The anti-hybrid “dust-to-dust” cost study that just won’t die, but needs to

To me, hybrids make intuitive sense. Why not recover some of the energy that will otherwise be converted to heat by the brakes?

But some people hate hybrids. And for them CNW’s ‘Dust to Dust Automotive Energy Report’ has been a godsend. It claims that once you consider all of the energy costs that go into a vehicle, from development through manufacture, ownership, and disposal, that hybrids cost far more than ordinary cars. Compared to the Prius, a hyper-pricey, gas-swilling Porsche Cayenne is allegedly less wasteful.

I haven’t written a critique of this study, because the findings are so obviously off-base that it didn’t seem worth the time and energy. But it keeps getting cited, most recently by an otherwise excellent blog I just stumbled across, A Car is Not a Refrigerator.  

So it seems a critique is necessary after all.

Blogger Car “Dude” Alan usefully posts not only CNW’s cost per mile figures, but also the estimated life of each car. He’s actually posted the numbers from last year’s study, not this year’s, but I’ll assume that the projected lifetime hasn’t changed much. CNW states that their margin of error could be as wide as 15 percent. Wishful thinking.

The least expensive car, allegedly, is the Scion xB. It is projected to cost 0.492 dollars (love the precision to three decimal places!) over a lifetime of 189,000 miles. A little math finds a total cost of $92,988. And this is the cheapest car to own, by a good margin. Five cars from the bottom we’re already at 0.70 dollars per mile. And the lowly Chevolet Malibu, one of the least expensive “lower mid-range” cars? $1.962 per mile. Muliply by the projected lifetime of 163,000 miles, and we’ve got a lifetime cost of $319,806.

Let’s assume these cars will be driven 12,000 miles per year. Then that Malibu costs $23,544 per year. Own two similarly mid-level cars? Then apparently you’re paying about $46,000 each year to buy them and keep them going.

How can CNW issue a report with these numbers, and keep a straight face? Not just once, but now for the second straight year? These numbers aren’t just off. They’re so far off that the study was clearly based on extreme assumptions that, based on the results, should not have been made. (These assumptions discussed in a subsequent blog entry.)

Yes, they’ve calculated the amount of energy required, then converted this into dollars based on the current cost of energy. But in the capitalist system within which we live, virtually all costs end up reflected in the price to the customer. No one is heavily subsidizing General Motors’ electric bill. Or the energy bills of its suppliers. Or the energy bills of its employees. GM pays its employees and suppliers (who pay their employees), and GM’s customers pay GM.

So when I see CNW’s claim that the Toyota Prius costs $2.865 per mile, while a Porsche Cayenne costs $2.539, I’m not buying it. Few Porsche owners can afford to spend over $30,000 per year per vehicle, much less the average Prius owner. Put another way, they’re saying that it costs more to operate a Prius for a single year than Toyota charges for the car.

Just because a report says something you like to hear doesn’t mean it’s true.

  • blowfish

    One can argue as effective as Chicken or the eggs comes first.
    Or someone eats all organic food and pray that they may live to 150 yrs old, in harsh reality even if u eat all the right food u get no Guarantee that u’ll live to old age. IE Jimmy Fixx he bought the farm at relative young age and he’s the proponent of exercise, keep fit.

    Given N America vast acreage of land, one cannot do away with commuting 1-2 hrs per day. All these will add up. Doesn’t matter how we keep green , is going to have Smogs.
    One article says when the cows feel cool another Polar bear get drowned.
    Perhaps we need to go back to horse n buggy days. Work from sun up to sun down, nowadays our work days is totally screwed.

    OT with all these safety navigation aids, some woman asked for my direction while on the street. They need to go another 15 km farther, do they really know how to read anything at all, the map or the TV screen where here GPS is?
    Flashing rear brake lights by Mercedes will they save anybody whose had been up all night?

    So are we doing all these before its time? Just like the Crosleys many years ago?
    Doing the right thing will save our planet?

  • salguod

    The cheapest is $0.50 per mile? I keep very good electronic records on my car maintenance and I can’t come close to their figures. My 1993 Escort that I drove for about 160,000 miles cost me $0.185 per mile which includes payments, gas, repairs but no insurance. My 1999 Odyssey over about 100,000 miles is at $0.357 per mile and even my 1 year old, 16,000 mile 2005 Mazda3 is only at $0.400, and that includes my $400+ monthly payment. Heck, even my toy 1960 Thunderbird is under $0.500.

  • craig

    I agree with you that the costs per mile cited in the CNW report seem to be overstated, but this does not mean that their ranking of the relative whole-of-life costs of building and running a hybrid are necessarily wrong. While regenerative braking and a smaller engine, sized for charging and power supplementation, do make intuitive sense, there are many offsetting disadvantages that obtain to the hybrid. There is the increased mass, for example, the mechanical complexity and the use of costly, energy-intensive materials in electric motors, cabling and batteries. The claim that hybrids will not achieve the same total mileage as conventional cars also seems plausible. Complexity will tell against a long operational life (it always does, in every mechanical system) and owners will not be inclined to stump up $5000 for a battery changeover too often. It might happen once. But twice? After sixteen years or so? I don’t think so.

  • Michael

    The cost per mile is so tremendously overstated that it throws the entire study into question. Anyone with a shred of judgment would look at those numbers, conclude that some assumptions were far wide of the mark, and head back to the drawing board.

    This doesn’t mean that hybrids are less expensive to operate. What it does mean is that you can conclude nothing based on this particular study except that saying a Hummer H3 requires less energy per mile driven than a Prius really draws in the press corps.

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  • big_paul

    This study sounds like weapons-grade baloney to me. In fact, it doesn’t even pass the giggle-test.

    When I was in university, I worked as a delivery driver, and my commute to/from school was ~30 km. I put at least 15,000 km (more likely 25 or 30 K) on my 1993 toyota corolla per year.

    According to this study, I had to make between $45,000 and $90,000 a year as a pizza-delivery driver just to pay for my car. I don’t need to check my tax returns to know that wasn’t the case.

    Also, to all the people who like to talk about how the hybrid only does a bit better than a small car:

    Um, you know you can plug it in at night, right? The batteries don’t, by definition, have to be charged by the burning of fossil fuels.

    Now, how your electricity is generated makes for a wide range of debate here on wether or not this is a good thing for the environment. But really, if we don’t want to go back to the stone age, it’s way past time to start building a nuclear power plant in every city with a population of 100,000 or more.

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  • c3474

    To all that think the prices are over-stated and calculated your own figures.

    The figures that you posted on your personal cars are interesting. But, I’m assuming you calculated the cost of the car, gas, basic maintenance and repairs. HOWEVER, if you read the study closely you will find that the cost per mile IS NOT the cost to the consumer. It is an energy cost converted to a dollar amount.

    So, I would ask all of you that calculatd cost figures to go back, start over, and include ENERGY cost figures for mining and refining raw material, shipping and manufaturing costs, assembly, and last but not least add the figures you calculated (the cost of the car, gas, basic maintenance and repairs), but with added calculation for pumping, refining and transporting every gallon of gas, quart of oil and/or repairs. Oh hell, include the calories (plus the cost of food production) that the salesman used to pitch the sales line, too.

    Think about it. Cars are expesive.

  • Michael

    Think about it–who is paying all of these costs you mention, if not the consumer?

    No one. All such costs are necessarily reflected in the purchase price of the car, fuel, and maintenance, which are paid by the consumer.

    Raw material costs, the cost to feed the salesman, and so forth all end up in the price of the car. The cost to transport gas ends up in the price of gas. Welcome to Capitalism 101.

  • c3474

    First off, remeber, this is an ENERGY cost converted to dollar amount.

    Secondly, there are many reasons the cost wouldn’t be immidiatly evident to the consumer. For example; why do you think petrolium is so cheap in the U.S. compared to almost all other countries in the world. Government subsidy. With out all our tax dollars at work the cost of gas at the pump would be more in the range of 8-15 dollars a gallon. Next remember that still over 50% of the power in the U.S. is directly from fossil fuels. Even the food is fertilized by petrochemical fertilizers (oil derived)… All these Government subsidiezed. So where does all this money come from? Well, tax dollars (so, yes, partly the consumer and “Capitalism 101”), but also the U.S. isn’t exactly paid up on our debts either…

    Anyway, with all this in mind, we are terribly spoiled. We don’t pay the “real” price for anything if you think about it. Energy comes at a cost. A big one. We have all been spoiled by cheap, abundant energy in the form of petroleum for a while now. When it runs out (I do realize this is debatable when, but we all know we will eventually) we will be back to paying “real price” for things.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the figures in this report might actually be conservative…

  • c3474

    Sorry, looking at my last post I’m still not being very clear.
    Remeber back to science class. There is a law of conservation of energy. What the law states that all the NET energy in the entire universe = 0. So if you look at the earth as an individual body (that is, without the sun) all net energy = 0 and nothing happens (minus tapping into geothermal or gravitational magnetics or tidal if you want to include the moon in the “earth body”). With the sun we have a surplus of energy on earth. Plants utilize this energy to make sugars. Omnivores and carnivores (that eat onmivores) both really only exist because some plants convert this excess energy into sugars. So, only with the light and heat energy from the sun are we able to do anything. And by the same token we are limited to the amount of energy we use to as much as we receive from the sun.
    I’ll compare this to economics. Oil acts like a bank. All it is, is an energy storage system that utilized and stored sun energy at one time. But, once our “bank account” get to “zero” we are back to using our limited, day to day, good ‘ol sun shine (geothermal, tidal or gravitaional if we get inventive enough by then). We would have then depleted our “savings”.

    So what is the cost of a car?! A dollar amount to the consumer?! How can the cost be calculated when the consumer pays using a “savings account” that he never saved?? Thus, we have the ENERGY cost in a dollar amount.

  • Mr. Material

    So I see yet another few people didn’t even open up the official 400 page PDF report they made about this research. I managed to read about 30 some pages in, and this report is way beyond your guys’ comprehension.

    To start, you guys have already completely misunderstood this whole thing right from the get go! How? The cost per mile statistic. This report is 400 pages long for a reason guys, i thought i understood the information just by looking at the list, but it’s not that simple. “It is important to note that the original owner of the vehicle doesn’t pay this amount,” states the official document. First off, this isn’t what the person pays. If we all paid the amount of money that we damage the earth with, then we wouldn’t be able to buy all the cheap goods from china, or even buy local meat! No, this price per mile is based on the amount of energy, in BTU’s converted to gasoline at the price of $3.00 a gallon, is taken from the earth itself.

    Here’s a quote from the official document: “Over the course of 2003, the White Board became crowded with every conceivable energy-required action necessary to conceive, produce, drive, and dispose of a vehicle. In all, nearly 4,000 data points were considered pertinent.”

    Four thousand factors in this equation people! This goes far beyond just how much it takes to make the car. Based on what i’ve read, some factors of this equation include the factory workers commute to work, just how much waste goes into each assembly plant, the pollution shipping it to the states, oh i forgot to mention the pollution and materials used for even designing the car in step one.

    There was even an explanation involving the selection of the Scion Xb as the greenest car, and believe it or not it has nothing to do with the amount of miles it lasts or how many miles per gallon it has.

    Here let me just quote the original document again, which i firmly believe people should at least skim through before raging against the years of hard research:
    “Because of its generally overall attractiveness to an older consumer group and the concentration
    of xBs in relatively fair weather climates, there is (as history and CNW data has shown) less
    likelihood of accidents and repairs yet because of its high acquisition by younger consumers
    there are lower incidents of regular energy-consuming maintenance (oil, tires, batteries, etc.).

    In both the older and younger audiences, repair of minor damage to sheet metal is more
    often ignored thus similarly reducing the energy requirements on a Dust to Dust basis.

    It should also be pointed out that on a Dust to Dust basis, the Estimated Miles doesnít mean the
    vehicle is ìused upî and has no life remaining, only that this is the approximate mileage at the
    time it is removed from the streets as a daily-use vehicle and sent for disposal as either a source
    of parts or eventually scrapped.”

    Read it and weep people, this information isn’t as user friendly as it seemed. half of this seems to be based on who buys the car and what their life is like. I have yet to completely understand the research they did.

    Also, from a life of personal experience, it makes complete sense to me that the hummer h3 is better, or damned close, to the prius in terms of the environment for a few reasons. First off in the design process, the prius has a collection of pruis specific parts. The H3, is actually a chevy colorado, or a gmc canyon, or the isuzu equivalent, in disguise. The prius is a single car where as the H3 is multiple. This doesnt even count all the brakes, engines, and other mechanical components which are used in many other vehicles. What GM did was spent alot of time and production on parts, but in the end they end up with multiple vehicles, and even more interchangeable parts, and toyota ended up with one car, and there’s no doubt that at least some of the prius’ parts are interchangeable but not nearly as much as the H3. This doesnt even account for the length of time before the consumer scraps it. Based on CMR’s studies, it seems that by 109k people either get rid of or scrap the prius. I can understand people selling the car or not driving it because of the battery price. The h3 on the other hand will be kept until well over 200k miles. Not necessarily because it is more reliable, but because it’s function as a passenger vehicle surpasses that of the Pruis and it’s varieties are very useful and well designed trucks. Admit it, for an econobox, there’s alot of people who look for another car after 109k miles, especially when the battery is giving out and your mileage has constantly decreased due to battery decay.

    Don’t get me wrong though, i believe the hybrid should still be purchased. There’s a ton of new jobs being formed around battery production, and everyone, recently Toyota, is investing on the success of battery powered vehicles. At this rate, lithium will be the new oil and with batteries being 100 percent recyclable there’s alot of potential for the battery future. Heck, we already know of a HUGE deposit in Bolivia.

  • Michael

    If some of their assumptions are clearly flawed, then reading 400 pages isn’t going to change this.

    The average life of a Prius is clearly far beyond 109,000 miles, for one thing.

    Another, not pointed out in my critique here, is that they divided R&D and factory construction costs by the number of cars produced to date, without making any assumption about how many more cars would be produced by this investment. So relatively young models and technology were severely penalized.