The Truth about Hybrid Manufacturing and the Environment

Will Richardson      18 November 2014

The truth is hybrids are overall better for the environment than their petrol or diesel guzzling counter parts.

However, there is a problem when you split the environmental impact of the production process away from that of the actual driving part.

Production Process – The Bad News

In 2007 an auto trade industry group commissioned a report (now known as the “Dust to Dust” report) which claimed that the hybrid manufacturing process resulted in a greater waste of energy than that of the gigantic Humvee. It was widely discredited for using ‘bad science’ but it was sensationalised enough that the US Department of Energy (Argonne National Laboratory to be precise) did their own research and found that in fact the production process for manufacturing a Humvee is in fact greener than that of a hybrid!

What on Earth?!

Well, think about it, both hybrid cars and ‘normal’ cars are essentially the same: they both need to have materials heated, cut and moulded into thousands of shapes; they both need fancy chemicals and precious metals to be flown in from the other side of the world to make it all work and both require many engineers to come into factories to make them.

The difference is hybrids are more complicated and crucially they aren’t produced in as great numbers:

> Complicated and Hi Tech

Normal cars have one engine. Hybrids have two. And their rechargeable batteries require rare earth metals to make them work, which means more carbon producing effort to get them where they need to be. Additionally hybrids are lightweight thanks to their aluminium body, and aluminium is tougher to produce than the steel used by most ‘normal’ cars. Tough to produce equates to more time and energy and more waste.

> The Economics of Mass Production

Petrol and diesel cars have been in production continuously for decades and as a result, the process has been streamlined, perfected and analysed for efficiency to the nth degree. Global auto sales topped 82m for the first time ever in 2013. (CNBC, 9th Jan 2014)
The leading hybrid, the Toyota Prius, in contrast had sold only a respectable 3.8m units globally by June 2013 (since its launch in 1997).

This tells you that the manufacturing process for even the leading hybrid car are much less mature. In the coming years it is likely that with an increase in demand for hybrid vehicles, advances in the whole process will be made, such as research into artificial materials which can reduce the reliance on precious metals. Think about how swiftly smartphone technology moves along. This is thanks to the huge demand.

Driving Part – The Good News

Hybrid cars require much less fuel to cover the same distance as a non-hybrid. They break down less often and are cheaper to maintain. And they last longer, so you won’t need to buy a new car for much longer, which as we have learned involves all that wasteful production. (Toyota)

So they are cheaper and better for the environment to run.

But what if you include the production carbon footprint too?

Luckily the Argonne National Laboratory also carried out a scientific study comparing the lifetime of a hybrid (including production) with that of a similar petrol counterpart.

They found that if both covered 160,000 miles in their lifetime the petrol car would emit 500 grams of greenhouse gases per mile compared to just 340 grams for the hybrid. (Argonne National Laboratory)

The exciting thing about hybrids is that they are an attractive option already, but they are still just in the early years of development. With growing demand and a developing infrastructure, just think what they will be capable of in 10 years’ time.

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