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Prius Versus HUMMER: Exploding the Myth

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DISCUSS: Which one's greener?

 

Over the past year, there has been an explosion of stories raising questions about the real environmental cost of hybrids.

 

One of the most misleading ones, which has been spread by countless blogs over the past several weeks, and cited without verification by several sources that appear reputable, looks to have originated in a story last November in England’s Daily Mail, a right-leaning, British tabloid paper, which bore the gleefully spiteful title ‘Toyota factory turns landscape to arid wilderness.’ An editorial, published last month in a newspaper for a small state university on the East Coast, helped bring this misleading report a new life.

 

But it isn’t a Toyota factory at all. The automaker has, in fact, only been purchasing significant amounts of nickel from the Sudbury , Ontario , Inco mine for its batteries in recent years, while the environmental disaster the headline is referring to largely occurred more than thirty years ago.

 

And that ore is at the core of a semi-urban legend that leads to dumb headlines like “HUMMER Greener than Prius,” and others we’ve seen recently.

 

Toyota says that nickel has been mined from in Sudbury since the 1800s, and that “the large majority of the environmental damage from nickel mining in and around Sudbury was caused by mining practices that were abandoned decades ago.” Out of the Inco mine’s 174,800-ton output in 2004, Toyota purchased 1000 tons, just over a half-percent of its output. The plant’s emissions of sulfur dioxide are down 90 percent from 1970 levels, and it’s targeting a 97-percent reduction in those emissions by 2015, according to Toyota.

 

Of course, metal-hydride hybrid batteries aren’t the only use for nickel. One widespread use of nickel is for the chrome (chromium-nickel) plating that’s widely used in trim and wheels for luxury vehicles. And according to the Nickel Institute, which represents trade groups, manufacturers, and nickel producers, about two-thirds of all nickel mined goes toward stainless steel, which is of course widely used in vehicles — exhaust systems, for instance. Another significant portion goes toward engine alloys — pistons, rings, liners and the like; in general, the larger the engine, the more nickel it’s likely to have.

 

 

Living in the limelight

 

On to the other, more significant source of these stories: About a year ago, CNW Marketing Research, Inc., of Bandon, Ore., a firm with a well-established reputation for industry forecasting, made claims last year that that hybrid vehicles used more energy in their lifetime, from creation to disposal, than many SUVs. The tagline of one of CNW’s releases was, “Hybrids Consumer More Energy in Lifetime Than Chevrolet’s Tahoe SUV.”

 

With the full study released in December, called “Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal,” CNW claims to assess all stages of vehicle production, including research and development, raw material production and sourcing, production and assembly, sales, operation and maintenance, and disposal of the vehicle at the end of its life.

 

CNW argues that its study is not geared to be an assault on hybrids, but in interpreting its results CNW states that environmentalists’ faith in hybrids as a more efficient means of transportation is misguided to a degree, as many larger vehicles with lower gas mileage actually use less energy from dust to dust. Several outlets have held on to the idea that a Prius does more damage to the environment than a HUMMER, with the CNW study as their sole source. But of course, that study aside, there’s a fatal flaw in this reporting: environmental damage and energy are not at all synonymous.

 

Lifecycle analysis is nothing new to the auto industry. It’s been done internally for decades with cars and all manner of household appliances and electronics. What is new this decade is that a significant portion of shoppers are considering it, spurred by the recent movement toward environmental consumerism, and pop-culture books like 2002’s Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, which focuses on the recycling of consumer goods.

 

CNW’s research was done largely ‘under the radar,’ using publicly available data along with phone and mail research and on-site analysis of assembly plants. The research included demographics such as how far the vehicle was expected to go in its lifetime and over how many years the vehicle will remain with its initial buyer. Other factors included lifetime maintenance, mechanical repairs, and accident repairs; design and development costs; manufacturing (including energy in employee commuting); administrative support; transportation to retail; dealership operations; and the cost of recycling and disposing of parts and materials.

 

HUMMER has, for example, established a new national network of new, standalone Quonset hut, hangar-style dedicated dealership facilities over the past several years, and a completely new assembly plant was built for the assembly of the H2 SUV, which would bring their lifetime cost up significantly.

 

After all the numbers had been crunched, among vehicles sold in the U.S. in the 2005 calendar year, CNW found the least expensive vehicle to be the Scion xB at 48 cents per mile in overall energy costs. The most energy-expensive vehicle was the Maybach at $11.58 per mile in energy costs over its estimated lifetime. The VW Phaeton, Rolls-Royce line, and Bentley line followed closely behind. In all of these instances, these are overall energy costs incurred from inception through disposal, not energy costs associated only with vehicle ownership.

 

To compare, the Toyota Prius involves $3.25 per mile in energy costs over its lifetime, according to CNW, while several full-size SUVs scored lower. A Dodge Viper involves only $2.18 in energy per mile over its lifetime. The Range Rover Sport costs $2.42, and the Cadillac Escalade costs $2.75.

 

“If a consumer is concerned about fuel economy because of family budgets or depleting oil supplies, it is perfectly logical to consider buying high-fuel-economy vehicles, said Art Spinella, president of CNW, in a release. “But if the concern is the broader issues such as environmental impact of energy usage, some high-mileage vehicles actually cost society more than conventional or even larger models over their lifetime.

 

 

The junkyard brawl ensues

Some of the greater cost of hybrids, according to CNW, is due to the higher cost of recycling hybrids. On an energy basis, the firm says, vehicles cost an energy-equivalent average of $119,000 to recycle, while hybrids average $140,000. But CNW later says that it calculates the Prius’s battery as costing $93 in energy to recycle.

 

Toyota says that credible scientific research has found that end-of-life recycling and disposal use disproportionately small amounts of energy. Although CNW does say that vehicle recycling accounts for about one-quarter of all the energy used in U.S. recycling, it also says that much of the extra energy cost of hybrids is due to their complexity, which requires more energy through many stages of its life, such as in sourcing materials and making repair.

 

“If Toyota can reduce the complexity of building hybrids to a simple ‘plug and play’ system whereby major hybrid electrics and electronics can be easily detached and disposed of for simplified replacement, the cost would drop dramatically. That is not the case with most hybrids today, however,” CNW says.

 

Toyota has responded that CNW’s study does not include any specific information on its methodology or data sources, and it does not at all agree with the bulk of scientific studies on vehicle lifecycle analysis, many of which conclude that about 85 percent of total lifetime energy use occurs in driving the vehicle. CNW’s study shows these ratios approximately reversed.

 

In a prepared statement, the automaker says, “Toyota has been doing lifecycle assessment for many years to evaluate various advanced vehicle technology. We…believe that the best way to assess the environmental impact of a vehicle is to do a full evaluation of all the inputs and outputs in every stage of a vehicle life.”

 

 

Fueling the controversy

David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, thinks that CNW’s results and apparent methodology bring red flags. “This study has been completely contradicted by studies from MIT, Argonne National Labs and Carnegie Mellon’s Lifecycle Assessment Group. The reality is hybrids can significantly cut global warming pollution, reduce energy use, and save drivers thousands at the pump,” commented Friedman.

 

CNW’s figures, for example, show that the Civic Hybrid can cost nearly $165,000 more over its lifetime, “dust to dust,” than the standard Civic, which is a difficult figure to swallow, even considering the extra development, materials, and disposal of the Hybrid variant. Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system is a mild hybrid system and many engineers have admired its elegant and simple design and function, considering the efficiency gains.

 

The CNW study fuels further controversy by alleging that automakers — specifically mentioning Toyota — don’t include the energy that goes into modules that are built by suppliers and then shipped to the assembly plant. But Toyota insists that its methods include all materials and components that go into the vehicle, not only those manufactured internally by the automaker.

 

Toyota concedes that there is more energy required in the materials production stage for its hybrids, but says that it is overwhelmingly made up by less energy used during its driving lifetime.

 

But Toyota also says that the study uses an unrealistically low estimated lifetime for hybrids, and that there's no data to support its assumptions in this. For instance, according to the study the average Prius is expected to go 109,000 miles over its lifetime, while a Hummer H1 would go 379,000 miles. CNW says about hybrids: “…these are generally secondary vehicles in a household OR they are driven in restricted or short range environments such as college campuses or retirement neighborhoods.”

 

One other area of the study that some critics have found to be misleading is that CNW only included the so-called design and development cost of models sold so far, not on the potential volume of that technology in the long run.

 

In a section that seems to be leading to the dismissal of existing hybrids as having technology with a short shelf life, the study goes on to say that “…many of the hybrid models — such as the Insight and Prius — are early renditions of the technology that are being or soon will be replaced by more efficient and less complicated versions effectively making the current versions obsolete within a few short years.”

 

In a similar manner, the methodology also looks to take into account how many vehicles have been produced by existing factories so far, not how many vehicles might be produced over the lifetime of the factories, so Toyota and other automakers who have recently established more efficient factories lose out, even though the facilities might be more efficient. The firm also includes the energy importance of where assembly plants are located, in factors such as how far, and how, its employees commute.

 

Grasping the ‘social energy’ of what you drive

2008 HUMMER H3 AlphaCNW also includes overall “social energy expenditures,” which it describes in very little detail except with a coffee analogy, alleging that while most peer-review papers only analyze the energy demands from the grinding of the coffee forward, the firm’s report analyzes everything including the “coffee mug maker.”

 

But if the mug could also just as well be used for tea or hot chocolate, do you still include that cost? As you dig farther up the supply chain, the answers seem to get fuzzier, and without figures or meaty methodology details from CNW it’s unclear what kind of assumptions were made. The firm has not responded to our request for comment.

 

While its methodology may remain unclear, the report does include some useful and eye-opening information that few car shoppers had likely even thought about. Hopefully this controversy will spur shoppers to demand more information about the vehicles they drive other than emissions and mpg and consider the big-picture impact.

 

Related articles

 

Nissan Plans New Batteries, Plug-Ins by TCC Team (4/15/2007)
Battery joint venture could revive EV, kick-start plug-in hybrids.

 

Zetsche Promises Every DC A Hybrid by Joseph Szczesny (4/8/2007)
CEO says green machines are company’s big goal.

 

Toyota Puts $2000 Spiff on Prius by TCC Team (4/4/2007)
Company on track for half-million hybrids.

 

Honda Called Greenest Automaker by Bengt Halvorson (4/3/2007)
Honda and Toyota cleanest, DC dirtiest, says group.

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