California's "Solo-Carpool" Hybrid Exemption is a Really Dumb Idea

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

In January, Gary “Mr. Roadshow” Richards of the San Jose Mercury News argued that hybrid cars with one occupant should be allowed in California carpool lanes because they reduce congestion, gasoline usage and smog. Richards was deploying the exact same argument used to justify the passage of California statute AB 2628 which allowed “solo-carpools” in the first place. Here’s a simple question about the logic employed: was the California Assembly on peyote when they cooked up this crap?

It’s certainly true that an average hybrid-powered vehicle uses less gasoline per mile than a “normal” (i.e. gas only) car. But it’s also true that putting two passengers into any car makes it roughly twice as efficient– in terms of mpg per person– as the same vehicle with only one passenger. So even if a solo hybrid is 40% more efficient than a solo car, it’s 60% less efficient that the comparative non-hybrid with two passengers. Put a third passenger aboard the non-hybrid and it’s game over– by a very large margin indeed.

Bottom line: solo-carpools increase congestion, rather than prevent it. To suggest otherwise indicates a failure to grasp elementary mathematics, and common sense. I mean, how do you reduce congestion without reducing the actual number of cars on the road? Answer: you can’t.

And yet AB 2628 incentivizes drivers to buy hybrids and use the carpool lane without human companionship. If they can drive solo, what reason do they have to go even a mile out of their way to pick up someone to carpool (in the previous, coherent sense of the word)? NONE.

It’s a question that would be well worth asking California’s 85k (at last count) carpool stickered hybrid drivers (more than half of whom live in the Bay Area).

Meanwhile, the 2008 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its revised fuel economy ratings. The Toyota Prius’ combined 2008 numbers drop to 46mpg. The Honda Civic hybrid sinks to 42mpg, while the conventionally (though frugally) powered Honda Fit scores 31mpg. At the other end of the scale, the Chevrolet Suburban sinks to 17mpg and the Rolls Royce Phantom plunges to 14mpg.

Returning to our “passenger-miles per gallon” (PMPG) calculations, a Fit with two people on board gets 62 PMPG. A Suburban with a trio seems positively green at 51 PMPG– especially compared to a solo gas-electric Civic (42 PMPG). In fact, a chauffeur-driven Phantom with a brace of Grey Poupon sharers drains resources at the same rate as the hybrid Civic. Truth be told, a wide variety of luxury cars and SUVs with “real” carpools trounce solo hybrids daily.

What’s more, hybrid batteries lose their ability to hold an electric charge over time. In 2006, the Department of Energy conducted static battery testing on several end-of-life (160,000 miles) hybrids. They reported that two first gen Prii had “remaining battery capacities of about 39%.” [TTAC contacted Toyota PR about this study. They declined to comment.] In other words, the more you “carpool” your hybrid, the worse your mileage.

In terms of emissions, hybrids may have a relatively small “carbon footprint” compared to non-hybrids, but a stampede is still a stampede.

A Suburban driving three-up produces nine percent fewer greenhouse emissions than a solo driver in a Civic Hybrid. Two people in a Honda Fit produces 28 percent lower emissions per person than the gas-electric Honda. Hell, a run-of-the-mill Accord with a party of two achieves 14 percent lower emissions than a solo Civic hybrid. Where’s the bumper sticker for Hummer carpools saving the Earth?

Once again, we’re talking about new cars. As a hybrid’s batteries age, its emissions numbers will increase (the engine must run longer and more often to compensate). In fact, if you think about it, hybrids should never be allowed in the carpool lane regardless of the head count. After all, all hybrid cars produce lower emissions and consume less gasoline per mile in stop-and-go traffic than travelling unhindered in the carpool lane.

Anyway, as previously stated by this website, California’s solo-carpool caveat is a complete violation of the spirit of the entire carpooling concept. Even Mr. Roadshow admits that the inclusion of solo hybrids pisses on an idea designed to “get more solo drivers out of their cars.” “The law allowing solo drivers in hybrids that get 45 mpg or better to use carpool lanes doesn't help here,” Richard concedes.

But Richards and the California legislature are happy to clock hybrid vehicles’ EPA numbers and SULEV (super ultra low emission vehicle) status and back the pro-hybrid policy– without bothering to think through the implications of their PC posturing.

When you do the math, there’s no logical reason whatsoever for California’s solo-carpool stickers. It’s time for California to revoke the hybrids solo-carpool free ride and return the carpool lane to its original, effective form.

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

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  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on May 23, 2007

    I never said or implied I saw a "sinister plot." I merely thought it was not the best way to do things. In this case, from what you say the it sounds like the mitigation rather than the devil is in the details. From what you have just described, it sounds reasonable, even if not quite the way I wouild have designed it. I have also said nothing to suggest a "loathing of government." I've said several times that I'm not a libertarian, and that I thought Government had a role--just not selecting the technology.

  • TrafficBulldogOrg TrafficBulldogOrg on Jul 18, 2007

    The Hybrid sellout was nothing more than the Air Resources Board using their authority to drive some short term sales tax revenues for the State. It raised a quicke $240 million when the State was faced with a $15 Billion dollar shortfall. That $240 million helped save the CARB budget. There are other government incentives for carpool that could be used to combat: - Global Warming - Air Pollution - Traffic Congestion - Us Competitiveness in the Global Economy. - High Energy Costs - Shortage of Remaining Oil (44 years...thats all folks) - Oil over War

  • Geozinger Put in the veggie garden (Western Michigan, we still can get frost this late in the year) finished the remainder of the landscaping updates and hand washed both my beater Pontiac and the Town and Country! Going to the beach today...
  • Rochester I wouldn't obsess over the rate of change, it's happening whether we want it or not.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.