Hybrids’ Disappointing Mileage Confounding State Laws

Published July 1, 2004

Hybrid cars are the flavor of the moment for environmental activists and some state legislators, particularly on the east and west coasts. California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have enacted low-emission vehicle programs, and several other states are considering doing so. The programs use a combination of taxpayer subsidies and outright mandates that encourage and sometimes force automakers to build, and consumers to buy, gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

False Mileage Promises
Motivating the state laws are EPA mileage estimates that tell consumers they will achieve significantly greater fuel economy from hybrid vehicles. For example, EPA estimates Honda Civics with conventional engines will achieve approximately 34 miles per gallon, while Honda Civics with hybrid engines will achieve 48 miles per gallon. Consumers pay an extra $4,300 to $6,600 up front for the hybrid vehicles, but they expect to recoup that money according to the EPA fuel efficiency estimates.

Environmental activists like Arianna Huffington, Larry David, and Leonardo DiCaprio urge us all to “break the chain” and drive hybrid cars. Al Gore used previews of the scientifically implausible disaster film, “The Day after Tomorrow,” to commend hybrids, saying, “I think the new fuel-efficient vehicles represent ethical choices.”

Yet there are a few problems with this dream of a hybrid tomorrow. Surveys show people are highly resistant to hybrid cars; those who own hybrids are starting to realize they aren’t quite as fuel-efficient as advertised; and a new study finds lack of access to affordable cars hurts minority employment.

Little Appeal Beyond Activists
Global marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates recently completed a survey, the 2004 Consumer Acceptance of Alternative Powertrains Study, that looked at what motivates people to choose hybrids, conventional gasoline cars, or clean diesel-powered autos. The study revealed current hybrid owners are very different from conventional car owners:

“The attitudes and opinions about economics, technology, and the environment held by owners of hybrid-electric cars distinguish them from the other groups. Issues on which the owners of hybrid-electric cars hold extreme positions are: interest in helping reduce vehicle pollution, willingness to pay extra for ‘green’ products, and thinking of oneself as an avid recycler. Owners of hybrid-electric cars also have the most extreme expectations that fuel prices will be higher in the future.”

It should come as no surprise that current hybrid car owners tend to be pessimists who think “green.” That should also underscore that people who don’t think “green” are much less likely to turn to hybrids. Value-for-money is more important to most people, and the additional cost attached to hybrids puts many off.

Consumer Backlash
Pete Blackshaw was particularly passionate about hybrid technology and greater fuel efficiency when he bought his Honda Civic Hybrid, so much so that he started a blog on the subject. His experiences did not turn out the way he expected, and he encountered the problem of lower-than-expected fuel efficiency coupled with inadequate customer support from Honda.

“I feel like a complete fraud driving around Cincinnati with a license plate that says MO MILES,” said Blackshaw, who explained to Wired.com that after 4,000 miles his car has never achieved more than 33 mpg on any trip. The tenor of Blackshaw’s blog shifted from adulation to frustration after his Honda dealer confirmed his car was functioning properly and there was nothing he could do to improve his mileage.

John DiPietro, a road test editor for the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, explained in a recent article on Wired.com (“Hybrid Mileage Comes Up Short,” May 11, 2004) that hybrid drivers rarely experience the actual miles per gallon advertised by EPA.

Most automobiles would have actual miles per gallon performance of approximately 75 to 87 percent of EPA’s rating. However, data from Consumer Reports‘ extensive road tests show the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius averaged well under 60 percent of EPA’s reported miles per gallon when operating on city streets. The Civic Hybrid was getting only 26 mpg in the city.

Weak Advice
After his blog was publicized on Wired and Slashdot, Blackshaw was deluged with a wave of advice on how to drive his car:

“Don’t drive fast. Check the tires. Careful on hills. Don’t drive fast. No quick starts. No short trips. Turn off air conditioner. Use cruise control. Don’t drive fast. Don’t use the stereo. Ignore the meter, focus on the actual tank! Read the manual! Wait for 5,000 miles. No speeding. Wait for 10,000 miles. No, 15,000 miles. …

“I now feel smarter and wiser. But not terribly satisfied. I’ve tried just about every one of those tactics, with little success.”

As Blackshaw points out, there is a serious problem if the cars are being marketed on the basis of fuel efficiency (and the J.D. Power study confirms that is the main reason anyone outside the environmentally committed would buy them) but they do not actually achieve the advertised efficiency (at least without having to adopt specialized driving habits). Blackshaw is right to call this a potential Achilles’ heel in the advertising strategy for hybrids.

So those who are urging fuel efficiency laws that would have the effect of raising automobile prices, or who want everyone to drive already-expensive hybrids, might stop to consider the unintended consequences of their demands.

There’s no doubt alternatives to the conventional gasoline engine (like clean diesel, which the J.D. Power study found more attractive to the ordinary consumer than hybrids) will become more affordable and practical as time goes by. But trying to force the issue, especially by calling it an “ethical” matter, runs the risk of producing some very unethical outcomes, and some very unhappy voters.

Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His email address is [email protected].