November 18, 2004

CHANGE THE CULTURE, NOT THE CAR (via Robert Schwartz):

The Truth About Hybrids (Bob Elton, The Truth About Cars)

Americans are fond of turning to simple silver bullets to solve complicated problems. The hybrid solution seems ideal. Want to be environmentally responsible? Buy a hybrid. A hybrid car offers instant gratification, PC-style. It relieves consumers of both guilt and personal responsibility for the broader impact of their daily energy consumption habits. Heaven forbid that a hybrid owner should switch off their central air, or buy less disposable products, or use their car less, to help protect the environment.

Hybrid technology embodies America’s "solution of the day" syndrome. A quarter of a century ago, the diesel-powered car was going to free us from dependence on imported oil. A while later, the turbocharger was set to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine and liberate us from foreign oil addiction. About a decade ago, the California Air Resources Board thought that battery-powered electric cars were the answer, cleaning the air as they saved the world’s petrochemical resources.

The problem with the "solution of the day" is that few of these “easy” solutions actually work. Automotive history is littered with failed miracles, from the kerosene-driven Stanley Steamer to the rotary-powered Skycar. Time has proven that the only innovations that persevere in the marketplace are the ones that deliver real benefits. No amount of hype can obscure, for long, the lack of results. When boosters call hybrid technology an “interim” solution to our energy needs, they’re more right than they even know.

It's always amusing on Curb Your Enthusiasm that they drive a hybrid for ideological reasons but then drive it everywhere and all the time. How about staying home and making dinner a couple nights a week?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2004 8:32 AM

People who think hybrids will reduce our dependence on oil must also wonder where the supermarket keeps all the meat-making machines.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 18, 2004 8:48 AM

Where in the article does it provide factual evidence that Hybrids are NOT a beneficial advance?

If your point is that we suffer from "silver bulletism" in the US, I'm with you. OTOH, it appears to me that there is nothing wrong with incremental & tertiary innovations that reduce demand for resources.

To David's point, I direct him to Peter Huber's hypothesis that each innovation that "saves energy" simply leads to greater consumption, which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. (I have a hybrid - now I drive everywhere)

It's not that I disagree with y'all, it's just that I see no point in ridiculing hybrids. BTW, my father-in-law bought a Toyota hybrid, and it is quite nice. (not that I'd buy one any time soon)

Posted by: BB at November 18, 2004 10:07 AM

For me hybrids seem to be a more "exciting"
variant of using more efficient lightbulbs, insulating homes better etc., etc.

Probably worthwhile but not earthshattering.

In a sense the ho-hum nature of the technology
suggests that it is not a magic bullet solution.
People who inject every conversation with
tales of Hydrogen Cars (or cars that run directly
on water for that matter) are the real magic bullet seekers.

Posted by: J.H. at November 18, 2004 10:16 AM

My suspicion is merely that if the car truly saved an appreciable amount of energy, it would be so cost-effective to get that everyone would do it.

Posted by: John Thacker at November 18, 2004 11:23 AM

BB: It is accepted wisdom of the right that CAFE standards always result in our using more oil by decreasing the cost of driving per mile driven.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 18, 2004 11:23 AM

It's even more amusing when you see the HUGE luxury SUVs rumbling down to the Recycling Center.

SUV -- When one parking space just isn't enough.

Posted by: Ken at November 18, 2004 12:08 PM

This might be interesting in a few years.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at November 18, 2004 12:41 PM

For the vast majority of vehicles on US roads, gasoline is NOT the biggest per-mile expense, and so for most American households, the difference between $ 1/gal gas and $ 3/gal gas is just increased irritation at the latter.

Uncle Bill:

Cool. I hope it pans out.
There's a guy in India who's altered the cylinder heads of engines in order to create more turbulence, and he too has reported more power and fewer emissions.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 18, 2004 9:26 PM

"Where in the article does it provide factual evidence that Hybrids are NOT a beneficial advance?"

RTWT. It is not so much that they are not beneficial, as that they are way overhyped. They are rigged to produce spectacular numbers on the EPA test cycles. The real world benefits are less clear.

The Toyota Prius is a very nice small medium car. If they made the same car with a conventional drive train from a Corolla. It would still get excellent mileage, maybe not as good as the hybrid, but in the high 30's. It would be lighter, use less toxic materials and be a lot cheaper.

You can do straight comparisons on the Forde Escape hybrid, which uses the same 2.3 L 4cyl engine as the low end model. my guess is that if you spend much time on highways at all, you will be much better off with the non-hybrid version as you will not be draging around the extra weight. You will save $7,000 up front.

But OJ's point is correct. Technology is a McGuffin: named of course after Alfred Hitchock's favorite plot device, the McGuffin, the object that every character in the story searches for believing it will solve his problem. In Hitchock's movies, however, the real issues are the relationships between people, not the physical objects they seek.

One of my favorite examples:

Miserable on the Job?: It Could Be the Lighting, By Jared Sandberg, From The Wall Street Journal Online, June 11, 2004:

"The fax machine may be maddening and the computer may promote hostility, but no office gear can put you in a funk as quickly as fluorescent lighting. At best, it provides the light of a cloudy sky. At worst, it's the source of physical maladies, and a creepy and synthetic downer. Far from the come-hither glow of candlelight, fluorescent bulbs cast a hell-and-back pall over everyone. . .

"Commercial builders love fluorescent lights because they're so efficient. They run on about a quarter of the electricity that incandescent bulbs require, and they last roughly 10 times as long. The problem is, most office workers end up getting a lot more fluorescent light than they need, pretty much canceling out that efficiency. Many companies also leave their lights on all night long, probably because no one can find the switch. It's an example of how corporations, as they attempt to maximize efficiency, often minimize it instead.

"The lighting in most offices is much brighter than it needs to be, especially with computers," producing glare and eyestrain, says James LaMotte, a professor of optometry at the Southern California College of Optometry.

"People apply efficient lighting stupidly," adds Naomi Miller, who runs her own design firm and formerly worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center. "There are a heck of a lot of offices that are very badly lit."

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 18, 2004 9:41 PM

Michael -

Hot rodders have been doing that for years, albeit with the 'power' part of the eaquation in mind. Also, affordable custom magneto and spark systems exist that discharge several times per stroke to more completely burn the mixture, leading again to increased power and efficiency.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at November 19, 2004 10:30 AM
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