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The Problem with Techno-Fixes   (October 7, 2005)

Here's the solution to all our problems: a new technology. There's only one catch: humans are still part of the equation. Let's take hybrid auto technology for an example. It's a darn good idea, storing energy from braking the car to be used later, and using an electric power drive when loads are undemanding.

So far so good--but then why do hybrids advertised as getting 60 MPG (miles per gallon) actually get 30 MPG? Because the driving is still performed by humans.

Consider this from the Wall Street Journal of Oct. 6, 2005:
"At Toyota, luxury brand Lexus has begun distributing through dealerships a pamphlet on the RX 400h, Lexus's luxury hybrid SUV, listing reasons why the vehicle may not get the 31 mpg the EPA estimated for the vehicle in city driving. The EPA tests, the brochure points out, assume drivers accelerate slowly, leave the air conditioning off, and average a speed of 20 miles per hour in the city. The pamphlet tells drivers that quick acceleration, heavy braking and driving at speeds above 60 miles per hour can make the mileage lower than the EPA estimates.

When Amy Quirk bought her Toyota Prius, the pricing sticker said it got 60 mpg. So when the San Francisco-based environmental lawyer saw she was consistently getting only 30 mpg, she complained to her dealer's service department. First she was told the problem was the cold weather. Then she was told that the Prius didn't get the mileage that was advertised on the vehicle sticker price. Ms. Quirk now gets about 40 mpg on her Prius, which she bought a year ago, by coasting down hills when she drives."
So in other words, if you constantly stomp on the accelerator and brakes, drive 85 miles per hour down I-5, never bother checking your tire pressure, then your mileage will be as lousy in a hybrid as it is in a standard car.

Using common sense that's been around for decades (don't drag race at every green light, keep tire pressure balanced and at the recommended level, don't go 80 mph when 70 will get you there just fine, etc.) I consistently get almost 40 MPG in my standard Honda Civic (highway driving) and over 30 MPG in the city.

Is hybrid technology the magic bullet which is going to turn our society into a energy-conserving paradise? Unfortunately, the answer is no if a standard economy car like the Civic beats the daylights out of a $50,000 hybrid SUV. Note the Lexus gets 31 MPG if driven perfectly, so in reality it gets 20-25 MPG--the average for the entire gas-hog U.S. auto fleet. So manuacturing hybrid vehicles which in actual use get about 2/3 the MPG of my 1998 Civic is going to solve our energy problem? If only it were that easy.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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