Hopping Aboard Hybrids

A few months ago, Ford announced it would wade into the hybrid gas/electric market with a new version of its Escape SUV next year. Now the company is looking into arrangements with other carmakers that could turn it into a major supplier of hybrid technology.

That's both heartening and disconcerting. Here's America's No. 2 vehicle manufacturer, which has spent much of the year battling fuel-efficiency and antipollution legislation in Washington and California, trying to set the pace with technology that can accomplish much of what those laws intend.

The company could argue it's doing this without a push from Washington, where tougher fuel-efficiency standards failed to pass – though California's recent enactment of greenhouse-gas emissions standards may be at least a partial incentive.

A bigger incentive, however, could be to get in on a market niche that's likely to grow. The hybrids sold by Honda and Toyota, though they've sparked a lot of publicity, still represent the barest splinter of the market – fewer than 29,000 sold in the past two years. But car dealers report increased interest in them by buyers.

The hybrids come equipped not only with super mileage – 40 mpg and up – but also with tax deductions from the federal government and a number of states. Some states even allow single drivers of hybrids to take the car-pool lanes on their highways.

Moreover, hybrids perform comparably to gas-powered cars. And since their greater efficiency is gained through engine-technology advances, not a reliance on lighter materials, they should put to rest the argument that high-mileage, low-polluting vehicles are less safe.

Experts estimate that US sales of hybrids could reach 500,000 a year by 2006, even with the higher price tag this new breed of car and light truck will carry.

Companies that help build this technological wave may well get financial rewards. They'll certainly be rewarded with an aura of social responsibility – no small thing in this time of corporate cupidity.

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