Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hybrid Vehicles: One Year Update

We've had our hybrid vehicles for over a year now, and it is worth discussing our experience with them.

We purchased our 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid at the end of April, 2006, and our 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid at the end of July, 2006. Some of the results are good, but some were a little surprising.

It is difficult to compare our new vehicles directly to our old. The things that stand out as being good are the GPS, the better feel of a new car, and the better gas mileage than the vehicles they replaced. Those are the good things. I wanted to compare actual mileage and fuel used, but I can't find the records for our older cars (probably in a box somewhere in storage), so an actual usage comparison is tough, but we really haven't altered our driving habits, or, at least I don't think we have. In particular, we haven't purposely driven less to save energy. I'm seriously rethinking this conservation aspect due primarily to lack of alternatives. More on that in later posts.

One obvious reason the SUV is used more is that it is easier to travel with kids in the Highlander. There is definitely more room for us when we do travel in it (in fact, I don't think we have once all gone together in the Camry). Personally, I definitely enjoy the Highlander more than the Camry and usually take it to run errands, and in addtion, our babysitters use the Highlander to shuttle the kids around (they used to use their own vehicles until the gas cost started soaring).

The one thing that isn't so good, but is definitely understandable, is that we used the Highlander SUV more than the Camry. In fact it looks like we use it about twice as much! In the Highlander's first year, we drove 11,600 miles and used just under 493 gallons of gasoline for a fuel economy of 23.5 MPG. Not bad for an SUV. In the Camry's first year, we drove it approximately 5250 miles and used about 188 gallons for a fuel economy of 27.9 MPG. One amazing thing with the Camry is that we filled it only 15 times in the first year, about once every 3 1/2 weeks. That compares to the Highlander's 40 fillings in the first year.

From what I have read, to break even on the hybrid cost, fuel costs have to be over $3 per gallon. When we purchased the vehicles, the gasoline price was $3, but it fell to as low as $2.30 a gallong here in lower Fairfield County, CT. Since then, it has climbed back up closer to break-even. My own personal opinion is that the extra cost will indeed pay for itself, meaning that I'm expecting gas prices to be above $3 a gallon going forward for some time.

Our distance traveled is notable. At 16,850 miles in a year, that's only 4212 miles per family member. Nationally, on a per capita basis, the average mileage is about 12,000 miles annually per person. We have only 2 registered drivers, but I can assure you, most of the driving is for the kids and not for the parents. It helps that I work out of the house, and my wife works part time about 10 miles away. Our commutes are significantly less than the average commuter. Some of that is compensated in our higher than average residential energy usage.

At a combined 681 gallons in their first year, our gasoline usage is probably down about 20%. That's not bad, I suppose. If everyone in the nation could magically reduce their total oil usage (and not just gasoline) by 20%, we'd be down to 16 million barrels of oil per day instead of the 20-21 million barrels per day we use in the USA. With oil imports presently comprising 80% (roughly) of our usage, we'd only reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 5% (from 16 imported + 4 domestic million barrels per day to 12 million imported + 4 million domestic), and that assumes all the reduction would be in imports and not less production at home. Clearly, as a nation we need something more drastic.

A 20% demand reduction would have one major benefit. The cost of gasoline would definitely come down if magically demand were to fall by that amount. Instead of $80/barrel for crude, we'd probably be down to half of that. Gasoline stocks are very low at the moment, and that in and of itself adds a risk premium to the price. Refineries are old and straining to keep up their production. If the demand were to fall, stocks would build, and, more than anything else, larger stocks would bring down the fuel price.

To get the fuel reduction, however, one doesn't need a hybrid. One only needs a car with better fuel economy. In fact, this is my biggest criticism of the hybrid to date. In the current models, the vehicles need gasoline to run, and they cannot run without it. The battery technology is only used to save energy during braking. If instead we could plug in the batteries and charge it with other means, then the gasoline consumption could go down dramatically. We need the ability to plug them in. Until then, I don't see how we cannot be dependent upon foreign sources for our transportation sector.

Toyota sent me a survey form to evaluate the Highlander. In the comments section I wrote words to the effect that our next vehicles will be plug-in hybrids, and that if they wanted us to buy another Toyota, then they would have to offer one.