Controversial Study Rates Hummers Over Hybrids... For Now

A friend pointed us to an enormous study of cars undertaken by Art Spinella and his team at CNW Market Research. It's called "Dust to Dust" and it tracks the energy used in creating, operating, and scrapping numerous different types of cars, even taking into account the different amounts and types of pollution caused by production in different countries (including whether factory workers are likely to commute via public transportation). The surprising result is that based on those numbers, it's possible to claim that Hummers are, at the moment, a more energy-efficient choice than hybrids.

Before you swallow your gum, though, consider some of the relevant factors. Hybrids are new enough that no one really knows how many miles you can put on one before they fall apart. When you're discussing cost per mile, that's an important question. CNW went with Toyota's expected lifetime miles figure for the Prius, 100,000, but it's unclear how accurate that is (some hybrid Priuses in use as taxis have reportedly exceeded that figure by a considerable margin). In addition, conventional cars are made with established technology where the high discovery costs have already been paid; hybrids, by contrast, are still undergoing serious development and change, so the R&D; costs are high and it's much harder to recycle the pieces of the vehicle when it reaches the end of its life. The nice folks over at theWatt got Spinella on one of their podcasts and asked him to clarify these and other points. Interesting quotes from that interview and the study itself are below the fold; they make it clear that hybrids are still the environmentally sound way to go.

(Please read this entire post before commenting.)"[This study] would be totally different in three years," said Spinella. "The hybrids will look significantly better. The new hybrids they are developing now—the new ones that I've seen, Prius III and Prius IV—are so much more simplified. They'll do what the current versions do, but with far less complexity, lighter motors, more recyclable parts, and longer lasting components. The current Prius, for all intents and purposes, will be the Model T."

The report is enormous, but the final chapter is short and simple:

To be quite up front, there is no actual conclusion to this study. It is, hopefully, only a beginning of a discussion about the social cost of energy.

Just as an example of some of the issues future reports from other sources and investigators must consider include those already pointed out in this report but should increasingly note the small items in the calculations. Just a few:

  • The type of material used other than major panels or understructures have important impact (albeit seemingly small overall) such as chrome. It is one of the most difficult and expensive to make and dispose of. The pollution and clean-up cost for such material far outweigh its seemingly insignificant contribution to a vehicle's appearance or cost.
  • "Manufacturing" must include suppliers and the design, development and manufacture of support machinery, not just the use of those machines. Human labor is far less energy intense than a robotic milling machine, even though there are clear cost advantages when replacing human labor with robotics.
  • Dies, molds and related equipment are more complex for more technologically advanced vehicles. This can be the difference between a Maybach and a Sonata or between the Scion xB vs. the Scion xA. More bending, more components, more cost.
  • Some portion of the worker transportation to and from work at all levels of the auto design/develop to disposal can be a critical component in the overall energy expense. This relates in part to where those manufacturing plants are located be it in China or Tennessee and what the infrastructure demands are to support that manufacturing plant. (Note: CNW used a 22 to 46 percent range of employee transportation costs related to the individual models based on actual surveys of what portion of total driving is specifically for work and adjusted for the fact that worker would obviously be employed somewhere else if not at the car plant.)
  • Autos are fully a quarter-plus of all items disposed of in the U.S. as a share of energy expended to recycle, re-use and/or dispose of non-recyclable components and material.
  • To sell 17 million vehicles the auto industry needs roughly 45 million shoppers or intenders. No evaluation except this one has included that calculation in the overall energy cost of a single automobile.

While we could expand on this for pages, the real conclusion is that there are many other factors involved than the simple "fuel economy" cost that most consumers believe is the true measure of a vehicleís efficiency.

For environmentalists and those concerned about CO2, for example, the adage that this emission knows no (national) borders is not only true but important to the discussion about pollution, global warming or related discussions. And that leads back to the ability of an automaker to produce simplified vehicles, the ability of the recycle/disposal industries to increasingly more efficient means of using those vehicles at the end of their lives.

For government agencies, a serious consideration of the global impact has to be addressed when deciding on a local regulation regardless of the final decision.

For automakers, it is important to consider all aspects of energy consumption and how this important social product impacts society in general.

For other researchers into this topic, we would recommend adding as many factors as conceivable to their evaluations to better understand the overall impact.

For CNW, it means continued refinement of the data whether it results in significant alternations in methodology or how the data is reported. We welcome comments, criticisms, suggestions and recommendations for a better way of reporting the findings. We expect to continue on this path for some time into the future.

We'll be keeping an eye out for future studies. In the meantime, we suggest skipping cars altogether and going with public transportation, a bicycle, or an electric scooter; if you do have to drive, then carpool, keep your car in good condition so that it operates efficiently, look into whether Zipcar or another car sharing service is available in your area, and keep an eye out for that next generation of hybrids. (If you're in a position to buy one now, do; it tells the manufacturers there's a market. Also, support local legislation that encourages hybrid use and development.) We look forward to the day when they beat out all-gasoline models from start to finish. ::CNW's 'Dust to Dust' Automotive Energy Report via ::The Reason Foundation, ::HybridCars.com, and ::theWatt; see also Treehugger on transportation

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