Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Guest Post: Why I Hate the Prius

(This is a guest post by Carbon Hacker, who may have some other guest posts here in the future. I'll post some thoughts later in the comments or in a separate post. -Brian)

First off, I don't really hate the Prius. I just thought it would make a better title than “I am mildly disappointed by the Prius.” Besides, I'm told it's a fine car, and most of its owners that I have spoken with are happy with it.

But really, here are a list of things, in no particular order, that “bug” me about the Prius.

  • Underserved Kudos for Toyota

Yes, the Prius comes with a lot of enviro-cred, but Toyota sells plenty of cars with low fuel economy, and they have fought increased CAFE standards as vociferously as our friends in Detroit.

  • Hacker-unfriendlinesss

Sure, all cars are close systems, not designed for tinkering, but it's too bad. The Prius could have been an interesting platform for amateur experimentation with hybrid technology. What if you put in a bigger battery? What if you changed the software that controls everything just so? Sure, some enterprising companies have done just this, but my understanding is that this voids the warranty, and in many cases means either 1) completely bypassing a lot of the Toyota control software and hardware and replacing it with something new or 2) not making any changes to the built-in controls at all, causing the car not be be able to completely take advantage enhancements like a higher capacity battery.

  • Engineering inelegance

To me, the parallel hybrid drive is an evolutionary dead end. The electric motor is a barnacle attached to a traditional ICE drive train. I'm sure Toyota had good reasons for doing it this way, but it means the car has a truly complex and funky transmission. I wonder how much energy is lost in that baby? I'm looking forward to seeing the series hybrids, where the ICE only turns a generator. Such systems may be able to avoid transmissions altogether, and have the added benefit of simplifying the design and operation of the ICE because it only needs to run at one, optimal, speed for charging the batteries.

  • Going nowhere

Another dig at Toyota, but why isn't this car getting better, faster? It's fuel economy has not changed in years (though the EPA method for measuring it has.) Clearly, the lack of serious competition in this space is having an effect. It doesn't look like Toyota has put a nickle into this car in years.

  • Conspicuous Consumption

Rather than its great gas mileage, I would argue that the defining aspect of the Prius is its peculiar shape. It is that shape, recognizable to all, that sells the car. This is not really a knock on the car, but something about human nature that never ceases to disappoint. People sometimes buy things because they make them look good. Unfortunately, if you want to reduce carbon emissions there are many, many things you can do that are going to be much more efficient than buying a Prius. But most of them don't impress the neighbors.

  • The wrong people buy it

I see it every day: people selling their 28mpg sedan to buy the 45mpg Prius. That's a nice thing, but unless you drive a lot, the CO2 impact is not that great. On 12,000 miles a year, that's an annual savings of 162 gallons of gasoline and it's associated carbon. Not bad, but if somebody could build a product that would convince a 15mpg SUV driver to buy a new SUV that got 24mpg (same ratio used above), that would save about 300 gallons. We're talking 2x as much gas savings. (And let's not even get into the energy debt of manufacturing a Prius – which is relatively high – or what happens to your old ICE after you sell it, both of which are very relevant to this conversation). There are a bunch of hybrid SUVs on the market, so it's particularly disappointing that it is the Prius that is the leading hybrid.

Taking all this into consideration, I will make a ridiculously proposal. Everyone who is considering buying a Prius should instead just keep their current car in good repair as long as possible, combine trips, carpool, and when the time comes, buy something cheap and simple. Pool your savings and donate them to a fund devoted to designing and fielding a hybrid tractor for big rigs. If you must, get a bumper sticker for your un-sexy car that says you did so.

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