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Praying to the Prius

In those early days of hybrid ownership (though technically I have been just borrowing this gas-electric vehicle from my parents while in the U.S.), I was naively unaware of my, and my parents’, toxic emissions.

Leaving Cloverdale, CA for a 785 mile drive to Seattle, WA, I (with my husband Nico and our 5-month-old (the core faircompanies team)) smiled at my mother and- not needing to shout over the oh-so-quiet-electric idle, but loud enough for at least some of their retirement community residents to register- remarked, “You didn’t need to fill it up. We could have gotten to Oregon on half a tank”. She responded, at sufficient volume for her pickup-driving neighbors, “On full, we’ll see if you even need to fill up before Washington”.

Smug alert

We were a classic case of Prius polluters; we were off-gassing smugness and we didn’t even know it. It wasn’t until the following week when I read that according to a survey by CNW Marketing Research, the main reason people buy the brand is because “it makes a statement about me” (only 36% bought for better fuel efficiency and 25% for lower CO2 emissions) that I was put on smug alert. I’m lifting the term from South Park. Yes, even they have covered this.

“Smug Alert!

Stan persuades all the citizens of South Park to buy hybrid cars. A disaster of epic proportions threatens the town and Stan is to blame — just as everyone starts to feel really good about what they’re doing to help save the earth, scientists discover a stormy, dark mass accumulating over the town.”

The residents of South Park were being exposed to high particulate levels of smug and for one more moment I’ll expose you to a bit more. We didn’t fill up until after Eugene, Oregon, and it would have been Portland if we hadn’t driven at 70mph for long stretches of redwood park. Did I mention that while officially the Prius gets 48mpg on average (the revised EPA stats), if you drive on minimal power you can see the onboard computer monitor display fuel efficiency averages of 70 plus, even 100mpg on downhills. And that on our 785 mile (1263km) trip from Cloverdale to Seattle we only filled up once (with gas to spare) and fuel for the entire trip cost about $50.

My self-satisfaction has many names: eco-snob, pious prius owner, Pious Progressive, etc. And there are many manifestations of this piousness- from Arianna Huffington’s claim that to own a hybrid is an act of patriotism to the bumper sticker sported by one San Francisco Bay Area PP asking “How many lives to the gallon do you get?”

Perhaps, I should be mortified that I have become a smug young modern, and while I must admit my enthusiasm is tempered by the $22,000 price tag on a Prius (I can weather the smug label, but like any good liberal, privileged and smug seem antithetical), I still continued to announce to anyone who would listen that we never had to fill up during a recent trip to Vancouver from Seattle and back (with several days of city driving in between).

The hybrid as a hotrod

There are attempts to temper this hybrid enthusiasm. I just read a study from 2005 that claimed that to break even on the higher sticker price (hybrids average 2-3 thousand dollars more than similar gas only vehicles), you would need to drive 37,000 miles per year (over 5 years), though this was at the “current average gas price of $2.28 per gallon”. Given that we haven’t dipped below $3 per gallon for awhile, those statistics need to be revised.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh mocked the car’s performance, by asking “How in the world do you get a Toyota Prius to go 100 mph without a cliff to go over?” His question was a reaction to the news that Al Gore’s son Albert III had been clocked in July of 2007 going over 100mph in a Prius on California’s I-5. Orange County sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino clarified the number: “One hundred and five, actually. I think it’s slightly downhill there.”

The hotrod potential of the Prius shouldn’t surprise anyone, after all the car’s 0.26 coefficient of drag makes it one of the most aerodynamically optimized vehicles on the market. At 2,932 pounds, it’s also one of the lightest cars on the road and its tires reduce the friction between the rubber and the road, giving it a very low “rolling resistance”.

Over 100mph shouldn’t be a problem for any PP. A Toyota spokesman told the LA Times that 103mph is the top speed (to avoid depleting the battery). And for the record, Car and Driver lists the gas guzzling AM General Hummer H1 as the slowest car on the market.

Why compare a Hummer with a Prius?

Last March, CNW Marketing Research published a study claiming that when looking at lifecycle costs a Prius is less efficient than a Hummer. According to their “Dust to Dust” report, when considering design, manufacture and disposal of a car, the lifetime energy efficiency of a Hummer H3 was $1.95 centers per mile, while the Prius was $3.25 per mile.

Upon further analysis, the report used faulty analysis and assumptions and selective data. For example, they assume the Prius will last just 109,000 miles while the Hummer over three times that at 379,000 miles. The Rocky Mountain Institute did their own fact-checking and found a “deep divide between the Dust to Dust study and all previous scientific work”. Using the GREET (the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation) Model to study lifecycle costs, they found that even when manipulating the facts to favor the Hummer (H3), “the Prius still has a lower impact on the environment”.

Another attack came when an article in the UK’s Daily Mail in May of 2007 wrongly implied that the nickel produced in a factory in Sudbury, Canada (used for, among other ends, making Prius batteries) was polluting the region. They pulled the article and issued a retraction, but only after the story had made its rounds online.

Both the lifecycle study and the battery article (while flawed) got me thinking, it’s too easy to just look at fuel efficiency when evaluating a car’s overall sustainability, but when miles per gallon goes up above 100, or 150, it’s tough to look anywhere else.

Rob Lowe was getting 150+mpg

It took Rob Lowe to finally deflate my bubble of smug. Last week, after spending the day driving around D.C. in a car detailed with the words “150+ miles per gallon”, Lowe announced “I have been driving this car around and I have to tell you, it did what my mother couldn’t do. It did what my driving instructor couldn’t do — it’s made me a better driver.”

Lowe’s borrowed car: a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). While I’m unclear why a car that is basically a hybrid with extra batteries- allowing it to be driven in an all electric mode until driven beyond a certain range- would make you a better driver, Lowe does have something to be smug about.

This past October at the International Electric Vehicle Symposium in Yokohama, Japan, the NERL (the National Energy Renewable Laboratory of the US) presented a study showing that PHEV’s can reduce per vehicle petroleum use by 50-65% compared with just 30% for standard hybrids (HEVs).

According to a report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), instead of paying $750-825 for an annual fuel bill, PHEV drivers can achieve $170-215 for their annual electric bill, and less (this was for a van driving 20 miles per day on electric 5 days per week 50 weeks per year, using 2001 gas prices).

Of course, any PP (Prius Progressive) could remain smugly self-complacent with the knowledge that PHEVs aren’t on the market yet, but that would be ignoring an entire community of early adaptors hacking and converting their way to a plug-in state.

A green tuneup

In September of 2004, the team from the nonprofit CalCars created the first Prius+. They green-tuned a standard Prius, adding batteries and grid-charging capability, to create a PHEV. “That means no gas when you do your errands on local streets at 35mph. On the highway, it runs just like any other Prius, with the gasoline engine doing most of the work — and the extra batteries kicking in to improve performance at ALL speeds.”

Since then CalCars and other aftermarket conversion companies have converted over 50 cars (here’s a map showing where they are located) These plug-in hybrids can travel a range of 10-32 miles in pure electric mode. The most common options are the PHEV-15 (15 mile range) and the PHEV-30 (30 mile range).

While most of the cars have been made for fleets, there are a few companies that will convert for you, if you’re willing to fork over anywhere from $10,000 (plus installation fees) to $32,500 for the PHEV-30.

  • Amberjac Systems (UK)- provide conversions in Europe

  • EnergyCS (Monrovia, CA)- the first after-market conversion company, work with fleets

  • Hybrids-Plus (Boulder, CO)- perform lithium-ion conversions of the Toyota Prius and soon on the Escape, for private individuals or for organizations

  • Hymotion (Concord, Ontario, Canada)- retrofit the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid, primarily for fleet bulk orders (acquired by battery maker A123 Systems www.a123systems.com of Hopkinton, MA)

  • SP Innovation – for Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and other Northern European countries

  • EDrive Systems

  • Green Car Company (Kirkland, WA)

  • OEMTEK (Milpitas, CA)

For those DIYers who have a bit of time and engineering skill the Electric Auto Association’s PHEV group has created an open-source project to help owners convert for under $6000 with two weeks of labor. As described by those at CalCars, “if you’re an engineer or an advanced do-it-yourselfer who is comfortable around high voltage batteries and automotive workshops, you can join the project!”

Keep in mind that the easiest conversions are for the 2004-2007 Prius (not the 2001-2003 Prius) and the Ford Escape Hybrid. Hondas can’t be converted because of their different architecture (the engine runs whenever the motor runs).

Obama gets onboard

Like the ethanol bandwagon, now politicians are touting the technology. This April, US Senators Cantwell, Hatch and Obama announced their plan to promote plug-in hybrids or what they call PEDV’s (Plug-in Electric Drive Vehicles) which include pure battery electric, extended range electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and plug-in fuel cell vehicles).

The plan involves:

  • tax credits for buyers similar to those incentives given purchasers of alternative fuel and hybrids under the CLEAR Act

  • tax incentives for producers of PEDVs

  • incentives for utilities to provide rebates to customers who purchase PEDVs, with the largest incentives to those utilities producing the greenest energy

Plan sponsor and US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama explained his support: “One of the most immediate actions we can take to fight climate change is to dramatically reduce our oil consumption by pushing electric vehicles into the marketplace. We have the technology, but we must provide incentives for consumers and manufacturers so that it is made available to the driving public.”

The Limpio bus

As of this spring, school kids became the first to ride in commercially PHEVs or PEDVs.  Nonprofit energy-consulting company Advanced Energy pushed manufacturers to produce for their consortium and this April students in the Bradenton, Florida, Manatee School District, began their daily commute in their plug-in hybrid rides. The kids from the middle school named theirs “Limpio” (Spanish for clean).


If you’re not a schoolkid or a hacker- according to a news.com story, hackers can reconfigure their American Prius’ to drive all electric at low speeds- you can still become a “hypermiler”. Hybridcars.com compiled a list of lo-tech tips to improve your gas mileage. These include, among others:

  • Route selection: find routes with long stretches without stops where the sweet spot for speed is between 40 and 45 (the sweet spot for most hybrids).

  • Braking: 7mph is a magic number. below 7mph, regenerative braking stops and friction brakes engage. Hybridcars.com suggests: “Try to avoid slowing below 7mph by decelerating earlier while approaching a red light, so that it turns green before you get there.”

  • Avoid cold starts and try to drive once the day has warmed up.

  • Avoid shutting down and restarting- the startup cycle uses gas. if you need to remain stationary for less than 10 minutes, put the Prius in park without shutting down.

  • Those that apply to all cars: use low octane gas, keep tire pressure at maximum psi, combine errands to make one trip

I hate to be smug, but even without a hybrid I’ve always been a hypermiler. I slow down before red lights to avoid extra gas and braking. I coast up to stop signs. I try not to accelerate too quickly.

To some, this may sound like granny driving, but to me I can hardly bare sitting in a car with someone who floors it up to a red light just to hit the brake immediately after. And I would condone a return to the 55 mph speed limits. Nixon was no hypermiler but he knew that they would save fuel during the 1973 oil embargo.

Clinton as a hypermiler

Last year, Hilary Clinton joined the hypermilers club. She proposed returning to the old limit, explaining that “the 55 mile speed limit really does lower gas usage, and wherever it can be required and that people will accept it, we ought to do it.”  Recognizing that for some parts of the country this is too much of a sacrifice, she proposed another hypermiler trick. “In the rest of the country, inflate your tires before you head off into the sunset.

In our land of hardcore hybrid fans, this sounds like an awfully lo-tech alternative, but it works (driving on underinflated tires can reduce your gas mileage by as much as 15% (from 42 mpg to 35.7 for the Honda Civic hybrid). Or you could buy your car in Europe. While in the US there are just 2 models (for 2007) that achieve a combined gas mileage of at least 40 mpg, in Europe there are 113. The Toyota Aygo averages 51mpg and there’s nothing hybrid or particularly novel about it. So when it’s launched in the US (most likely in 2008) will there be a frenzy to buy? Does it “make a statement about me” or is it too simple a gadget to excite those of us who like a story behind our purchases?

Have hybrids killed the hydrogen car?

The hybrid story has gotten so catchy that now even the early frontrunners in the race for the post-peak-oil-car, the hydrogen fuel cell folk, are embracing it. When up in Vancouver a week or so ago I shot a few videos on their hydrogen fuel cell program (Hydrogen greasemonkey, Hydrogen highways? and On the road in 2015). Immediately afterward I regretted not having talked enough about Who killed the electric car? so I emailed the program engineers I’d interviewed and asked them why hydrogen over electric. One of them, Allison Setton – who talked a lot about creating hydrogen in a GHG (greenhouse gas) neutral way (Two centuries of fuel cells… so why now?) responded playing into the “hybrid” brand recognition.

“Generally batteries and fuel cells are not seen as competing technologies; rather, they are complementary. Particularly in the more recent models we are seeing there is an increasing amount of ‘hybridization’, meaning an increase in the amount of battery use and/or a change in the manner in which batteries are employed on a fuel cell vehicle.”

So if hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are now hybrids, have even the engineers bought into the hype? When I first read the survey showing that for Prius purchasers, brand recognition was more important than fuel efficiency, I was a bit bothered- upset that environmentalists could be image conscious too.

But now I’m wondering if it really matters that image has become more important than the product. Isn’t that how you make major changes to public opinion, at least in America? David Beckham isn’t being paid $32.5 million for his 32-year-old left foot, but for his hype/his story and his ability to wake up Americans to his sport. Whether you’re Rob Lowe talking about PHEVs or a journalist reporting on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, maybe we’re all just looking for a story.

A walk/run hybrid

The hybrid has been just a short-term story for me. Next month before returning to Spain, I’ll be leaving my parents their keys and to be honest, I don’t expect to miss my membership in the Pious Prius club? Not because of the parking ticket in Portland or nearly hitting a pedestrian in Seattle, but because I’m swapping my wheels for a vehicle-free existence in Barcelona. Can you smell the smug?

I’m off-gassing because there is some cache to walking, but I doubt it’s a trend that can kill the car. Though maybe the pedestrian lifestyle just needs an image consultant. It might make for an impossible commute for some, but with the right storyline, that shouldn’t matter.

With a hi-tech facelift, even walking could be sold as the transportation of the future. Imagine the smug: “I can go 15 kilometers on 2 cups of flaxseed granola”, “With my hybrid walk/run I’m commuting at 6mph”…