- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

Two professors from prestigious universities recently authored a study disputing the worth of hybrid electrics such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
The fuel-stingy cars just aren't worth the price premium consumers must pay for them, say professors Lester B. Lave of Carnegie Mellon University and Heather L. MacLean of the University of Toronto.
The professors say that the $3,500 price premium for the Prius and Insight can't be justified, unless gasoline prices skyrocket to more than $3.50 per gallon and the Environmental Protection Agency's valuation of pollution abatement increases by a factor of more than 10. Their views appeared in a recent issue of Spectrum, a publication of the IEEE, an electrical engineers' professional association.
That's a surprising conclusion since the hybrids have been hailed as engineering marvels, achieving super-ultralow-emission-vehicle ratings with fuel efficiencies ranging up to almost 70 mpg for the Insight and 52 mpg for the Prius. The vehicles achieve their SULEV results in two ways.
The Insight is built mostly of aluminum so that vehicle weight is drastically reduced. It also has an extraordinarily aerodynamic design, so less fuel is consumed in pushing air. The Prius achieves its fuel-stingy design with a small internal combustion engine that burns gasoline more efficiently than typical IC engines.
Despite this, Mr. Lave said carmakers have made such progress increasing fuel economy and lowering emissions with conventional vehicles, such as the Toyota Corolla, that hybrids aren't worth their higher prices. "The Corolla is a very hard car to beat," he said. Mr. Lave, who also concedes that he doesn't like to drive and hates cars, said: "We tried not to give our opinions and tried to report what the data show."
For instance, the academic duo compared the Prius to the standard Corolla. They estimated a 125,000-mile, 14-year life for the vehicles. Then they compared initial vehicle price and maintenance costs. They also added the costs of pollutants emitted. For this, they used estimates by California, Massachusetts, and New York regulatory commissions to arrive at the social costs of pollution. The study concluded that the Prius would cost $3,495 more than the Corolla LE with automatic transmission.
Too much money for less performance and less car, the professors contend. Fuel-cell vehicles won't do any better, according to the study. The authors say that even after achieving economies of scale, FCVs will not compete economically with conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, such as the Corolla.
David Hermance, an executive engineer in charge of the Prius for Toyota Motor Sales USA, does not quarrel with the conclusions of the study as they relate to present economics. But he says that "there are a fair number of drivers who want advanced technology vehicles." He said that the Prius sells at a loss if only research and development costs are factored in. But, Mr. Hermance said Toyota recovers the hardware costs at today's Prius price. He also said that when Toyota introduces its next-generation hybrid, there will be a greater opportunity to evaluate its benefits and costs compared to conventional vehicles.
Toyota has already shown the Estima, a second-generation hybrid, in Japan, but no decision has yet been made on bringing it to the United States. Meanwhile, the Prius is selling out its allotment of 1,000 Prius hybrids per month in the United States.
Honda spokesman Art Garner said the Insight is just a first step and that his company expects its investment in hybrid technology to pay big dividends. "While others are just entering the hybrid market, we'll be well established. Mr. Garner adds that Honda plans to expand hybrid technology to its Civic line later this year in Japan and early next year in the United States.
Bill Visnic, editor of Ward's Engine and Vehicle Technology Update, said hybrids represent an important advance in engine technology, especially the Prius power plant, which his publication selected as one of the 10 best engines of 2000. He also notes that despite its slow acceleration, the Prius is pleasurable to drive at speeds in excess of speed limits in the United States. It is also quieter than similar economy cars. Even though hybrids are relatively more expensive for small economy cars, he adds, they would not represent a significantly greater expense for bigger luxury models.
In addition, Mr. Visnic said that the Insight and Prius represent an important "bridge technology" between conventional cars that run on internal combustion engines and a coming generation of zero-emission vehicles (most likely running on fuel cells) that will appear in the next decade.
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