Do hybrids use more energy overall than Hummers?

Hybrid vehicles clearly have better gas mileage than many SUVs on the market, but does the gas mileage as a figure accurately represent the total energy usage required to build, market, use and destroy the vehicle?

Art Spinella, in a huge study by CNW Marketing Research, has endeavored to find the "Dust-to-Dust" energy cost for cars and trucks to determine whether we are gaining or losing ground by adopting hybrids. His study was described in this article by the Reason Foundation's Shikha Dalmia:

According to Art Spinella, the uber-auto analyst and President of CNW Marketing Research, hybrid sales every month this year have been down compared to the same time last year. Even sales of the Toyota Prius - the darling of the greens - have dropped significantly. The only segment besides taxis where hybrids are still holding steady - taxpayers will be happy to note -- is the car fleets maintained by the government.

What's particularly interesting is that individual consumers are defying all expectations and turning their backs on hybrids at a time when gas prices are soaring. (The average U.S. retail price of gas spiked to a record high of $3.01 last September following hurricane Katrina, and just last week it hit its second highest price ever at nearly $3.00.) Nor is the reason all that mysterious. Spinella's customer satisfaction surveys show that 62 percent of hybrid owners are dissatisfied with the fuel-economy performance of their cars given what they have paid for them.

This means that when gas prices go up, these people don't rush out to buy more hybrids. "They buy a Chevy Aveo," says Spinella. "It delivers the same fuel economy as a Prius, but at half the price."

Consumer interest might revive if the cost of hybrids goes down substantially - or the cost of fuel goes up and stays up for a long period of time, Spinella believes. Until then, however, the hybrid market is unlikely to come out of the deep freeze, a reality that even Ford had to finally acknowledge.

But despite all these drawbacks, hybrids are at least better for the environment than say..... a Hummer, right? Nope.

Spinella spent two years on the most comprehensive study to date - dubbed "Dust to Dust" -- collecting data on the energy necessary to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a car from the initial conception to scrappage. He even included in the study such minutia as plant-to-dealer fuel costs of each vehicle, employee driving distances, and electricity usage per pound of material. All this data was then boiled down to an "energy cost per mile" figure for each car (see here and here).

Comparing this data, the study concludes that overall hybrids cost more in terms of overall energy consumed than comparable non-hybrid vehicles. But even more surprising, smaller hybrids' energy costs are greater than many large, non-hybrid SUVs.

For instance, the dust-to-dust energy cost of the bunny-sized Honda Civic hybrid is $3.238 per mile. This is quite a bit more than the $1.949 per mile that the elephantine Hummer costs. The energy cots of SUVs such as the Tahoe, Escalade, and Navigator are similarly far less than the Civic hybrid.

As for Ford cars, a Ford Escape hybrid costs $3.2 per mile - about a third more than the regular Escape. But on the whole, ironically enough, the dust-to-dust costs of many of the Ford non-hybrids - Fusion, Milan, Zephyr - are not only lower than comparable Japanese hybrids - Prius, Accord -- but also non-hybrids - Seville, Civic.

Spinella's finding that a Hummer on the whole consumes less energy than a hybrid than even some smaller hybrids and non-hybrids has infuriated environmentalists. And on its face it does seem implausible that a gas-guzzling monster like a Hummer that employs several times more raw material than a little Prius' could be so much less energy-intensive. But by and large the dust-to-dust energy costs in Spinella's study correlate with the fanciness of the car - not its size or fuel economy -- with the Rolls Royces and Bentleys consuming gobs of energy and Mazda 3s, Saturns and Taurus consuming relatively minuscule amounts. (Emphasis mine.)

The study itself is here (in a Zip folder).

I can understand why the environmentalists are so pissed. If the total energy consumption of hybrids is greater than a Hummer, then they are going to look like a bunch of jackasses.

How could this possibly be true? Well their study summarizes it thusly:

One of the reasons hybrids cost more than non-hybrids is the manufacture, replacement and disposal of such items as batteries, electric motors (in addition to the conventional engine), lighter weight materials and complexity of the power package.

They go on to suggest that while an individual in say Los Angeles may be saving on air pollution and CO2 emissions in his locale by purchasing a hybrid, if the car costs more in terms of energy to produce elsewhere he is in essence exporting his pollution to wherever the car was made.

The big standouts for total energy usage are below:

The Top 10 most energy efficient vehicles over their lifetime:

1.Scion xB ($0.48 per mile)
2.Ford Escort (0.57 per mile)
3.Jeep Wrangler ($0.60 per mile)
4.Chevrolet Tracker ($0.69 per mile)
5.Toyota Echo ($0.70 per mile)
6.Saturn Ion ($0.71 per mile)
7.Hyundai Elantra ($0.72 per mile)
8.Dodge Neon ($0.73 per mile)
9.Toyota Corolla ($0.73 per mile)
10.Scion xA ($0.74 per mile)

The 10 least energy efficient vehicles over their lifetime:

1.Mercedes Benz produced Maybach ($11.58 per mile)
2.Volkswagen Phaeton ($11.21 per mile)
3.Rolls-Royce (full line average: $10.66 per mile)
4.Bentley (full line average: $10.56 per mile)
5.Audi allroad Quattro ($5.59 per mile)
6.Audi A8 ($4.96 per mile)
7.Audi A6 ($4.96 per mile)
8.Lexus LS430 ($4.73 per mile)
9.Porsche Carrera GT ($4.53 per mile)
10.Acura NSX ($4.45 per mile)

Hybrid energy efficiency over their lifetime:

1.Honda Insight ($2.94 per mile)
2.Ford Escape Hybrid ($3.18 per mile)
3.Honda Civic Hybrid ($3.24 per mile)
4.Toyota Prius ($3.25 per mile)
5.Honda Accord Hybrid ($3.30 per mile)

I would note that in the context of this list it is tongue-in-cheek to suggest that people go out and get Hummers. What this research instead would appear to show is that high-mileage non-hybrid sedans cost the least energy -- cars like the Scion or the Toyota Corolla.

This is interesting and provocative research that is certain to generate a lot of debate. (I don't know if I really have the expertise to critique the details.)

I do, however, think it is important that we take a broad approach to energy efficiency. If we would like energy independence and efficiency, we need to consider everything -- not just gas mileage -- in our calculations. This is the same argument that I would make about biofuels. Whatever biofuels we choose, we need to be aware that they require energy to grow, energy to process, and energy to transport. It would be good if the total were less than the energy we are using now.

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The problem I see with this, is that the Hummer's 'dust-to-dust' cost is calculated on a 300,000 mile lifespan. It may be true that the Hummer can reliably last that long, but I highly doubt that many of the people who can afford a Hummer are going to keep it long enough to reach 300,000 miles, and they won't buy a used one with 200,000 miles on it, either. I'd like to see the price-per-mile statistic on these vehicles at a constant, realistic, mileage, not what the manufacturer says it could reach.

By Neil Oney (not verified) on 21 Jul 2006 #permalink

The authors argue that this is a more realistic life span. Basically, yes, one person would not drive a car for 300,000 miles, but when they are done with it they would sell it to another person who would add another 100,000 and so on. Resale mileage is included.

Their argument is that resale mileage and total life of the car for ALL owners should be incuded. Also, I don't know this for certain, but they mentioned that the expected mileage is not an automotive company estimate. It is something that they measured. I am not certain about how, but I don't think they are just taking Hummer's word for it.

You need a better bullshit detector. This does not even pass the smell test.

Here are some initial problems after a cursory glance-over (I'll read it more thoroughly once I'm done working)

1. This is a marketing agency, not a peer reviewed journal.
2. The methodology is hidden, when you try to track it down they say their sources of data were or not for sale and are behind subscription-based logins.
3. Economically none of this makes sense. A hybrid, subsidized by about $6000 per car sells for between 17-21k for a Toyota Prius. A H2 sells for about 60k. If it really costs twice as much to generate these vehicles because of all the factors going into the manufacturer (they even list miles employees drive to plants as a source of cost for the love of god) how would it be economically feasible to sell the hybrids even at that subsidized cost? How would it be economically feasible to drive one? Where are the complaints from people driving hybrids that their car is costing them more than a Hummer?
4. They do not explain their methodology. They talk about things that they included in their analysis, but they do not have a systematic explanation of how they came up with these costs. If you look at their appendices of complaints they've received, I'm not alone in wondering about this.

Are they taking into account the cost of developing hybrid technology into the cost? If so, they're penalizing new technology (especially since they don't look at the cost in developing the other cars on the list based on old tech).

We can't know because they hide their methodology. It's not public or free, and I certainly don't feel like spending money to find out what I can tell is bullshit just by the smell of it.

The whole issue is academic -- engineering nerds can debate which cars are really more energy-efficient, save resources, etc. The only thing that prospective hybrid buyers are thinking is: "Will this fashion statement make me look superior to the rubes? Or is it outdated already?" "Natural" foods is another case-in-point. So whether or not a marketing company lies is beside the point, since customers won't buy into the lie, as they don't really care about energy efficiency. All they need to hear from the marketing campaign is that "You're superior to everyone else if you own this car."

"You're superior to everyone else if you own this car."

And SUV advertisements never ever imply things like that.

On Topgear a UK motoring show they tested a Prius for fuel efficiency. They couldn't get it to anywhere near the values claimed by the manufactureres. Additionally, a cheap diesel car produced a much better fuel efficiency an all tests. So even if we just take gas mileage into account hybrid cars are far from the best.

My Prius gets 51 mpg driven mainly on cruise control at 65 mph. I did not buy it to impress rubes, scientists, or anyone else. Quitter got it right on the Prius-Hummer "study". Any scientist or pseudoscientist marketer that does not give details on methodology usually has something to hide.

I would just like to make clear that the core proposition of this work is not that Hummers have better gas mileage than Priuses. It is that the energy cost of production, use, and destruction total is greater for Priuses.

Also with respect to the issue of marketing over not-marketing research, I am not willing to dismiss non-academic research out of hand. Academic researchers are also susceptible to conflicts of interest and bias, and researchers in the private sector can be just as well meaning. It is important to judge these things on the merits.

That being said, on the merits the biggest defect in this work is their failure to publish their methods. I would like to see them.

However, I would also add that I posted this to emphasize the point that fuel efficiency is not the only standard by which we should judge energy consumption, not to support the proposition that we should all buy Hummers.

And I would like to make it clear that this study is total rubbish. It's been a while since I read a more disorganized piece of tripe. It made no sense, and just looking at what they reported as data you could tell how they engineered their bias - all the hybrids are given lifetime miles 1/3 that of the SUVs.

You agree there is no description of their method, and therefore there was no good reason to discuss this turd of a study period as if it is factual or has anything to contribute. Like I said, you need a better bullshit detector.

You can't discount the advantages of particular sources of energy. Automobiles don't burn coal, nuclear, etc. If enough of the back-end energy costs associated with hybrid construction are paid from these other sources, if the net includes a lot less gasoline, then at least dependance on foreign oil is reduced.

By rat-terrier (not verified) on 24 Jul 2006 #permalink

As one of those that elected to purchase a Corolla over a Prius, the key issue was that the mileage for the Prius was 50 city, while the manual Corolla was 41 highway. My travel is primarily highway, so the choice was a no-brainer. However, I do place a premium on clean air, and emissions reductions, and will trade up to the Prius.

The money quote is-- "One of the reasons hybrids cost more than non-hybrids is the manufacture, replacement and disposal of such items as batteries, electric motors (in addition to the conventional engine), lighter weight materials and complexity of the power package."

The study penalizes the hybrid at this stage in its acceptance into the public, when the scale of its numbers do not readily allow cheaper economization of scale (note how this works for the Humvee). Think VW's efficiency when first introduced to the US in the 1950s compared to the sixties and seventies.

The other issue to consider with the declining sales report for hybrids is that available credit may be driving the decision to purchase non-hybrid high mileage cars. I am not aware that there is spike in the purchase of these recently. Another factor is availability--the Prius is back ordered, and one must wait between purchase and having the vehicle.

The element of the study that needs to considered is that it is not a complete cost benefit analysis, but partial, and only considers energy consumption, and only that at a particular juncture in the development of an alternative technology.


You make a fair point Mike.

There is no reason to expect that the relatively high cost of Priuses in terms of energy will persist. As production techniques improve, it is likely that the energy costs of the Prius will come down to parity with non-hybrids.

Another thing that struck me is that hybrids really haven't had much an opportunity for large total mileages. I remember that in high school I had an Explorer that was from the first model year that Explorers were available. It broke down constantly because they hadn't worked out all the kinks in production.

Hybrids may have short operating lives now, but that is destined to change.

And SUV advertisements never ever imply things like that.

I never said they didn't. Any advertizing done toward the affluent uses this approach. I have no dog in the fight, in other words. I drive a '95 subaru impreza... well, that's what I call it anyway. I think the technical industry appelation is "chick magnet."

"And SUV advertisements never ever imply things like that."

I never said they didn't. Any advertizing done toward the affluent uses this approach. I have no dog in the fight, in other words. I drive a '95 subaru impreza... well, that's what I call it anyway. I think the technical industry appelation is "chick magnet."

I personally suspect that the purpose of hybrids is to get the public to subsidize retooling of the industry to support electronic energy storage systems and electric drive trains. Hybrids are obviously a stair-step technology that is being marketed to certain demographics (techno nerds and greens).

Can any with more knowledge confirm or deny my suspicion?

Personally, I've long suspected that Li-Ion batteries might make full EVs practical enough for general commuter use. This company's product and business plan supports this:

If their range for this electric musclecar is even 75% of what they say it is, then a more modest Li-Ion powered commuter car is totally feasible.

That being said, I don't see the purpose of electric cars as saving energy so much in the thermodynamic sense. Rather, I see the benefit as diversification of energy sources away from exclusive dependence on oil. Electricity is *much* easier than oil to generate from renewable sources and can also come from less depleted and more sustainable non-"renewable" sources like natural gas, clean coal technology, and nuclear. All that makes electric cars a win on the sustainability, economic stability, and national autonomy front even if they don't save energy in raw thermodynamic terms.

Personally I'm going to drive my old fashioned piston engine until EVs get affordable. But, if I was wealthy I'd probably buy a hybrid to subsidize the new technology.

This makes absolutely no sense. If we take at face value their calculation that a typical hybrid costs $3/mile in energy for a 100,000 mile lifetime (suspiciously short), that's $300,000. Who's paying this? The consumer, factoring in incentives, is paying maybe $30,000 (being generous - $25,000 is probably closer). Add in, say $3/gallon of gas times 30 miles per gallon (again, the actual cost should be perhaps $5,000-$8,000), and you have another $10,000 over the lifetime of the car. Be generous again, and put down another $10,000 for maintenance. Even with these ridiculously generous allowances, we still have 5/6 of the energy cost to pay. I doubt it costs $250,000 to junk it and recycle the battery. And I doubt Toyota is eating $250,000 on every car it builds. Where is the missing money? Is God in His infinite wisdom subsidizing hybrids with $2.50 worth of God-rays per mile driven? Something here is most certainly, as quitter so eloquently put it, bullshit.

Yeah, this "study" is clearly B.S. The notion that Hybrids are going to be junked at 100k miles is ridiculous. Its been many, many decades since auto manufacturers turbed out vehicles with 100k life expectancies. If anything, rising fuel prices will ensure a robust used market and keep Priuses on the road much longer than Hummers. Its quite possible (perhaps likely) that fuel thirsty SUVs will be junked long before Hybrids due to rising fuel costs. Add to this the fact that almost all Hybrids on the road today are made by Toyota and Honda, companies that are well known for their products' reliability and longevity. The same cannot be said for SUVs manufactured by such companies such as Land Rover, and even Ford and General Motors.

did the study take into consideration that the hummer was developed and planned by the armed forces...and if so, how would one calculate those hours and costs into the sum? are the hours and costs of development and planning for the hummer available to the public?

did the study take into account economic differences and calculate, for instance, yen to u.s. dollar and the difference in labour costs for different nations?

I too have trouble believing the results. Altough they do say the "right" things about total energy cost's of the vehicle. My suspicion
is that he figured in per-unit R&D cost's for the currently very low
volume hybrids. Until the authors release better details on their
results they will be suspect.
I can attest to one of the reasons SUV's have still been selling, they have been forced to discount them the below manufactring cost
to clear them out. It seems the industry has been unable to ramp-down
production to avoid oversupply. The last vahicle I bought was a 2wd SUV,
purchased at a $12K discount, and I think this has been pretty typical the last couple of years.
Hybrids, on the other hand have been ramping up very slowly, prospective customers have do endure a long wait, and have no
bargaining power. The manufacturers have been increasing volumes
above their original plans, but are still holding down production.
It is clearly in their interest to rampup slowly, as any seriously new product has susstantial potential liability to design defects.
The manufactures would clearly like to have the experience of a complete
lifecycle, before committing to full scale production.
That said the first generation of hybrids are largely useful for
stop/go and low speed driving. As Mike mentioned for his primarily
hoghway use the corrola made more sense. I applaud Mike for making
the environmentally correct choice, leave the few available hybrids for people who do a lot of city driving, where there advantages are maximized.

What about externalities? Did they factor in the cost to the environment of gasoline burning SUVs? Hybrids produce fewer emissions.

I get the expected MPG from my Escape Hybrid, which is an excellent vehicle for the stop and go driving that I do. In the summer, I do frequent bird surveys -- lots of slow driving and stopping, all done on electric power. Bonus when I'm listening for singing birds: it's silent!

This study is doing a lot of analysis here: people who are driving Hybrid cars are driving fewer miles and because the cars are newer technology the building process is less efficient and they are more likely to be replaced with newer hybrids as the technology gets better etc. All these facts are making the upfront energy costs of theses cars count high on the energy $/mile metric this study is using. Even assuming that all the information and assumptions in this study are correct their conclusion is misleading. Every dollar that goes into hybrid technology is an investment in fuel efficiency, an investment that even this study is assuming will pay off, yet those savings are not tallied anywhere here. The net result is that people who buy hybrid cars are expending less energy in their lifetimes than Hummer drivers, and their investment is making fuel efficient cars more efficient and more affordable to future buyers.

Mr Young

You would do well to be somewhat more skeptical of work put out by a marketing firm. In order for their model to generate the results that are reported, the Hummer must achieve an average lifetime of 300,000 miles (similar values are required for the other large SUVs). Where are the data that support this 300,000 lifetime average? I just did a quick search on the 120 used Hummers in my region that are for sale, not one had more than 65,000 miles. Hummmm why would a marketing firm that has GM as a client produce a report that would promote large GM SUVs at the expense of Japanese imports? You don't need expertise in the auto industry to see through this one.

We bought a 2002 Prius in 2002, mostly because my wife test-drove it and decided it was more fun to drive than other vehicles she considered. In the 77,000 miles we've driven it, I've noted that the gas savings, though appreciable, are trivial compared to the savings in maintenance. The brakes are still as good as new, there's no transmission to worry about, there's no starter motor (the 300-volt battery is fed back into the generator) and so there's never really any "cold starts," since your essentially using an 80 horse motor to spin an 80 horse engine. The 12volt battery never has deep discharge, and may last forever. The 300-volt battery is really more of an electrolytic capacitor - we ran out of gas in the early days of ownership and only got a few miles on the battery.) We average 50-42 MPG on highways, 35-40 MPG in city, and 47-49 MPG on interstates. When the warrantee on the battery is up at 100,000 miles, we'll buy a new one for the $2,000. At $3.25 an "energy mile", the obviously lying idiots would put our 77,000 miles at an astonishing $250,250. But we only paid $22,000 for the car when it was new, and have only put at most several hundred in oil changes etc. into it since. Where is the other $227,000 coming from??? An "energy mile" is clearly a weird thing.

I was going to wade through all the comments, but I got impatient.

I want to see the actual *energy* cost in bbl (oil) kJ or MW or some other actual energy measure, not dollars.

By Richard Gay (not verified) on 01 Jul 2007 #permalink

CNW Marketing was responsible for a previous grossly dishonest report on the environmental impact of hummers versus hybrids (guess who they claimed came out on top).

In that previous instance they used information about the Sudbury nickel mine in Canada which was 20 or more years out of date.……

Given their past performance in this area, I think their latest work should be treated with an appropriate level of skepticism.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

When I first heard of this "study" a year ago, my smell-alarm was also tripped. A quick googling produced results like the following:

Driving a hybrid vehicle costs more in terms of overall energy consumed than comparable non-hybrid vehicles, according to a study by auto market firm CNW Marketing Research. The study, titled "Dust to Dust Automotive Energy Report" is a "well-to-wheel" type of analysis that takes into account not only the energy needed to drive a vehicle, but also the energy necessary to plan, build, sell and dispose of the vehicle from initial concept to scrappage.


"Well-to-wheel" analyses are very complex, as the results depend on hundreds of assumptions, many of which are arbitrary and prone to bias. The CNW report contradicts a number of earlier studies (including studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000 and 2003; a joint study by General Motors and Argonne National Laboratory of 2001; analysis by the Australian Greenhouse Office of 2001; and study for the Swedish National Road Administration of 2001) which assigned high energy efficiency ratings for hybrid vehicles.