From an individualistic perspective, hybrid cars may not make a great difference for consumers wishing to buy them to save money on gas. However, collectively hybrid cars can help reduce environmental problems. Government must take steps to incentivize the buying of hybrid cars to make them 'worth it' to consumers.
What are hybrid cars?
Hybrid cars are called 'hybrids' because they contain two engines. A hybrid car "features a small fuel-efficient gas engine combined with an electric motor that assists the engine when accelerating. The electric motor is powered by batteries that recharge automatically while you drive" ("Hybrid cars," Earth Easy, 2012). The reason that hybrids use two engine models is that they are designed to balance both the strengths and the weaknesses of gas and electric motors. Electric motors turn off completely and do not waste energy during idle time. They also burn less gas at lower speeds than standard gas motors. However, at higher speeds, gas motors are actually more efficient. Most drivers drive at a variety of speeds. So, during in-town driving or rush hour traffic, electric mowers are more efficient, but gas motors function better at highway driving (Dunn 2006).
"There are two types of gasoline-electric hybrid cars: the parallel hybrid and the series hybrid. In a parallel hybrid car, a gasoline engine and an electric motor work together to move the car forward, while in a series hybrid the gasoline engine either directly powers an electric motor that powers the vehicle or charges batteries that will power the motor" ("Hybrid cars," Earth Easy, 2012). The use of hybrid technology also eliminates one of the most common downsides of buying a hybrid car: what happens if it runs out of a charge. "Another benefit of having the gas motor is it charges the batteries while it's running" (Dunn 2006).
The Japanese automotive company Toyota remains the most widely-recognized leader in hybrid manufacturing. Honda and Toyota were the earliest companies conducting research in the field when American car companies dismissed the idea of hybrid technology. The result of Japanese manufacturer's diligence was the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. U.S. car makers lagged behind in hybrid research as well as production. The GM Mercury Mariner, for example, required GM to "license over 20 separate technologies from the Japanese" (Dunn 2006). American car companies released hybrids not to sell, but to satisfy Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations. "Current standards mandate that average mileage of the fleet of cars sold by an automaker should be 27.5 mpg. This means that if an automaker sells one hybrid car that gets 60 mpg, it can then sell four less efficient cars - like SUVs and trucks - that only get 20 mpg" (Dunn 2006). "Despite years of ridicule from the rest of the auto industry, Toyota has defied conventional wisdom and built hybrid cars because they believe in them. In fact, Toyota's long-term business model is significantly hedged to hybrid cars" ("2012 hybrid cars: Has interest really declined," Hybrid Cars, 2012)
While hybrid vehicles use less gas, from the consumer's point-of-view they contain many downsides. First of all, they are more expensive than a standard, fuel-efficient car. Secondly, because they contain two engines there is a greater chance of the car malfunctioning in either the electric or the gas component of the system. "So owners of hybrids can expect more time in the shop and larger repair bills" (Dunn 2006). The cost savings for the consumer of hybrid cars are not overwhelming: hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius are only "20% to 35% better than a fuel efficient gasoline powered vehicle - like the Honda Civic, for example, that gets 36 mpg...when comparing prices - hybrids cost from $19,000 to $25,000 and gas saver cars cost $14,000 to $17,000 - the justification to buy becomes less clear...the difference in average annual fuel bills - $405 for a Honda Insight versus $635 for a Honda Civic - means you may never recoup the added initial cost of a hybrid. Over a ten-year period owning a hybrid will save you only $2,300 - less than the cost difference for comparably equipped cars" (Dunn 2006).
And that is assuming that the cars are as fuel-efficient as their labels claim. Most drivers report that in terms of mpg, the cars as 10% less fuel-efficient than the manufacturers' policy. "When consulting manufactures web pages for mileage tips, they list the same ones that would give better fuel economy from any car: drive slow, no jack rabbit starts, etc." (Dunn 2006). Because repair costs must also be factored into an evaluation of hybrid cars, many consumers with an eye upon their budgets are simply opting to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles with standard gas engines until the benefits for the consumers of hybrids grow more starkly manifest. "Much of the fuel efficiency comes from improvements in aero dynamics, weight reduction and, the biggest change: a smaller, less powerful gas engine. In fact, any car will get substantially better mileage just by reducing the engine size. The main reason this is not done has to do customer demand - they want the extra power and zippiness" (Dunn 2006). From a consumer's point-of-view, simply selecting a car with a smaller engine will result in just as much in terms of savings on fuel without buying a hybrid vehicle. A budget-conscious consumer can buy a small, used car with a gas engine and save on initial costs and car payments, and drive the car using fuel-efficiency tips.
Additionally, some drivers also simply do not like the way hybrid cars 'handle' for similar reasons that they dislike fuel-efficient cars and prefer SUVs or vehicles with smaller, less powerful engines. There are currently larger hybrids than the flagship Prius on the market today, but the power of their engines does not compare with their non-hybrid incarnations. Some drivers find the Prius and small hybrids 'funny looking' and do not like to be seen driving them. They find the models flimsy and unpleasant to drive.
So why get a hybrid? From an individual perspective, hybrids may not be a great deal. But "even a small increase in fuel economy makes a large difference in emissions over the life of the car. Also, in large cities were pollution is at its worst, they make an even larger difference since they produce very little emissions during low speed city driving and the inevitable traffic jams" (Dunn 2006). From a societal perspective, hybrids fulfill an important function. "A hybrid cuts emissions by 25% to 35% over even the most fuel-efficient gas-powered models" (Dunn 2006).
Some car companies have attempted to answer the question of the problem of high repair costs of hybrids by offering financial rewards. "The Honda Insight has an eight-year/80,000-mile warranty on most of the power train, including batteries, and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on the rest of the car. The Toyota Prius has an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery and hybrid systems and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on everything else" (Dunn 2006). The ability to drive as a single passenger in an HOV (high-occupancy vehicle lane) is another benefit hybrid drivers can often enjoy, which can be a valuable saving of time for commuters hurrying to work.
The government has extended some tax incentives in the past to drivers to buy hybrids in a manner that could have a salutary effect upon the environment, such as $3,400 tax break at one point, although it only applied to the first 60,000 vehicles produced annually by the manufacturer (Dunn 2006). However, given the substantial risks and the questionable long-term fuel efficiency rewards provided by hybrid cars, the value for the consumer of a relatively moderate tax break for an expensive car is questionable.
Despite the science behind how much can be saved by using hybrids, it is worthy of note that many hybrids have been purchased because of the perception that they are more fuel-efficient, and in some circles, because of their symbolism of environmental consciousness. When gas prices begin to spike in 2008, hybrids became trendy and waiting lists were necessary to obtain the vehicles. Many celebrities were seen driving hybrids, as a way of signaling their concern about the environment (Weismann 2008).
However, hybrid sales began to decline in 2011, as the price of gas began to moderate slightly. "2011 hybrid sales were down largely because of a new crop of small cars, such as the Hyundai Elantra and the Chevy Cruze, offered increased fuel economy at a cheaper-than-hybrid price" ("2012 hybrid cars: Has interest really declined," Hybrid Cars, 2012). Consumers, reflecting upon the relatively modest savings in terms of price conveyed by hybrids instead elected to purchase these smaller, cheaper gas vehicles that were also fuel-efficient. Although the economy is still largely perceived as being on shaky ground, American car consumers also traditionally do not 'hold onto' their cars particularly long, which may mean the may not enjoy the full price savings conveyed by hybrids over the long-term, unless the…