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Graphic Element, Right Gutter

Life in the Green Lane


New York Times

April 16, 2006

…(H)ybrid cars are the hippest automotive fashion statement to come along in years. They've become synonymous with the worthy goal of reducing gasoline consumption and dependence on foreign oil and all that this means for a better environment and more stable geopolitics.

…As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome — saving gas.

Few things these days say "environmentally aware consumer" so loudly as the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius. With its two power sources — one a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, the other a battery-driven electric motor — the best-selling Prius …can go further on a gallon and emit fewer pollutants in around-town use than most conventional automobiles because under certain circumstances they run on battery power and consume less fuel. For this reason, federal, state and local governments have been bending over backward to encourage the sale of hybrids, with a bewildering array of tax breaks, traffic lanes and parking spaces dedicated to hybrid owners.

But just because a car has so-called hybrid technology doesn't mean it's doing more to help the environment or to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil any more than a nonhybrid car. The truth is, it depends on the hybrid and the nonhybrid cars you are comparing, as well as on how you use the vehicles. There are good hybrids and bad ones. Fuel-efficient conventional cars are often better than hybrid S.U.V.'s — just look at how many miles per gallon the vehicle gets.

…these distinctions have already been lost on many car buyers. And I fear they're well on their way to being lost on our governments, too.

Lately, right-minded people have been calling me and telling me they're thinking about buying the Lexus 400H, a new hybrid S.U.V. When I tell them that they'd get better mileage in some conventional S.U.V.'s, and even better mileage with a passenger car, they protest, "But it's a hybrid!" I remind them that the 21 miles per gallon I saw while driving the Lexus is not particularly brilliant, efficiency-wise — hybrid or not…

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla — which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

For years, most of the world's big car makers have shied away from building hybrids because while they are technologically intriguing, they are also an inelegant engineering solution — the use of two energy sources assures extra weight, extra complexity and extra expense (as much as $6,000 more per car.) The hybrid car's electric battery packs rob space from passengers and cargo and although they can be recycled, not every owner can be counted on to do the right thing at the end of their vehicle's service life. And an unrecycled hybrid battery pack, which weighs more than 100 pounds, poses a major environmental hazard.

… Hybrid taxis and buses make enormous sense. But the market knows no such distinctions. People think they want hybrids and they'll buy them, even if a conventional car would make more sense for their pocketbook and for the environment. The danger is that the automakers will co-opt the hybrids' green mantle and, with the help of a government looking to bail out its troubled friends in Detroit, misguidedly encourage the sale of hybrids without reference to their actual effect on oil consumption.

Several bills floating around Congress, for instance, have proposed tax incentives to buyers of hybrid cars, irrespective of their gas mileage. Thus, under one failed but sure to resurface formulation, the suburbanite who buys a hypothetical hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source would be entitled to a huge tax incentive, while the buyer of a conventional, gasoline-powered Honda Civic that delivers 40 miles per gallon on the open road gets none. ..

Pro-hybrid laws and incentives sound nice, but they might just end up subsidizing companies that have failed to develop truly fuel-efficient vehicles at the expense of those that have had the foresight to design their cars right in the first place. And they may actually punish citizens who save fuel the old-fashioned way — by using less of it, with smaller, lighter and more efficient cars. All the while, they'll make a mockery of a potentially useful technology.

Jamie Lincoln Kitman is the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine and a columnist for Top Gear, a British magazine.