All Cars Should Have Been Hybrids By Now

With Ford's announcement of a $20,000 hybrid pick-up truck that may get up to 40 miles per gallon, it is obvious automakers could have done a lot more to reduce emissions.
June 8, 2021, 1:00pm
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Image: Ford
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Having killed off all of its cars years ago in order to sell only pickup trucks and SUVs, Ford is now making its cheapest vehicle a pickup truck, because this is America. The Maverick, as it will be called, is being marketed as a huge advancement in the pickup market, good for "city driving or escaping the urban life" and that "its compact size makes it easy to maneuver and park." 

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This is questionable, considering the truck is 200 inches long, just 10 inches shorter than a Cadillac Escalade, a vehicle generally regarded as a very large SUV. 

However, the Maverick does have a noteworthy feature: It comes with a hybrid engine standard, the first pickup truck to do so. Ford hopes it will be rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to get 40 miles per gallon, which would indeed be impressive. Currently, no pickup gets better than a combined city/highway mileage of 27 mpg. And, the Maverick will start at $20,000, making it not just one of the cheapest hybrids available, but the cheapest vehicle of any kind Ford sells.

The fact that an automaker is releasing an entry-level pickup truck with a hybrid engine standard for less than $20,000—a cheap car by modern American standards—raises the question of why hybrids, which save fuel and reduce emissions, are not standard on every car sold in the U.S. today. 

For those confused by the current vehicle market, a hybrid engine is what's in the classic Prius. It is a gas car that uses a small lithium ion battery to provide extra power to the engine, therefore saving fuel. The battery recharges with transferred energy from the car's braking system or from the gas engine itself, requiring no plugging in or additional infrastructure (which is why it is disingenuously marketed in Europe, where people tend to care more about the environment, as "self-charging hybrid electrics"). It is a proven, viable technology that has been on the road for decades, and requires no compromises or sacrifices by drivers. For years, hybrid engines have been cheap enough that, even when taking into account the higher sticker price, consumers typically save money over the vehicle's life through reduced fuel costs.

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Although it varies by automaker and model, hybrids typically add about 15-20 miles per gallon to city driving and 10-15 to highways, give or take, while adding between $1,000 and $4,500 to the sticker price, although the median surcharge seems to be closer to $2,000. According to the EPA's fuel economy website, most hybrids save about $300 per year on fuel costs—the savings will be greater if you typically drive in a metropolitan area with lots of stopping and starting, less if most of your driving is rural roads and highways without much traffic—meaning at the median price it would take about six years to even out. The average car stays on the road for about twice that, so there is almost certainly savings to be had by buying the hybrid version of any vehicle.

All of this is to say, every new car for sale today in the U.S. should be a hybrid like the Maverick. It doesn't require anything extra of drivers, would save people money and is better for the environment. But they aren't. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about three percent of all new cars sold in 2020 were hybrids. 

The reason for this is partly the way the U.S. regulates automakers. As Virginia Tech historian Lee Vinsel wrote in his book on the history of auto regulations, the regulations must be technology agnostic. As in, the government cannot mandate that all cars have hybrid engines, because that would, in the eyes of government regulations and the lobbyists that helped craft them, be the government picking winners and losers. Instead, the government can only set standards, such as miles-per-gallon targets, and then let the automakers—or, more realistically, their parts suppliers—figure out how best to do that. 

But the government, and specifically the EPA through their fuel economy regulations, could have accomplished a similar goal by crafting the fuel efficiency regulations a certain way. Currently, fuel efficiency regulations apply as an average to the automaker's entire fleet, which is why it's called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Instead, the EPA could have opted for a minimum fuel efficiency for each model, to gradually increase over time, until it reached a point where it couldn't possibly be achieved without a hybrid engine. And then, of course, it should keep increasing, to the point where in ten or 15 years it cannot possibly be achieved without a plug-in electric car with a gas engine backup.

Unfortunately, that was always unlikely to happen due to the auto industry's knee-jerk reaction to oppose any and all forms of regulations. And it is too late for any of that now. The industry is moving towards fully electric cars, as Ford itself signaled with the debut of its F-150 Lightning. Even if the EPA wanted to do this now, by the time it went through the complex and time-consuming rulemaking process and built in the requisite delay for automakers to comply, we'd be approaching if not well into the 2030s, a decade when the private auto fleet ought to be on its way to full electrification. By then, the conversation should be not about how to make all cars hybrids, but how to phase out hybrid cars, too. 

Hybrids were never a panacea to car pollution (neither, of course, are electric cars). They're still gas cars and still emit dozens of tons of harmful compounds that warm our planet. But they do slightly less of it than most of the cars on the road today, and if mandated across the industry, could have saved millions upon millions of tons of carbon emissions, all without costing consumers much of anything. And yet, we didn't do it. We didn't even really consider doing it. And if we never even consider doing the easy stuff, it sure makes it harder to believe we will do the hard stuff.