Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 18 2008 7:39 AM

Tank vs. Hybrid

Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I'm shopping for new wheels and was considering a Prius. But one of my co-workers insists that the Prius isn't nearly as green as Toyota boasts, due to the energy required to manufacture the car's battery. The guy also claims that scientific studies have shown that a Prius is more environmentally harmful than a Hummer is. Really?

Like those old chestnuts about poisoned ATM deposit envelopes and the dangers of flashing your headlights, the bizarre anti-Prius meme cited by your colleague refuses to die. It keeps making the e-mail rounds every few months, with multiple versions landing in the Lantern's inbox. There's a minuscule grain of truth to the allegation, since the Prius' nickel-metal hydride battery is a more complicated beast than your typical EverStart. But the rest of the case against the best-selling hybrid? Malarkey.

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The Hummer-beats-the-Prius talking point began with this report (PDF) from CNW Marketing Research. The report, titled "Dust to Dust," was cited in a March 2007 editorial in the Recorder, a student newspaper at Central Connecticut State University. That editorial, in turn, was praised by Rush Limbaugh, thereby guaranteeing its eternal life in blog comments, online forums, and the musings of George Will.

The skeptics' basic argument is that the Prius' battery is irredeemably un-green, mostly because of its high nickel content and complex manufacturing process. As a result, "Dust to Dust"  contends that a Prius will consume $3.25 worth of energy per mile over its cradle-to-grave lifetime. A Hummer H2, by contrast, will use $3.03 per mile and the Hummer H3 just $1.95.

Such a contrarian conclusion is manna to those who sneer at Prius owners as effete or snobbish. It's also unsubstantiated bunk. As numerous learned folks have pointed out, the 458-page "Dust to Dust" makes zero sense, and not just because it betrays its scientific shortcomings early on by referring to "gigajeulles" of energy. For starters, the report automatically penalizes the Prius by prorating all of Toyota's hybrid research-and-development costs across the relatively small number of Priuses on the road. New technologies obviously require massive upfront investment, so this puts the Prius deep in the energy hole right off the bat. (CNW Marketing defends this decision here.)

Second, "Dust to Dust" makes a gaggle of inexplicable assumptions, such as claiming that a Prius will last only 109,000 miles, well below the stated "industry straight average" of 178,739 miles—not to mention the whopping 379,000 miles ascribed to the Hummer H1. CNW says that Prius owners simply drive less than their peers, but it's impossible to tell where that data (as well as virtually everything else in the report) come from. In at least seven states, Toyota offers a 150,000-mile warranty on the Prius' hybrid components, including the battery—it's tough to fathom the company's actuaries agreeing to such a warranty if that 109,000-mile figure was correct. (More nutty assumptions are highlighted here.)

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