Tuesday, February 1, 2011

If you turn on the dome light, the whole thing explodes

There has been a lot of talk from the right recently (Megan McArdle is on the case) on the potential problems electric cars can have with cold weather. Most of the commenters seem to have rolled the Volt in with this group which seems strange for a plug-in hybrid. The comment that really caught my attention, however, was the following paragraph from the Washington Post's Charles Lane:
The exact loss of power these cars would suffer is a matter of debate, partly because no one has much real-world experience to draw on.* But there would be some loss. Running the heater to stay warm, or the car radio to stay informed, would drain the battery further.
Nerd that I am, the idea of significantly draining a hybrid's battery by running the radio reminded of the Simpsons' episode where a truck was so delicately balanced on the edge of a cliff that Homer was able to shift it back on the road by tuning the radio. I suppose it's possible but I wouldn't call it likely.

* Actually we do have real world experience thanks to the good people at Consumer Reports who tested the car under just these conditions and found the EV range dropped to the low end of what GM claims but the mileage running in standard hybrid mode remained remarkably good. This information is also available on Wikipedia.


  1. For the record, I can't actually think of a reason for my next vehicle not to be a hybrid. I bought my current vehicle used and on a post-doc salary (so it's pure gas). But I continue to be impressed with hybrids, the more I see of them, and I can't imagine buying new and not hybrid.

  2. I was driving a hybrid for a while (a Honda Civic), and I can tell you that the battery didn't drain down NEARLY as often as my current car's battery does (a Saturn Ion). Partially that's because the Ion has so many little lights that are easy to leave on - there's a light in the trunk, for instance. It also has headlights that are on all the time while the car is on, and a delay after you lock the car before the lights turn off, so it's not all that easy to tell when you've left something on.

    However, one major inconvenience of the Civic was that when the battery *did* run down, the guys at AAA were often reluctant to jump it because (according to them) you can do serious damage to the battery that way. Civic Hybrids have two batteries, a normal 12V used only to start the engine (not a big deal to replace) and the very expensive battery that runs the car (several thousand dollars to replace). I ended up giving the car away when that battery died, since at that point a replacement battery would have cost more than the car was worth.

    I like hybrids, and I never noticed any performance or safety issues with the Civic - if anything the fact that you had to really stomp down on the gas to accelerate was a bonus, since it cut down on the number of speeding tickets I received. However, it is still true that with the cost of replacing the battery taken into account, you don't save enough gas money over the lifetime of the car to make hybrids a cost-efficient purchase - even with the government tax breaks! Repairs tend to be more expensive, also, since most amateur mechanics won't mess with 'em.

    But if you are looking at a hybrid versus a luxury car like, say, a BMW - which are expensive to repair since the parts have to be imported - then they're not more expensive or difficult to maintain, or less reliable, I think.