‘Did you know that the Toyota Prius is less environmentally friendly than a Hummer H2?’
It was 2009, and I was taking some environmental sustainability courses part-time. We were talking about cars, and one of my classmates was especially vocal.
‘When you add in the manufacturing impact of batteries and a hybrid powertrain, the Prius loses every time to a large SUV.”, my classmate proudly stated.
I was dumbfounded. I’ve always considered myself quite knowledgeable about cars, but I didn’t know how to refute the statement. In the past few years, I’ve heard a similar statement, but with different vehicles. The argument is always that internal combustible vehicles have less of an environmental impact than battery-powered electric vehicles. Is this true or just an urban myth?
The Prius Vs. Hummer article originates from a market research company called CNW Marketing Research (CNWMR). In 2005, CNWMR published an article called ‘From Dust to Dust’ that compared lifetime vehicle energy usage for over 300 different vehicles. While the Prius was mentioned specifically, the big heading in the article was ‘Hybrids Consume More Energy in Lifetime Than Chevrolet’s Tahoe SUV’. The report used a metric called dollars per mile driven to compare different vehicles. In the case of the 2005 Hummer H3 vs. 2005 Toyota Prius, it was $1.95/mile vs. $3.25/mile. Based on this, the article concluded, “driving hybrid vehicle costs more, when considering overall energy consumed than comparable non-hybrid vehicles”. The press release elaborated by saying that while hybrid vehicles had superior fuel economy, the overall environmental impact was much worse than a traditional gas-powered car without batteries, even if the vehicle was in a much larger class like an SUV.
The findings were immediately embraced by many right-wing publications including an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. Other forms of the article have surfaced in many publications, and as previously stated, the article still receives traction to this present day.
However, the article has largely been debunked as trash. Why? There were numerous assumptions and inconsistencies in the article that just did not make sense.
For example, the article assumes that the Prius will last 109,000 miles, whereas the Hummer would last 379,000 miles. Here in Vancouver, the Prius is the main vehicle of choice for Taxis; in fact, there have been articles in the local paper of a Prius Taxi covering almost 1 million miles. Most Hummer’s, on the other hand, tend to be lower mileage vehicles because of their high operating costs. The assumption that the Hummer would last three times as long as the Prius is very flawed.
Another inconsistency was the argument that the Prius’ batteries are made of Nickel, which is mined in Sudbury, Ontario, and then shipped to Japan for assembly. While the Hummer did not have NiMH batteries, the frame of the Hummer had twice as much nickel as the Prius’.
Because of the rash of articles attacking ‘From Dust to Dust’, CNWMR revised their numbers in 2008; The Prius cost fell to $2.191/mile while the H3 cost rose to $2.327/mile. This reversed the position the original paper stated and instead showed that SUVs cost more than hybrid cars. As a result, the Hummer loses this debate and was definitely more environmentally unfriendly.
Obviously, there have been many developments in electric and hybrid cars in the past decade. Tesla is now a household name, hybrid vehicles are present in every major brand, Lithium-Ion is now the battery of choice, and 300-mile range electric vehicles are starting to be sold. One thing I do still agree with is that electric cars are still more expensive overall than their regular gasoline counterparts. For example, it is hard to justify the purchase of a Nissan Leaf, when the Nissan Versa Note offers similar space, performance and superior range for half the cost. However, the gap is narrowing, and with the development of Tesla’s Gigafactory and the imminent release of the Tesla Model 3, electric cars may become a lot more common in the next five years.