Why hybrid cars are here to stay

The original TV ad two years ago for the 70-m.p.g. hybrid Honda Insight shows it pulling up next to an old VW microbus with a dirty exhaust and a "Save the Earth" bumper sticker. The tag line of the ad is that you can show your concern for the environment better by buying a clean, fuel-efficient car. Honda's marketing campaign was successful – the Insight and competing Toyota Prius became status symbols for the environmentally conscious. The success of these hybrids demonstrates a clear market for green vehicles in the US.

However, it is also clear that the market is limited. In a country where half of all vehicles sold are SUVs and pickup trucks, and where there are at least a dozen magazines dedicated to sports cars, it is obvious that fuel economy isn't the prime motivating factor for most American car buyers.

As Dan Carney writes in the April issue of Popular Science: The Insight and Prius represent "great technology, to be sure, but for other people. People willing to sacrifice driving pleasure for fuel economy."

Yet, the headline over the article reads "Hybrids Get Hot" and it features a very cool hybrid sports car and half a dozen hybrid production vehicles about to enter the market. As hybrid technology goes mainstream, the top selling point may not be fuel economy. This fuel-sipping technology is about to find a home among the gas-guzzling sports cars and big trucks Americans love to drive. In fact, the best-kept secret of hybrid-electric vehicles is that this technology can have performance advantages in addition to better mileage.

The reason you never hear about hybrids winning Formula 1 races is because the international sanctioning body banned the technology. Hybrid cars would have had an unfair advantage on the track because the electric motors would have given them bursts of extra power. Too quick for Formula 1? A hybrid? At recent motor shows, Honda and Ford rolled out variations on the hybrid theme that emphasize performance and power – not fuel efficiency. Both concepts borrow tricks refined in hybrids like the Insight to boost their engines, making them perform better. (Oh, and they pollute less and get better mileage, too.)

Ford's three-ton Tonka Pickup concept stores energy from braking – just like other hybrids and electric cars do. However, it stores this power hydraulically instead of in batteries – thus capturing three times as much energy while boosting fuel economy by 35 percent. Like the Toyota's hybrid Prius sedan, Ford's Tonka turns itself off when it comes to a stop and uses the stored energy to get rolling again, restarting the engine when the truck reaches about 20 m.p.h. Thus the diesel engine is off at times when engines are at their least efficient and most polluting – when idling or starting from a stop.

All of this is done without sacrificing the performance or hauling capacity of the truck. Indeed the technology actually increases starting and stopping performance. It's a better-performing, more fuel efficient truck. Honda's Dualnote sports car concept also makes use of the energy from braking by using an ultracapacitor – an energy-storage device that discharges much more quickly than a battery. The result is a hybrid sports car that boasts 400 horsepower and whiplash acceleration, while averaging 42 m.p.g.

Starting this year, Honda's Civic will launch a series of hybrids rolling off the production lines right next to their gas-powered counterparts. Ford will introduce an Escape hybrid SUV next year that gets 40 m.p.g. – instead of 26 – while turning in 200 horsepower performance on a four-cylinder engine.

US automakers plan to roll out other hybrid-electric power options within two years. Like the Tonka concept, the trucks will keep their V-8 engines for towing, but will boast better performance and 30 percent better mileage. The Dodge and GM trucks will even be equipped to act as power generators for your home during a blackout, or at a remote construction or camping site.

Hybrid power is about to become an option – like automatic transmissions – on production cars.

Buyers of these new hybrids may not walk into the showroom looking for a high-mileage car, but when offered a choice between an SUV that gets 40 m.p.g. and one that gets 26 – why would anyone choose the SUV that gets lower mileage?

So much for the argument that requiring better fuel economy will force us to drive smaller, unsafe cars. The auto-makers' own product lines and press materials show that argument to be pure myth.

• Ed Hunt is editor of www.tidepool.org.

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