Are hybrid cars better for the environment than gas-powered cars?
- Car and Driver defines a hybrid car as a vehicle that “combines at least one electric motor with a gasoline engine to move the car, and its system recaptures energy via regenerative braking.”
- The first hybrid car ever built was the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte by engineer Ferdinand Porsche in 1899; however, Henry Ford’s assembly-line gasoline-powered vehicles quickly overtook the market. It wasn’t until Toyota introduced the Prius in Japan in 1997 that a viable alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles was taken seriously. Then, in 1999, the Honda Insight became the first mass-produced hybrid car in the US.
- Over 400,000 hybrid-electric vehicles (or HEVs) were sold in the US in 2019.
- A Pew Research Center survey found that 47% of US adults support phasing out gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
Known for their touted environmental benefits, hybrid cars have boomed in popularity in recent years. However, whether it be harsh chemicals or pollution, hybrid cars are not overall better for the environment than gas cars. Firstly, since the materials of lighter cars can be harder to forge, the manufacturing process becomes much more energy-intensive. Additionally, Toyota openly admits that creating a Prius (hybrid car) takes more energy and is more polluting.
Hybrids also have more advanced parts, and the making of those parts increases pollution. One part specific to hybrids is their batteries. These batteries alone account for 2-5% of total hybrid car pollution. To add, both types of batteries used in hybrid cars, nickel-hydride and lithium-ion, require the mining of nickel and copper. Through mining techniques like strip mining, miners looking for these rare earth metals leave negative impacts on the landscape.
Additionally, some miners use acids to extract certain metals, which leak into surrounding agricultural land. This process mainly occurs in China, where they can cheaply produce these rare earth metals because they widely ignore safety regulations. Finally, the batteries themselves emit about 22 pounds of sulfur-oxide emissions, with gas-only vehicles emitting only 2.2 pounds.
Overall, hybrids should not be considered the savior of the environment. To compare, one of the most gas-guzzling vehicles on the market today, the Hummer, has a greener manufacturing process than hybrid vehicles. How can that be? The pollution created when manufacturing hybrids is simply too large to qualify them as being better for the environment than a gas-only car.
Research suggests that hybrid cars are responsible for far lower emissions over their lifetime than conventional cars. Some studies indicate hybrids emit nearly 40% fewer greenhouse gases when charged using average amounts of electricity. For this reason, hybrids tend to be featured prominently in mitigation plans for limiting global warming to below 2°C and are generally considered an essential part of meeting global goals on climate change.
And though it's arguable the environmental benefits of hybrids are largely dependent on each owner's driving and fuelling routines, research on consumer behavior suggests hybrids, on average, tend to be powered on electricity for around half of all miles driven. Global trends also indicate that the electricity we're plugging into from the power grid is getting cleaner over time as societies begin to transition towards more renewable energy sources. This means hybrids will only keep getting cleaner and are undeniably a good alternative to gas-only vehicles for anyone looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
However, some experts argue that hybrid cars may actually be worse for the environment because they release more emissions than conventional cars during the manufacturing process. And though this is true, research proves that once a hybrid does hit the road, it immediately begins to make up for its energy-intensive beginnings. This is because hybrids also tend to be highly fuel-efficient and require less gas than conventional vehicles to cover similar distances. Therefore, Hybrids have clear advantages over gas-powered vehicles and are a safer option for the environment.