The Hybrids Are Here

Japanese automakers led the push in 2000 to bring "alternative fuel" or "hybrid" vehicles to a mass market, as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight were introduced in the United States. Whether this is a brief interim technology (as many U.S. auto executive apparently believe) or a longer-term improvement in how cars are powered remains one of the more important questions in the search for reduced environmental impacts from personal transportation.

The "hybrids" use two engines; a small gasoline-powered piston engine provides some of the car's power, and an electric motor supplies the rest. An onboard computer determines when one or both should be used, usually switching to gas at higher speeds and to electric at lower speeds, coasting, and idling. Unlike pure electric cars like GM's EV1, the hybrids don't need to be plugged in to an external power source because the electric motor becomes a generator when the brakes are applied, converting the energy that would be lost during braking to electricity stored in the cars' battery packs.

The fuel efficiency of the cars varies from 45 to 70 miles per gallon, a significant increase in fuel efficiency over the current average of 21 miles per gallon. Of course, better fuel efficiency means fewer emissions; while a large Sport Utility Vehicle may release some 130 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere over a lifespan on 124,000 miles, the Honda Insight will release some 25 tons over the same lifespan.

The well-advertised compromises consumers make with hybrids include the lightness of the cars (causing concerns in a collision), the relatively small size for the price, and unfamiliarity with the technology, even by some car dealers. However, Honda and Toyota are clearly learning more about both the technology and consumer reactions, and U.S. auto manufacturers will be releasing their own hybrids by 2003. Can monster truck hybrids be far behind?

References

Roosevelt, Margot. 2000. "Hybrid Power," Time, December 11, pp.93,95.

Welch, David. 2000. "Special Report on Hybrids," Business Week, August 14, pp.63-70.