Ever wonder where urban legends come from? Like the one about Paul McCartney being dead, or the one about Paris Hilton finding religion in prison and producing a series of self-help DVDs titled 'Caged Wisdom'? How about this doozy: a Hummer is more energy efficient over its lifetime than a Prius.
Like most urban legends, it's hard to pinpoint the source. Was it an article by James L. Martin of the 60 Plus Association (www.60plus.org), a lobbying group for the elderly that desires to be the conservative alternative to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)? Or was it the story by student reporter Chris Demorro that was picked up by the factually fastidious Rush Limbaugh? (Demorro says that he was actually coming at the Prius from the left, believing that hybrid technology is inferior to all electric vehicles.)
Or was it the publication of a study conducted by CNW Marketing Research? The study was titled "Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal". The study's most controversial finding indicated that if one factors in design and development, manufacturing, use of the vehicle over its projected lifetime, and disposal of the vehicle once it's no longer usable, the Prius is actually less energy efficient than the Hummer, at a per-mile energy cost of $3.25 versus the H2's per-mile energy cost of $3.03.
Regardless, the right-wing media has, of course, had a field day with this. The Prius has become the standard-bearer for energy efficient vehicles. Reporters and bloggers who are more interested in being provocative than accurate have used this study to blast the Prius, hybrids, and the fuel-efficiency movement in general.
The original study, while not as tendentious as the follow up articles by Martin and others, is skewed by indefensible assumptions. These assumptions, along with those of the Martin and Demorro articles, are noted below:
1. Let's spread the Hummer's costs over lots of vehicles. Let's spread the Prius' costs over..the Prius.
Wanting to establish the "lifecycle" energy cost of a product is both desirable and admirable. But one must be very careful about how this is done. CNW's first mistake was to take the energy costs of the design/development stage of hybrid technology and spread them over the life of the Prius alone. Meanwhile, the development costs of the Hummer, which is basically a high-speed tractor that didn't require any breakthrough technology to develop, are spread over numerous vehicles.
CNW acknowledges that the Prius' cost per mile will inevitably fall as hybrid technology is spread to more cars. In a document on their website entitled "Why 100,000 Miles for Prius" they note:
"And as I pointed out in the past, the energy cost per mile is unequivocally going to decline for Prius over time as the technology continues to spread across other models and the disposal/scrap industry learns how to deal with its high-tech materials and components."
The fact is, failing to adjust these costs in advance undermines the conclusions of the study and renders it meaningless. But that's hardly the only problem.
2. Demorro: "Building a Toyota Prius causes more environmental damage than a Hummer that is on the road for three times longer than a Prius."
The development costs are not only spread over too few vehicles, they are also spread over too few miles. CNW assumes that the life of a Prius will be only 100,000 miles compared to the 300,000-mile life of a Hummer. And this assumption is based on: nothing. Just the fact that Prius drivers seem to drive less than Hummer drivers and that new technology gets replaced by newer technology (in which case, the Hummer would last even less than 100,000 miles.) It's as if the CNW authors had never heard of the used car market.
Again, just adjusting this assumption would undermine the argument that the Prius is less energy efficient than the Hummer. But there's more.
3. Martin and Demorro also include "facts" that were not included in the CNW study: "(T)he Prius is partly driven by a battery which contains nickel. The nickel is mined and smelted at a plant in Sudbury, Ontario. This plant has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the 'dead zone' around the plant to test moon rovers. The area around the plant is devoid of any life for miles.
The plant is the source of all the nickel found in a Prius' battery and Toyota purchases 1,000 tons annually. Dubbed the "Superstack", the plague-factory has spread sulfur dioxide across northern Ontario, becoming every environmentalist's nightmare."
Boy, the use of nickel in an automobile must be unique to the Prius and a substantial amount of that Sudbury plant's productionâ€¦
Uh, not exactly. This plant puts out 95,000 tons of nickel annually. So the 1,000 tons of nickel that Toyota puts into its batteries accounts for about 1.1% of the annual output and should account for the same percentage of annual pollution.
This is hardly a surprise as nickel is used in many products including many parts used in automobiles: spark plugs and various alloys (especially stainless steel). The Prius uses nickel in more than its battery. It uses nickel in its steel plated parts and electronics. But, the Hummer uses twice as much nickel in its non-battery applications. Unfortunately, both cars use nickel and contribute to the environmental damage from nickel processing.
4. The Martin/Demorro misdiagnoses continue with, "All of this would be bad enough in and of itself; however, the journey to make a hybrid doesn't end there. The nickel produced by this disastrous plant is shipped via massive container ship to the largest nickel refinery in Europe. From there, the nickel hops over to China to produce 'nickel foam.' From there, it goes to Japan. Finally, the completed batteries are shipped to the United States, finalizing the around-the-world trip required to produce a single Prius battery. Are these not sounding less and less like environmentally sound cars and more like a farce? No doubt about itâ€¦that round trip for the battery production takes energy."
Presumably, the authors never heard of globalization. Guess what: virtually every car is built with parts that come from places all over the world. And none of them get there without using energy.
For example, let's compare the battery on the Prius (120lb) to the tires on the Hummer (240lb). The Hummer's original equipment tires are made overseas by BF Goodrich (owned by Michelin) using rubber, steel, and carbon from many sources around the world. I'd guess that shipping them takes more energy than shipping the Prius battery.
6. Demorro: "The energy cost per mile of the Prius, after the EPS mpg stats were revised a few months ago, now puts the Toyota within spitting distance of cars like the Chevy Aveo, which costs less than half what the Prius costs."
Clearly wrong. The Chevy Aveo is revised to about 26 mpg (combined city/highway), the Prius at 46 combined. But this understates the desirability of hybrids: the Prius is a midsized car, while the Aveo is a compact. The superiority of hybrids is that they can permit larger, presumably more comfortable vehicles to get better mileage than smaller vehicles. It's one thing to want to make a dubious case for the Hummer, but for the Aveo? Come on.
It may be just a coincidence, but the promotion of the Aveo alongside the Hummer raises the following question: is all of this for the benefit of General Motors, the manufacturer of both? Did CNW select the Hummer to discourage hybrid sales or merely because it's a good, controversial marketing hook for their study? The fact that they included the Martin piece on their website: "Totaling all the energy expended, from design to junkyard, a Hummer may be a better bargain" doesn't give one much faith in the notion of CNW being neutral researchers without an agenda.
The bottom line is, regardless of the hype, we just hope that skewed facts and biased reporting won't deter interested consumers from purchasing hybrids - or completely electric vehicles for that matter. CNW's own findings show that purchasing more Priuses will ultimately offset the energy used in developing them, and allow for hybrid technology to spread to multiple models, further reducing energy costs per mile. And that's no legend.