Are hybrids manufactured in a green way?

Innovations in Hybrid Manufacturing

The nickel used to make this battery pack awaiting installation in a Mercury Mariner hybrid was an issue in the CNW study.
The nickel used to make this battery pack awaiting installation in a Mercury Mariner hybrid was an issue in the CNW study.
Dave Kaup/Getty Images

When the CNW study debuted, a number of prominent scientists came out against it. Some took issue with the expected lifetime miles of the hybrids cited in the study. The Prius was rated at 109,000 miles (175,419 km), while the industry expectation is around 179,000 miles (288,073 km) [source: Koerner]. Others pointed out that the environmental devastation caused by nickel mining (used in hybrid batteries and a point of concern in the CNW study) referred to a now-resolved blight from 30 years before [source: Sierra Club]. The press attention that the study received still led many to wonder just how green these hybrids were. Could they do more harm than good for the environment?

Despite this controversy, hybrid manufacturers explored ways to make the production process more eco-friendly. They began by touting aspects of their manufacturing process that were already green. Companies were quick to point out, for example, that they already have green factories. Ford, maker of the Escape hybrid, uses solar and wind energy to help power its manufacturing plants in Wales and Belgium [source: Ford]. Honda has a green plant in Alabama, and Toyota announced that it installed technology designed to reduce the volatile organic compounds released at its Ontario plant [source: Green Car News].

Delphi, one of the world's largest automotive parts suppliers, has also launched a green initiative. The company says it's using more recyclable materials and cutting out environmentally unfriendly ones. It also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to lower production costs for inverters -- the expensive part of the hybrid powertrain that changes the direct current (DC) in the batteries to an alternating current (AC) for motor use. Lowered costs for a major hybrid part would lead to lower initial costs and would lower part replacement costs, extending the life of the vehicle.

The batteries themselves have also become more eco-friendly. The process for mining the nickel used in the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrids is a nasty one; keeping those batteries out of the landfill may be the best way to reduce the impact of nickel mining. Toyota now offers $200 for its old batteries; around 80 percent of Toyota's nickel batteries are now being recycled and nearly all of the components can be returned to raw material [sources: Green Living, Sierra Club, Koerner].

Manufacturers are also recycling other hybrid parts. Most major auto makers have a recycling program in place that recover and reuse components from their old cars.

Despite doubts about its accuracy, the CNW report managed to create a ripple effect that has helped keep green car manufacturers honest. It's also possible that the debate's now moot: In April 2009, Hummer unveiled their new plug-in hybrid Hummer H3 at an auto show in Detroit.

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  • CNW Marketing Research. "Dust to dust: the energy cost of new vehicles from concept to disposal." March 29, 2007.
  • Delphi. "Green technologies increase fuel economy, reduce emissions." (Accessed Dec. 3, 2009.)
  • Ford. "Ford of Europe reduces its CO2 footprint with new wind turbines at Genk plant." Nov. 16, 2009.
  • Green Car News. "Toyota curbs harmful emissions at plants." Feb. 25, 2009.
  • Green Living. "Hybrid vehicles' negative environmental imact." (Accessed Dec. 3, 2009.)
  • Koerner, Brendan I. "Tank vs. hybrid: Is it possible that a Hummer's better for the environment than a Prius is?" Slate. Mar. 18, 2008.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Power electronics: energy manager for hybrid electric vehicles." (Accessed Dec. 3, 2009.)
  • Sierra Club. "Prius versus Hummer: a nickel for your thoughts." (Accessed Dec. 3, 2009.)
  • Will, George F. "Use a Hummer to crush a Prius." Apr. 12, 2007.