Friday, March 20, 2009
Hybrid sales are plummeting since gas prices dropped back down below $2 a gallon. Obviously, this represents a triumph of short-term thinking, as gas prices are likely to go back up again sometime in the next few years. But it also represents a failure to perceive all of the benefits of driving a hybrid vehicle, beyond fuel economy. For some reason, car buyers look at the cost of an "extra" electric motor in an entirely different way from all other options. Buyers think that a hybrid engine must start paying for itself right away, and must cost less than nothing in the medium to long term. By contrast, when buyers are deciding whether to go for the sunroof, or the leather seats, or the premium sound system, or the V6 engine, they never expect these options to pay for themselves. Buyers understand the benefits of better performance or luxurious amenities, and they are willing to pay for them if they think it is worth it.
I have been driving a hybrid vehicle for three years now (a Toyota Highlander Hybrid), and I can testify that it is just plain more fun to drive a car with two motors. It is thrilling to turn the key and hear nothing. It is a kick to stop at a traffic light and hear the gasoline engine shut down. And it is even fun to get stuck in traffic on the freeway because you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are coasting much of the time or running on electric power, and you are getting awesome mileage. Plus, the hybrid engine gives the car an extra kick in performance similar to the difference between driving an 8 cylinder car over a 6 cylinder car. The hybrid version drives more smoothly than a pure gasoline engine, and would be worth paying something for even it did not also save me gas.
In addition to all that, I get the satisfaction of knowing that I am helping to save the planet, because my car is emitting less carbon dioxide than a similar car without the electric motor. And I also get the satisfaction of knowing that I am helping to wean the country from its addiction to oil, and helping reduce the nation's trade deficit. These pleasures must also be worth something.
If you want to ignore all that and calculate the benefits of a hybrid car purely in monetary terms, it goes something like this: Say your car payment is $50 per month higher if you choose the hybrid over the pure gasoline engine. At $4 per gallon, you were probably saving $50 a month or so in gasoline because of the improved mileage, so the hybrid was a no-brainer since it was essentially free. So now that gasoline costs only $2 per gallon, you might have to shell out $25 per month extra per month in the short term for the privilege of driving a hybrid car. But that does not factor in the added trade-in value for the car after you are done paying for it, or the fact that you keep saving money on gasoline for the life of the car even after you are done paying for it. Most importantly, it does not factor in the joys of driving a hybrid vehicle, and the satisfaction you get from saving the planet and promoting energy independence. Surely those things are worth paying for.