There are many green products on the market that boast environmental friendliness. Unfortunately, many companies may be more interested in marketing “green” than actually being environmentally conscious.

As gas prices surge in many parts of the world due to geopolitical conflicts, people are more concerned with lowering their gasoline consumption. Hybrid cars fit the bill for some consumers. Unfortunately, some companies may exaggerate how environmentally friendly some of their hybrid cars are and cover up actual information about the lifecycle assessment of the vehicles.

“Greenwashing” is an attempt to manipulate or misrepresent data so that a product or an action is represented as more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Companies recognize the push for environmentalism. As a result, some are taking advantage of this marketing angle and are greenwashing their products so consumers with environmental concerns view their products and the company positively. Greenwashing specifically refers to willful misrepresentation with goals to increase company profits or gain positive media attention. Some products are truly better for the environment than others, so it is important for consumers to critically review environmental claims before purchasing.

Companies from many sectors engage in greenwashing. However, the automotive industry may be accused of this in particular as this industry is often at the forefront of environmental concerns. In an effort to keep criticism at bay, some carmakers may exaggerate or misrepresent the carbon footprint of their vehicles. Hybrid cars especially are gaining popularity and have been the target of greenwashing.

A trend for greener vehicles

Many industries are pressured by consumers and government legislation to become more environmentally friendly. Particular focus is placed on the automotive industry. As of 2022, there are approximately 1.446 billion cars on the earth. Some estimate that there will be about 3 billion vehicles on the road worldwide by 2050. In America alone, there were an estimated 290.8 million registered vehicles in 2022.

It is estimated that a typical passenger vehicle releases about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year with variations from the vehicle’s fuel, its fuel economy, and the number of miles driven in a year. It is a reality that more consumers are buying vehicles, but at the same time, vehicles are also becoming more fuel efficient.

Past scandals lead to consumer skepticism

After the Volkswagen emissions scandal known colloquially as Dieselgate or Emissionsgate, consumers have been more aware of underhanded methods to make cars seem more environmentally friendly. In the famous case of Sept 2015, it was found that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed their turbocharged direct injection diesel engines to detect emissions and activate emissions controls during tests. In real-world driving, the vehicles emitted up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than during lab tests.

A potential plug-in hybrid con?

Many consumers recognize that while electric vehicles do not create emissions while driving, the source of electricity may be less than green. Vehicle tailpipe emissions are the greenhouse gases that are produced by the car when driving. Upstream emissions refer to the greenhouse gases that relate to the production and distribution of gasoline and electricity.

Electric cars are expected to release about 3.8 tons of CO2 as upstream emissions throughout their lifetime. Conventional gasoline cars are expected to release around 39 tons, while diesel cars are expected to release around 41 tons. Hybrid cars show some reduction at 33 tons of both upstream and tailpipe emissions.

Plug-in-hybrid cars (PHEVs) were advertised to be similar to electric vehicles but some analysts estimate that they will emit around 28 tons of CO2 which is only slightly less than a typical hybrid car. The U.S. government offers a tax credit for some all-electric cars and PHEVs, thus some critics believe that the promotion of PHEVs to the same level as electric cars is a con.

PHEVs can operate only on electricity from their battery, only on gasoline, or using a combination of the two. When operating in electric-only mode, there are no tailpipe emissions. When it is operating on gasoline it is emitting emissions based on the fuel economy of the car model. As a result, the tailpipe emissions can vary significantly and depend on the capacity of the battery, how often it is charged, how the user drives and how often it is driven. Many users forget to charge their vehicles so their cars may operate in gas-only mode most of the time.

Hybrid cars for performance

Hybrid cars use both gasoline and electricity; they have a gasoline engine but also have a small electric motor. The common perception is that the electric motor will be on when the car is traveling at slow speeds or is idling, resulting in reduced emissions and gas consumption.

However, electric motors can be used in different ways, such as to help aid performance. Some hybrid cars may have a hybrid label but are not designed to conserve energy. For example, the Lexus LS600h uses a 5.0-liter V-8 engine and is designed for performance and luxury instead of the environment. Consequently, its fuel economy is less than impressive and is rated at 19/23 mpg city/highway. For comparison, the 2023 Ford F-150 pickup truck with a V-6 2.7L Turbo engine has a fuel efficiency of 20/26 mpg city/highway.

Hybrid SUVs and trucks may offer fuel emissions savings when compared with conventional gas-consuming vehicles. When compared to smaller conventional vehicles the fuel economy may only be slightly better. Instead of opting for the car size that they need, people may be inclined to buy a larger vehicle than they truly need because the fuel economy may be similar. SUVs and truck hybrids that are designed for performance generally are not much better for the environment than their traditional gas counterparts.

Batteries in hybrid cars

One aspect of hybrid vehicles that may be overlooked when analyzing environmental impact is their batteries. Some hybrid batteries are made of toxic materials and are difficult to dispose of. While fuel economy is better in a hybrid car, the number of toxic materials in batteries is increased when compared to a conventional car.

These materials may also be hard to dispose of and have lasting effects on the environment. Researchers and engineers are working to create batteries that are long-lasting and will not need to be disposed of in the same way.

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Is the future greener for hybrid cars?

While some companies engage in greenwashing their hybrid vehicles, it is not the case for all hybrids. Consumers can compare the car’s estimated emissions to other hybrids and gas-only cars of similar size to analyze environmental claims critically. They can also research reviews by people that own the hybrid car and check if the reported gas mileage is comparable to what is advertised.

Hybrid options for cars may not be significantly better in terms of mileage per gallon than the same gas-only model. For instance, the 2023 Ford Escape plug-in hybrid is estimated to get up to 44 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. The gas-only version of the Ford Escape has a fuel economy of 27/33 mpg city/highway. The fuel economy for highway driving is not significantly better between the two, and the city driving mileage for the hybrid version relies on favorable conditions that allow the car to operate in electric-only mode.

For cheaper options, customers may look to more affordable and smaller gas-only sedans that perform comparably to hybrids in terms of fuel economy. For example, an all-gas sedan, the 2023 Hyundai Elantra has a fuel economy rating of 33/42 mpg city/highway and also seats five, though the roominess is less.

Most electric cars are not viable for the average consumer and any hybrid vehicles and PHEVs are built to perform well in lab tests. Many hybrid and electric cars suffer from poor design, underpowered electric motors, and no fast charging, coupled with small batteries that make it hard for users to drive in zero-emission modes. Many critics also feel that plug-in hybrid cars are simply fake electric cars. Nonetheless, consumers will need to be prepared as many governments are pushing to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035.


UK briefing: The plug-in hybrid con. (2020). In Transport & Environment. Transport & Environment. Retrieved January 18, 2023

U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2021. (2022). In U.S. Energy Information Administration. U.S. Department of Energy. Retrieved January 18, 2023

Author byline

Jody Dascalu is a freelance writer in the technology and engineering niche. She studied in Canada and earned a Bachelor of Engineering. Jody has over five years of progressive supply chain work experience and is a business analyst. As an avid reader, she enjoys researching upcoming technologies and is an expert on a variety of topics.