Green Vehicles: It’s the Math, Stupid

Via the New York Times:

Payoff for Efficient Cars Takes Years

Ed Moran’s new Toyota Prius was programmed by the dealer to make him feel good about his gas savings. A dashboard display compares the fuel consumption of the Prius and his 2001 Ford pickup truck.

“Every time I go to the store it will tell me how much money I saved,” said Mr. Moran, a horticulturist in Ames, Iowa.

Like more and more Americans, Mr. Moran is looking to a fuel-efficient car to help soften the financial blow of ever higher gas prices.

Shoppers have more options than ever to fight back, including hybrids, plug-ins, electric vehicles and “eco” or “super fuel economy” packages.

But opting for models that promise better mileage through new technologies does not necessarily save money, according to data compiled for The New York Times by TrueCar.com, an automotive research Web site.

Except for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.

That is true at today’s pump prices, around $4, and also if gas were to climb to $5 a gallon, the data shows.

Gas would have to approach $8 a gallon before many of the cars could be expected to pay off in the six years an average person owns a car.

Analysts say the added cost of the new technologies is limiting the ability of fuel-efficient cars to gain broader appeal. Hybrid sales have surged more than 60 percent this year, but they still account for less than 3 percent of the total market. Plug-in cars represent a minuscule fraction of sales, with General Motors even halting production of the Chevrolet Volt in response to less demand than it expected.

“The point where a car can actually go after a mass-market audience is when the pricing starts making sense on paper,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president for market intelligence at TrueCar. “If they want these technologies to be mainstream, pricing still needs to come down.”

The rest here.

But this is nothing new. Here’s what I posted back in 2008 when Tom Friedman came up with the crackerjack idea of setting gas prices at $4/gallon:

Tom Friedman wrote earlier this week in his plan to save the world by setting a $4 a gallon fuel price in the US:

I was visiting my local Toyota dealer in Bethesda, Md., last week to trade in one hybrid car for another. There is now a two-month wait to buy a Prius, which gets close to 50 miles per gallon. The dealer told me I was lucky. My hybrid was going up in value every day, so I didn’t have to worry about waiting a while for my new car.

You know what is one of the least environmentally friendly things you can do? Buy a new car, even a Prius:

As Matt Power notes in this month’s issue of Wired, hybrids get great gas mileage but it takes 113 million BTUs of energy to make a Toyota Prius. Because there are about 113,000 BTUs of energy in a gallon of gasoline, the Prius has consumed the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of gasoline before it reaches the showroom. Think of it as a carbon debt — one you won’t pay off until the Prius has turned over 46,000 miles or so.

There’s an easy way to avoid that debt — buy a used car. The debt has already been paid. But not just any used car will do.

It has to be something fuel efficient. Like, say, a 1998 Toyota Tercel that gets 27 mpg city / 35 mpg highway miles. The Prius will have to go 100,000 miles to achieve the same carbon savings as the 10-year-old Tercel. Get behind the wheel of a 1994 Geo Metro XFi, which matches the Prius’ 46 mpg, and the Prius would never close the carbon gap, Power writes.

Why does Tom Friedman hate the Earth?

So, let’s combine the two stories: Hybrid cars will never pay for the gas they save and are hurting the planet. But don’t worry, they’ll save the U.S. economy — some day.

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