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Warning: Toyota Prius Falls Short of Fuel Efficiency Expectations

Toyota PriusThe Toyota Prius takes its name from the Latin adverb, “prior”, meaning ahead, in-front, or leading. Although the name is fitting for the established leader of the hybrid automobile market, the Prius suffers from shortcomings that are often associated with technological forerunners.

First-off, what makes the Prius such an overwhelmingly popular hybrid vehicle given the many hybrid options on the market today? Honda, Japan’s second largest vehicle manufacturer, is renowned for their reliable and high quality vehicles including the Civic Hybrid based off of the manufacturer’s best selling model. Sure, the Toyota Prius is a little bigger and has marginally better EPA mileage ratings, but the real reason that the Toyota is stealing the market is that the Prius “looks” like a hybrid and the Hybrid Civic looks exactly like its gasoline counterpart. … “Hey, look at me in my hybrid! I care!”The Insight, one of the first quirky looking hybrid vehicles offered in the US by Honda, just never caught on. But now, sales are showing that owning a Prius has become more of an environmental fashion statement than the purist pursuit of functionality and efficiency. It seems environmentally concerned owners can now say to the public simply by driving a Prius, “Hey, look at me in my hybrid! I care!” without fear of being confused with a similar looking gasoline vehicle simply because the Prius is a strictly hybrid model. And that’s great because I’m all for saving the planet and raising awareness of the growing concern for the environment but, before you run off and buy your way into a greener future there are a few things to consider.

Prius Fuel Economy Overstated

For starters most owners are not satisfied with the fuel mileage that they get with a Prius. Latest EPA testing shows 48mpg in the city and 45mpg on the highway. … most owners are not satisfied with the fuel mileage that they get with a Prius.From what I have heard from owners, these figures are very hard to achieve even with the lightest use of the pedal. And if you’re one of those drivers passing me at 80mph on the interstate, forget about it! This EPA highway tests are done at 55mph on an even grade. Anything over that reduces mileage exponentially as drag increases. Around town is where the Prius really shines as computer management cuts the gas engine and the torquey electric motors pull the car from a stop with ease. Even so, I drive a Toyota Corolla and at 34mpg city/41mpg highway and $12,000 less, it would take 100′s of thousands of miles on a Prius before I would break even cost wise. Some owners groups that were not satisfied with the mileage came up with a kit that includes additional battery capacity and engine management to achieve figures in the 100mpg range under certain driving conditions. But figure to dump about another ten grand on your new ride to get those figures and push the break-even plane out even further.

Environmental Impact Oversimplified

Environmental Protection Agency LogoEmission wise, the story is similar when comparing the Prius to a small gasoline powered car. The Corolla I have is an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle and the Prius has even better ratings as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle but, that looks at its operation as a whole. In the city the Prius will win hands down considering the engine isn’t even on half of the time. But on the highway I think they will have to be very close, especially when considering those EPA figures. I have been behind one of these when the driver floors it and let me tell you they throw fumes and smoke like any other gasoline vehicle out there. Is there a better way? Of course! But to its credit, the Prius has always been a compromise between what’s good for the environment and what people will actually want to drive. Fuel mileage and emissions data are good information to have especially for the concerned environmentalist but, test drives sell cars and today’s market still has a high standard of minimum performance that has been brought about by a century of uncompromising gasoline engine performance.

Another compromise with the Prius comes when viewing the environmental impact of the Prius as a whole not just its daily operation. All modern vehicles use a variety of natural and man made materials that have to be mined or manufactured where some of these practices are quite harmful to the environment itself. … what’s the concerned motorist to do?Aluminum mining for example has been devastating to some of the worlds most beautiful places like Greenland because of increased soil erosion from strip mining and smog caused by the foundry’s constantly burning furnaces. Hybrid vehicles, with their use of specialized batteries, require the additional mining of precious metals for materials that make up the battery cell. When you look at all the extra energy that it takes to extract and form these materials, the reduced environmental impact of driving a hybrid car has to outweigh all of the negative environmental impact it took to create the car in the first place. Some early reports found that even a large SUV could have less of an impact on the environment over its lifetime when all things are considered including production and disposal. But that’s hard to say and more recent studies are not so sure. Either way, existing mining operations will have to be expanded and new ground broken to facilitate the production of the latest battery cells. Also these batteries are very detrimental to the environment if not disposed of properly or in the event of an accident. On top of that a Prius still relies on the drilling and consumption of oil and all of the political and environmental issues that come with it. Just something to think about on the way to Starbucks to meet with the Prius drivers group.

Cheaper and Environmentally Friendlier Alternatives

segway-fourwheeler.jpgSo what’s the concerned motorist to do? Well you could always drive less. Not an option? Consider the alternatives. Billions of people in Asia can’t all be wrong so I did my part and got a small displacement motorcycle. With 75mpg, the performance of a sports car and all the head room you can ask for, a 250cc motorcycle is a dream when the weather is fair.For those less adventurous there are a number of very fuel efficient vehicles on the market, both foreign and domestic. A careful cost analysis could prove that a Chevy Aveo might be the best choice for you and further production research could prove it to be the best overall choice for the environment. But if you’re still sick of relying on foreign oil like me and what I just told you turned you off to the Prius, hold-out for awhile. There are some very practical and innovative green ideas for future hybrids that have come as a result of the scrutiny of hybrid forerunners like the Prius.

Batteries have not advanced technologically at the rate the internal combustion engine has since their invention. Until very recently the same technology has been used in batteries for the past hundred or so years. Hybrids like the Prius have caused increased interest in the research and development of new battery technologies. Increasing capacity while minimizing cost,size and weight are the main objectives of this research. Doing so could make hybrids and electric vehicles of practical range and efficiency an affordable reality right from the manufacturer. Other improvements could come from revised engineering of the powertrain.

Gasoline engines are only some 30% efficient … Gasoline engines are only some 30% efficient at extracting energy from fuel and putting it to work under normal driving conditions. Electric motors are some 90% efficient at turning electrical energy into work. So why in the case of a Prius is the gas engine powering the wheels? Again it is because of a performance compromise at higher speeds. Drivers wanted to go fast and the manufacturer made a decision that a high speed motor would have made the cost of such a hybrid unattainable to mass market, especially in a “break-through” segment. Hopefully cost will continue to drop and a manufacture will produce a vehicle that only incorporates electric motors to drive the wheels, with a specialized motor for higher speeds. Doing so would would give hybrids more options when considering a power supply. For example there could still be a gas engine but, it would be designed to operate in a limited RPM range for maximum efficiency and merely recharge the batteries when needed. Better yet a diesel engine could be used that runs on conventional fuel or biofuel. But why stop there? For the most environmentally friendly transportation a hydrogen fuel cell could be used to do the same thing. The hybrid vehicle could be a plug-in with a 100 mile electric-only range when fully charged, which would be more than enough for most commutes. Fuel consumption would be zero. If your trip takes you further then that, the fuel cell would kick in. No fossil fuels, no emissions just heat and water vapor.

Conclusions

… the Prius is definitely a step in the right direction …At any rate the Prius is definitely a step in the right direction, albeit a baby step. The success of this particular model shows that Toyota has made good calls at getting people on the hybrid bandwagon. With the debate on alternative energy raging on and the public interest growing, I seriously hope manufactures step up their game with innovative vehicle offerings that are both performance and environmentally oriented in all aspects of their operation and production. As for me, I’ll sit tight with my Corolla and 250cc motorcycle until something better comes along. I see big things for hydrogen in the future, a solution for all the world’s energy needs stemming from a hydrogen based economy.


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