Behind the Hidden Costs of Hybrids

Behind the Hidden Costs of Hybrids

A technician seals a Prius battery module. Some dealerships replace the entire battery pack rather than fixing the connections. (Photo: Automotive Career Development Center.)

One journalist after the next purports the same point about hybrid gas-electric cars: they are not worth the extra cost. The writers' lack of originality is only surpassed by their inability to get all the facts. When they proclaim that the extra cost of buying a hybrid will not be recouped in savings at the pump—as if they were the first person, rather than the thousandth, to "discover" a nefarious plot against American car buyers—the writer usually fails to consider tax credits, reduced maintenance, and historically excellent resale value. But nothing conjures up more fear and hysteria than these two words: hidden costs.

In June 2005, the L.A. Times reported that hybrid battery replacement costs dropped from $10,000 in 2001 to about $3,000 today. But three months later, Car and Driver's Brock Yates—no fan of hybrids—wrote, "battery replacement will cost $5,300 for the Toyota and Lexus hybrids, and the Ford Escape replacements run a whopping $7,200." Yates compared hybrid's rechargeable batteries to the "dry cells in your flashlight...[which] have finite lives and store less power with age." He also insinuated some kind of cover-up, writing that "industry types are not talking about total battery life."

They’re talking—but Brock’s not listening.

Jim Francfort, principal investigator at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, which is operated for the Department of Energy, has been talking about it. His hybrid battery tests showed that 160,000 miles of use had no effect on fuel economy. Andrew Grant, the Vancouver, Canada, taxi driver who drove his Prius for more than 200,000 miles in 25 months, tells all about his Prius, which has taken a pummeling and kept on humming. At industry conferences, engineer after engineer will tell anybody who bothers to ask that hybrid batteries are, in fact, over-manufactured for their task.

The Plot Thickens

The one item that nobody has been talking about is the replacement costs for batteries—because nobody is replacing them. That's what I thought until I received an email from Ray Molton, who works in the real estate industry in Houston, Texas. Ray wrote, "My 2001 Toyota Prius lasted five years and 113,000 miles. And then the batteries seemed to die. My dealer estimated the replacement cost at $7,000. They recommended scrapping the car for parts."

Ray told me that Toyota had been "no help whatsoever on this issue." He called another dealer only to discover a larger estimate of $8,000 to $9,000. Even worse, Ray discovered that the Toyota shop had another 2001 Prius with a bad battery. Maybe there is a conspiracy brewing, after all. In a follow-up email, Ray wrote, "Toyota doesn't want these battery issues to get out to the public. How could there be two 2001 Priuses in the same shop at the same time, if they have had no problems with the batteries?"

To make matters worse, Ray bought a salvage Prius battery to soften the damage to his pocketbook—only to discover that the salvage battery's #13 cell was corroded, the same #13 cell that had a problem on his Prius. All of this threw me for a loop. Apparently, it had the same effect on Toyota.

Ray continued to appeal to Toyota's corporate offices, and finally got through to a customer care representative who promised to look at the Ray's expenses. He persisted at the local level, and finally got Metroplex Toyota in Houston to clean the corrosive cell on the salvage battery and install it—at half their normal price—in his Prius. The total bill, including rental car, salvage battery, service, and gasoline during the entire ordeal, was $1,345. Ray's Prius runs like a top again.

One month and three unreturned phone calls later, Ray gave up on getting any financial or emotional support from Toyota's Customer Care Department.

Making the Connection?

I shared Ray's story with my friend, Craig Van Batenburg, a master hybrid technician who conducts workshops with independent service shops around the country. "This is exactly why I am training indy techs to work on these cars," Craig said. "It is not a problem with the nickel metal hydride cells, but a corroded connection. This is common with any electrical connector on any part of any car. The dealerships don’t fix the connections. They replace the entire hybrid battery."

So Ray’s ordeal wasn’t caused by a failure of new hybrid battery technology—those batteries will last the life of the vehicle and will help save hundreds of gallons of gasoline for their owners. And the next generation of lithium ion batteries may be one of the keys to weaning America off its dependence on oil. The root of Ray's problems stemmed from an ordinary corroded connection, the failure of a huge corporation to respond to one of their customers, and the willingness of a local car dealership to profit handsomely from a problem rather than fix it at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, these stories are just as hidden in the media as all of those so-called “hidden costs” of owning a hybrid.

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