Why Low-Emission Vehicles Are Cheaper for Consumers

Study concludes hybrids and EVs really do result in less emissions and are less expensive overall.

The researchers developed an online app for consumers to evaluate their vehicle options. (Image courtesy of MIT.)

MIT researchers developed an online app for consumers to evaluate their vehicle options. (Image courtesy of MIT.)

An oft-touted claim about hybrid and electric vehicles is that their fossil-fuel advantages are offset by the emissions given off in manufacturing and electricity generation; that really, they’re no better than gasoline powered vehicles. A new study from MIT aims to debunk this myth by examining 125 U.S. auto models and considering all aspects of the vehicle’s lifetime, from manufacturing to maintenance to operating costs.

The findings? Not only are low-emission vehicles (like hybrid and electric vehicles) better at reducing emissions overall, they’re also less expensive to drive.

So it’s official: you don’t even have to care about the environment to buy a hybrid or EV – you just have to care about your wallet.

A Comprehensive Study on Emissions

Before you dismiss this as liberal propaganda, know that the research team was initially motivated by the lack of consumer-driven resources to evaluate available light-duty vehicles. They simply set out to conduct a fair comparison of all powertrain technology options for common consumer vehicles, including internal-combustion-engine, hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid-electric, battery electric and fuel-cell vehicles.

The researchers estimated the cost of each vehicle by considering both the sticker price and operating costs over the vehicle’s lifetime. To estimate emissions, they took into account the vehicle’s operating emissions as well as the emissions generated in manufacturing the vehicle and producing its fuel.

“To enable a fair comparison between cars of all technologies, we include all emissions coming from the fuel, electricity, and vehicle production supply chains,” said researcher Marco Miotti.

The team also considered each vehicle in relation to U.S. emission reduction goals. They looked at the overall reduction required between 2030-2050 and estimated the fraction of this that is likely to come from light duty vehicles. By estimating the amount of distance the vehicles will travel in this time period, the researchers can determine how effective each vehicle will be in meeting emission reduction targets.

There’s an App for That

I know you probably don’t want to read through the team’s full research paper, and so do they; that’s why the researchers have created an online app to summarize their data. The app is aimed towards consumers in the vehicle market, and allows them to compare their preferences against all 125 of the vehicles included in the study. The app contrasts the vehicle’s costs per mile against its total emissions per mile (and again, emission data takes into account emissions from fuel/electricity production and vehicle manufacturing).

The app is well-designed and easy to use, and I definitely recommend it if you’re in the market for a new vehicle. Just keep in mind that vehicle costs and emissions vary regionally. However, the app allows users to customize the data based on where they live (at least in the U.S.) as well as how they use their vehicle.

“Our results show that popular alternative-technology cars such as the Nissan Leaf can already save a considerable amount of emissions today, while being quite affordable when operating costs are considered,” said Miotti. “Notably, the benefit of the efficient electric powertrain far outweighs the added emissions of manufacturing a battery.”

The researchers also point out that it’s up to consumers to participate in a clean-energy transition, and the team wants them to be as informed as possible about doing so.

“Private citizens are the investors that will ultimately decide whether a clean-energy transition occurs in personal transportation. It’s important to consider the problem from the viewpoint of consumers on the ground,” said researcher Jessika Trancik. “The goal here is to bring this information on the performance of cars to people’s fingertips, to empower them with the information needed to make emission- and energy-saving choices.”

For another potentially controversial study on vehicle emissions, find out how current electric vehicles could replace 90 percent of vehicles on the road today.

Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at engineering.com. He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.