Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Economics of Hybrids: Part II

I speculated on this before, but this says it a little more conclusively. If you want to buy a hybrid for social reasons, the environmentalist equivilant of buying a car to pick up chicks, go ahead, but you aren't going to save any money. From the WSJ.

The Prius is a nifty gadget and comes with lots of extras. But Toyota markets the vehicle on its fuel efficiency, and fans tout its fuel efficiency. And our point was to debunk the idea that saving gasoline is a virtue independent of economics, such that it makes sense, say, to spend a buck to reduce gas use by 50 cents., the auto shopper site, guided us to Honda's Civic and Toyota's Corolla as conventional alternatives to the hybrid Prius. This was the source of our claim that the Prius retails for $9,500 more than comparable vehicles. In its own research, Edmunds concluded a Prius owner would have to drive 66,500 miles per year or gasoline would have to jump to $10 for the purchase to pay off.

But don't take our word for it. Kazuo Okamoto, Toyota's research chief, recently told the Financial Times that, in terms of fuel efficiency, "the purchase of a hybrid car is not justified."

Now, as an economic matter, overpaying for the privilege of saving gasoline is simply a subsidy to other gasoline consumers. Also as a regulatory matter: Thanks to the special genius of our corporate fuel economy rules, Prius buyers directly underwrite Toyota's ability to sell more SUVs and pickups in the U.S. market without paying the fines that Mercedes, BMW and Volvo long ago accepted as a cost of doing business in the U.S.

But doesn't saving oil have benefits beyond the dollars saved -- for instance, postponing the doom of civilization?

No: If Prius owners consume less, there's less demand, prices will be lower and somebody else will step up to consume more than they would at the otherwise higher price. That's the price mechanism at work. Oil is a fantastically useful commodity. Humans can be relied upon to consume all the oil they'd be willing to consume at a given price.