You’re Doing It Wrong: Alternative Fuel Vehicles
Everything you’ve heard about EVs and hybrids is wrong.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: April 28th, 2012
In the popular imagination, electric cars and hybrids represent the pinnacle of elite liberalism.
he New York Times recently ran a piece in its business section about the high cost of high-fuel-efficiency vehicles. That piece, like most of what you’re likely to read about electric cars, hybrids, or other alternative fuel vehicles, contained plenty of false premises, skewed information, and incomplete data, all of which seem designed to lead you to the conclusion that you’re just fine driving your gas-guzzling SUVs.
Many people are predisposed to dislike eco-friendly cars. They either resent the hidden implication that they’re not doing everything they can to save the planet or they don’t believe the planet needs saving in the first place. In the popular imagination, electric cars and hybrids represent the pinnacle of elite liberalism, evoking a kind of “how dare you tell me what to drive” response in people who aren’t being told by anyone to do anything but fear that someday they might.
The gist of the Times piece is that fuel-efficient cars aren’t worth it because the "extra" cost (which they figure is the difference in sticker price between a fuel-efficient vehicle and its "likely" alternative) isn’t made up for in the fuel savings. They even include a chart showing how many years it would take to recoup the cost in fuel savings.
There are several problems with this calculation, aside from the fact that in the real world, no one is necessarily choosing between only two vehicles.
Where the chart really misses the mark is with the plug-ins. According to the NYT’s data, someone who buys the Chevy Volt over the Chevy Cruze Eco, which they consider the likely alternative purchase (itself a highly subjective assumption), would save $446 in fuel costs. By their calculations, a Volt owner would need to drive their car for 26.6 years to recoup the difference in the cost between these two vehicles.
But that $446 figure is based on the assumption that the car would be driven using both the electric and gasoline engines equally. This is a silly assumption. Anyone who buys a plug-in would probably choose to plug their car in and drive as much with the electric engine as possible, in which case the fuel savings would be closer to $3,000 a year than $446. Also, the Times assumed a $4 per gallon gas price, which is already wildly underestimated, only a few months after their article was published.
The article also makes the mistake of assuming that saving money on gas is the primary motivation of those purchasing alternative fuel vehicles. The Times does acknowledge that many people buy these cars because they care about the environment, but you don’t learn this until the second half of the article. It’s probably safe to assume that environmental concerns trump fuel savings for most EV and hybrid buyers. People generally don’t buy more expensive vehicles if they’re concerned about saving money.
Another problem with the Times’ calculations is that it only takes fuel savings into account. Someone buying a Nissan Leaf, for instance, may only save a little over $1,000 in fuel over a Versa buyer, but what about maintenance costs? It’s too soon for there to be any hard data on this, but isn’t it safe to assume that EVs will require considerably less maintenance than gas-powered cars, if only in oil change and regular tune-up costs?
What's holding alternative fuel vehicles back from achieving mainstream acceptance isn’t really cost, although that is a factor, but practicality and perception. To overcome these hurdles, carmakers need to produce electric vehicles with a more realistic range (at least 100 miles between charges), charging stations need to be more available (this is already happening), and car journalists need to stop thinking about new technology in old-school terms.