Shocker: Hybrids Aren’t as Great as They Pretend to Be

This should surprise no one.

In theory, if energy is too expensive, then private companies have an incentive to research ways to make more energy-efficient vehicles so they can sell them.

But there is nothing free-market about the current push to make cars use less gas. It is all a government campaign. Even when the government is not using incentives or regulations, the fact is that the car companies know it is in their best interests to keep politicians happy. So they push for unrealistic fuel economy as a kind of lobbying effort.

According to Bloomberg News, Ford is paying money to 200,000 drivers who bought the company’s hybrid cars. It realized that these customers weren’t going to get the great gas mileage that Ford had promised, and they want to try to keep them happy.

Bloomberg, however, thinks the problem is bigger than that. And the problem, again, is the Federal government.

To be fair, all mileage measuring is an imperfect science. Engineers just pull the car onto a kind of massive treadmill and hook a tube up to the tailpipe. As the vehicle “drives” it over a simulated “course” with a set pattern of acceleration and braking, the amount of carbon in the exhaust is measured to discern how much fuel is burned. The car companies perform the tests; the EPA reviews them and in retests about one out of every 10 vehicles.

The problem with hybrids is that the federally mandated computer courses are both dated and really casual. Though the whole testing process was updated in 2008, the driving is still the virtual replica of an old guy coasting to the country club in a 1970 Eldorado. The max speed doesn’t go north of 60 miles per hour and acceleration rates have all the pep of a Sinatra ballad.

Hybrids are great at that kind of driving, which is why they get great mileage ratings from EPA tests. But in the real world, they have to keep up with contemporary traffic, which tends to burn more gas. Hybrids are particularly handicapped on highways, where high speeds require their gas engines to kick in and, proportionally, do more work than standard vehicles.

Why would a company test their vehicle under unrealistic driving conditions? Why wouldn’t they try to match the expectations of their customers? The most obvious answer is that they have two “customers” with different interests: those who actually might buy and drive the car, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trying to avoid the wrath of the EPA, or to please the EPA, distracts Ford and other companies from their main purpose: to increase the number of happy customers. As a result, Consumer Reports says that hybrids on average tested 10 percent less efficient than they were supposed to. Furthermore, the EPA allows car companies to claim mileage for some hybrids without testing them at all. They are supposed to figure out the mileage by using the mileage of the non-hybrid version of the vehicle and doing some math.

It is pretty clear that, while the EPA is more than willing to damage the economy at times, at other times they would prefer to simply pretend to make a difference. But in such cases they still damage the economy because their bogus mileage tests give consumers unrealistic expectations.