stories about people paying above sticker price for hybrids, right?  That’s stupid.  From experience, I can tell you that this isn’t true.  I negotiated a great deal on my hybrid.  So that cost differential doesn’t have to be as big of a gap as you might think.

Another component of the total cost of ownership (TCO) myth is that hybrid batteries need to be replaced frequently, costing the driver a significant amount in maintenance fees.  This isn’t true.  As a recent BusinessWeek article points out:

The standard warranty on hybrid batteries and other components is between 80,000 and 100,000 miles, depending on the manufacturer and your location. But that doesn’t mean the batteries will die out at 100,000 miles. The Energy Dept. stopped its tests of hybrid batteries – when the capacity remained almost like new – after 160,000 miles. A taxi driver in Vancouver drove his Toyota Prius over 200,000 miles in 25 months, and the batteries remained strong.

As for the cost of a replacement battery, the article also points out that there is “little to no information about the cost for replacing a hybrid battery, because it hasn’t been a requirement with today’s models.”

Another component of the price equation that many detractors overlook is the significant tax incentives that help offset the cost of buying a hybrid.  My 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (4×4) will likely net me a $2,200 tax credit come next April. 

The last thing I’ll say about price is that, for many people, buying a hybrid isn’t just about saving money on gas.  Many people, like myself, buy hybrids for other reasons.  Perhaps the most important reasons are that hybrids are better for the environment and they reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  Those are things that many people are happy to invest in. 

The final stupid hybrid myth I’d like to dispel is that somehow hybrids pose a threat to first responders in the event of an accident.  “Oh no!  All them liberals and their ‘lectrified vehicles are gonna kill the righteous firemen and EMTs!”  This, like the other myths, is stupid.  First responders are trained to handle many dangerous situations, including those posed by a hybrid electrical system.  The following is from a Toyota press release:

In the Prius, there are numerous safeguards to help ensure safe operation for drivers and protection of emergency response professionals in the event of an accident. High-voltage cables are located away from areas that workers might access, are painted orange, are shrouded in metal and have specific automatic disablement mechanisms to ensure the lines would have no voltage in them if an accident occurs.

Additionally, beginning with the first-generation Prius, Toyota has developed manuals and assisted in training exercises to ensure correct information is disseminated. These manuals are available on-line to all emergency response personnel. Most importantly, Prius hybrids have been on U.S. roads for five years and Toyota is not aware of any personal injury in the U.S. related to hybrid or EV electrical systems.

So, who are the people talking all this trash, and why are they so full of shit?

The most obvious naysayers are the manufacturers of gasoline-only vehicles.  I strongly believe that these major corporations are behind most of the FUD about hybrids that gets repeated in the media.  They stand to lose money when people buy hybrids, and stand to make money from people who do not buy them.  Their motivations are pretty clear.

The next group that likes to trash hybrids are what I call the “smug contrarians.”  These people don’t have anything to gain financially by knocking hybrids.  Their motivation is different.  You see, there are some people who take great personal satisfaction in pointing out what they perceive as the ironic consequences of someone else’s “naive” actions.  For example, these people just love to tell you things like this:

“You know, lots of people think that starving yourself is the way to lose weight.  But that will actually cause your metabolism to slow down and you’ll burn even less calories!”

“Most people think that you should whisper when you have laryngitis, but that actually stresses your vocal cords more and makes it worse!”

The smug contrarian loves to illustrate how smart they are by showing you that they don’t believe any of the common misconceptions that “most people” believe.  Chances are you know one of these people, and, unless they happen to own a hybrid, you’ll
probably hear them use this approach to explain why hybrids are for suckers.  They are particularly fond of the TCO argument:

“Most people think you’ll save money by buying a hybrid, but if you actually calculate the costs of owning one, it’s MORE expensive.”

As I pointed out earlier, there are a number of factors to this calculation, and it’s not clear that the TCO is actually higher for a hybrid.  But the smug contrarian doesn’t care if it’s true – they want it to be true.  They’re inclined to believe anything that helps reinforce their status as the knowledgeable loner among their foolish peers.

The media have also been an accomplice in this disinformation campaign.  The media like to latch on to perceived irony, much like the smug contrarians, though with different intent.  I don’t think it’s malicious; rather, I think they’re simply looking for a scoop – something that their audience doesn’t already know and won’t expect.  From that perspective, taking a position that’s contrary to the conventional wisdom is simply a gimmick to grab people’s attention. 

I’ve yet to come across any argument against buying a hybrid that wasn’t easily debunked or of dubious origin or both.  As hybrids continue to capture more market share, the proponents of these arguments will have an increasingly hard time spreading their stories.  It will be particularly interesting to see the “flip-flop” of the big auto manufacturers when they go from trashing hybrids to trying to sell them. 

You could even argue that this flip-flopping has already started to happen.  In 2004, Robert Lutz, GM’s Vice Chairman of Product Development came out very strongly saying that building hybrids didn’t make economic sense.  But next year, they plan to introduce the Chevy Tahoe as a hybrid.  To be fair, Lutz was specifically saying that compact hybrid cars didn’t make sense, and that SUVs were a better option.  So, it’s not a complete contradiction.  However, he justified this statement by citing the price of gasoline – then $1.50/gal on the average – as the reason it didn’t make sense.  The current price is around $2.36/gal.  Considering that the national average was over $3.00 just a few short months ago and hasn’t been below $2.00 for over a year, I think it’s safe to say some new calculations are in order.  Especially if Dubya makes good on his thinly-veiled threats to invade Iran, a move than many economists believe would drive the price of oil to a staggering $100/barrel. 

That’s all for now, folks.  I’ll be sure to let you know if I hear any new hybrid myths.  If you know of any other FUD that I might have missed, please feel free to add a comment below.

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