Sunday, October 16, 2005


Yes, I know, the Prius stalls

Two things really bug me about all the news articles about the Prius stalling issue.

First, it's a hybrid. If you think about it, a hybrid is exactly the sort of car you want to be in if it stalls. If the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) doesn't work, the battery motor can at least get you to a safe place in a pinch. I had my ICE fail to start once when I was driving with low fuel. I was really near a gas station and just pulled in. Even if I wasn't, the battery should be able to move you up to, say, 1/4 of a mile I'd think.

The main thing that bothers me about this is that it's a story at all. Recalls usually only make the news if they cause explosions or rollovers. This is a stalling problem. I think the real reason is that deep down, people want Hybrids to fail. I can't tell you how many people tell me about this "news" item. I have heard about it probably 15 times, including 3 times from one coworker. "GOOD, HYBRIDS HAVE PROBLEMS. Glad I bought my 15 MPG SUV!" It must be a relief, that, yes, my personal worst MPG for one tank is 45, but hey, my car can stall. Ugh. I just want to smack people.

I hear that the Prius will explode if it runs out of gas or drive it too much. You really should consider upgrading to a Ford Explorer...
Nah, the Ford Expedition is a much better choice. Or the H2.
I like the idea of greater fuel efficiency, but have concerns about battery lifetime, costs, and manufacturing and disposal issues.

Two related things that I have not heard or read too much about with respect to hybrid vehicles are:

1) the lifecycle costs of the batteries - if/when an owner needs to replace them; what does it cost?

2) what does it cost to recycle these kind of batteries? I assume that like most batteries they have metals and/or caustic chemicals that could be environmentally hazardous if not disposed of properly.
The 2004 Prius came with a 10 year warranty on the drivetrain which for a hybrid includes the batteries. They are pretty confident in the NIMH setup for a few reasons. First, the Prius is a mature car - most US pri'i are actually the 3rd generation of the car. The first two were mostly in Japan.

Back to the subject. The Prius battery pack is an array of cells with a bunch of circuitry including a dedicated battery controller. It's not treated as a single giant battery. The result is that the failure of a cell or cells (due to EOL, physical damage, heat, etc) will result only in those cells being taken out of the picture rather than the entire pack. I have read that the entire pack costs about $3000 to replace so it would be kind of nasty. I have a 6 year loan on the car and I don't think I'll still have it in 10 years. If I do I'll be a pretty good test because I live in Florida - the heat here is rough on batteries.

NiMH is potentially very recyclable. There is a lot of speculation that the amount of nickel that can be easily recovered from a NiMH cell will more than pay for the cost to recycle. I found an article that investigates the lifecycle and recycling issues in some depth. Hope this helps.

One final point. I'm really, really optimistic about the future of battery technology. While it seems that batteries stagnated for a while there are so many developments in the battery industry. These developments are being driven not only by hybrid vehicles but by everything else that needs power like cell phones, DVD players, laptops, etc. NiMH is nice but it is really inefficient. How about a supercapacitor for regenerative brakes? BMW is reportedly working on using a supercapacitor for the regenerative brakes. This would be a major improvement since right now most of the energy I regenerate is wasted by the inefficiency of charging the battery.
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