NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hybrids and Hype

May 3, 2012

Car companies suggest that hybrids will help stave off global warming, prevent the country's coastline from flooding, and save the arctic ice shelves to boot.  To this end, they point to hybrids' exceptional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-estimated miles per gallon ratings, which they argue will result in lower emissions and an overall positive impact on the environment, say Richard McKenzie, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Kathryn Shelton, a research associate in the O'Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom.

However, a number of additional factors must be considered that, when weighed properly, strongly suggest that hybrids are not all they are cracked up to be.  Specifically, if their aggregate impact on the environmental is completely accounted for, they may be more harmful than their gasoline-only predecessors.

  • The EPA has regularly overstated the mileage of hybrids, with estimates before 2008 being inflated by as much as 20 percent.
  • The disposal of integral parts of hybrids, specifically their specially designed batteries, poses environmental dangers (the acid in their batteries, for example, can eat through steel).
  • By lowering the cost of driving, hybrids encourage their drivers to adapt their driving habits to drive more.  Researchers have found that hybrid owners drive 25 percent more miles on pleasure trips than their counterparts.

The incorporation of so many factors is extraordinarily difficult because they occur at different points in the life of the hybrid and vary by consumer.  Nevertheless, they should at least serve to dispute the claim that hybrid vehicles are the silver bullet to environmental woes.

Additionally, much of this same logic applies to the up-and-coming market for electric vehicles (EVs), which may even exacerbate several of the pitfalls faced by hybrids.

  • Roughly half of all the electricity generated in the United States is produced from coal.
  • While EVs have no dirty emissions flowing from their tailpipes, their contribution is nonetheless visible in the smokestacks of the coal-fired power plants that dot the nation.
  • Research shows that all-electric cars that charge their batteries off coal-fired generators emit 6.5 ounces of carbon per mile -- a fact that is often missed by EV drivers.

Source: Kathryn Shelton and Richard B. McKenzie, "Hybrids and Hype," The Freeman, May 2012.

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