Leave it to Detroit…

Chrysler just announced  three new electric vehicles (“Up to Speed,” LA Times), the first of which is supposed to hit the streets commercially in 2010. And what are they? Small, energy efficient, safety-conscious vehicles? The sort of cars you see on the streets of Europe and Japan, like a Smart or Fiat 500?  Nope. A minivan, SUV and two-seat sports car.

The minivan and SUV are expected to go 40 miles on a charge, but will include gasoline engines to allow them to run an additional 360 miles when the battery runs flat; the sports car, which is expected to be available first, will be all electric, with a range of 150-200. 40 miles?  I was a bit surprised at that – it doesn’t seem like much. But really it is probably adequate to much of the driving people do.  To put it in San Francisco Bay Area terms, a range of 40 miles is enough to get you from the City into Berkeley, do a bit of driving around and bring you back. Or you can drive to Pt. Reyes – but you’ll have to find someone in Marin to recharge you since the round trip is more lke 60 miles – or switch to gas. And Santa Cruz is over 70 miles, one way. The sports car will get you there and back, barely, but you won’t be able to take the kids or a dog with you – two-seater, remember? So these cars (minivans, SUVs) will be adequate to get you around town, and for limited trips in the inner Bay Area, but not for a whole range of day trips that many of us take. Unless you switch to gas.  Which sort of makes them hybrids of a different sort.  No word, though, on what kind of mileage they get.

These electric vehicles come in the wake of Chrysler’s introduction of not one but two hybrid SUVs.  Okay – hybrid SUVs gets added to the list of oxymorons, alongside green consumerism.  And it also just seems plain moronic – as Wired puts it (“Two More Chryslers No One Will Buy“), “Consumers love SUVs about as much as Dungeons & Dragons players love John McCain.” These hybrid SUVs get 20mpg or less, weigh about 3 tons and cost $45,000…  I suppose they are being aimed at consumers who love their SUVs but are starting to feel a bit guilty.  It’s the triumph of marketing and created needs over any kind of rational thinking, and yet enough example of corporations trying to continue business as usual as much as possible, regardless, making a few, largely cosmetic concessions to the situation we face.

Honda, meanwhile, has announced a new hybrid Insight (“Honda’s Got Prius Envy,” Wired) that they hope will steal some of the Prius’ thunder – and market share – in part by being the cheapest hybrid yet. And at $19,000 it is $3000 cheaper than the Prius (if you can find one to buy), but it’s a hefty $7000 more than the non-hybrid Toyota Yaris.

This new Insight will get around 60mpg, compared to the Yaris’ 29 city/36 highway. At $5/gallon, 10,000 miles of driving would cost you around $834 in the Insight, and more than $1500 in the Yaris. Or to put it another way, you would have to drive 100,000 miles before the difference in fuel costs made up for the difference in purchase price. And that could very well be at the outer limit of the lifespan of the hybrid’s batteries, making it perhaps not a very good deal from a purely financial perspective.

But of course the value-added of reducing carbon emissions and your environmental footprint is not included in those calculations. And it should be. A lot of those environmental costs are still largely externalized (though not as much as with some other products and industries – logging being a particularly extreme example). And even with cost calculations like this possible, people still are snapping up the Prius as fast as Toyota can produce them, so no doubt the new Insight will do well. It’s certainly beautiful.

More on electric and hybrid vehicles

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