TCS Daily

A Hybrid Shock?

By Brock Yates - July 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Presuming we source our news from the elite media, the prospect of gas-electric Hybrid automobiles projects a new Nirvana on the nation's highways. Low emissions, high fuel mileage and decent performance in a fleet of new vehicles on the way from Ford, DaimlerChrysler, GM, Volvo and Mazda will soon joining those already on the market from Toyota and Honda. There seems to be no downside to the new power plants, which in various engineering schemes combine electric and gasoline power for both urban and highway driving environments.

The first on the market was Honda's Insight, a cramped, streamlined little two-seater that worked like a normal car, save for interior storage capacity fit for a pocket comb and wallet. The most successful Hybrid so far is Toyota's Prius, a five passenger sedan that, for about $23,000, offers about 42 mpg in most conditions (a real world number, not the bloated "official" figures from the EPA).

That's an impressive number, but consider that a conventional gas-powered Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla will offer about 30-miles to the gallon and cost about $5000 less than the Prius Hybrid. Under normal driving conditions over a span of 10,000 miles the Prius owner will consume about 200 gallons of regular while the conventional I.C. powered cars will burn about 100-150 gallons more at $2.00 a gallon and spend roughly $300 more for gasoline at current prices. At that rate the Prius owner would have to own the car for about 16 years before the difference in retail price was equaled, presuming maintenance and other operating costs were equal.

But of course the P.C. quotient of the Prius is high and it is a cool, workaday machine that, on paper, is a solid alternative to a normal, mid-sized sedan with modest, if adequate performance. While exact numbers are unknown outside the Company, many experts believe that until recently Toyota offered the Prius as a loss-leader. But now, as production ramps up (with a three-month waiting list) it may be that the Prius is a break-even or slightly profitable model.

But now comes a danger signal from left field that might damage sales of all Hybrids. The source of the trouble is the California Tow Truck Association and related operations around the nation. Their concern is that in a crash the 300-volt battery pack in the Prius could electrocute anyone attempting to work on the damaged vehicle. An article in a tow-car trade magazine last year warned all operators to approach a wounded Prius as they would a downed utility power line. They were advised to carry insulated gloves, goggles, face shields, protective clothing, safety boots and neutralizing agents in cars of electrical short circuits or battery acid leaks.

The alarm passed through the tow car industry and radiated into the world of automotive gossip and urban legend. Much like the panic that spread following the Audi 5000's "unintended acceleration" debacle of the early 1990's that nearly ran the German company out of the American market, there is some concern among Hybrid manufacturers that similar fears might radiate through the buying public.

At this point, there has been no known incident involving a crashed Hybrid in which any sort of danger was detected. Moreover, Toyota ardently denies any such hazard, claiming that the Prius is laden with safety cutoffs that make any post-accident electrocutions impossible. This defense is understandable, in that such and urban legend of the type that destroyed the Audi 5000 and wrecked the Corvair (following Ralph Nader's hysterical screed "Unsafe at Any Speed") can produce devastating damage to a product.

On the positive side, Honda's Insight and the Prius have easily passed NHTSA's rollover and crash tests with no apparent leakage of electricity or battery acid. But like the fear factor inherent in the employment of Hydrogen in future fuel cell vehicles, ugly and unfounded rumors can do major damage to new products. While Hybrids can be criticized for complexity, cost, battery life, weak performance, weight and perhaps overrated advantages in fuel mileage, there is no reason to fear them any more than a conventional internal combustion vehicle, which we must never forget, packs a fuel tank laden with a powerful explosive called gasoline.


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