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Hybrid cars and you

By James J. Winebrake

In the late 19th century, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison placed their bets on two very different automotive technologies. Edison believed electric vehicles would prove supreme in America; Ford, on the other hand, thought the internal combustion engine would be America’s technology of choice. Of course, Ford’s vision ultimately came to pass, and the petroleum burning engines have dominated the automotive industry ever since.

But now a new vehicle technology that represents an Edison-Ford compromise is rolling off vehicle production lines. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) have come of age and now have the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry.

Why hybrids? Well, HEVs combine the best of what internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and electric vehicles have to offer. Internal combustion vehicles are extremely efficient at cruising speeds where the engine can operate at an optimal RPM, while electric vehicles are more efficient at low speed, high-torque events (such as starting from a stop). An HEV includes both an ICE and an electric motor. By using each technology under different driving conditions, the vehicle can optimize its operation. These efficiencies allow the Toyota Prius, for example, to get approximately 60 miles per gallon.

In addition, HEVs can “shut off” when the vehicle is stopped (for example at a stop light or in traffic congestion), thereby reducing fuel consumption during vehicle idling. In fact, due to this shut-off feature, you will notice that the miles-per-gallon ratings for HEVs are higher for city driving (stop-and-go traffic) than highway driving, converse to ICE vehicles.

With these efficiency gains, HEVs are able to achieve almost twice as many miles per gallon as comparable conventionally powered vehicles and improve vehicle performance. This reduces reliance on petroleum, reduces emissions by 50 to 90 percent, and can cut fuel costs in half.

Currently, Honda (Insight, Civic, Accord) and Toyota (Prius, Highlander, Lexus) have HEV models commercially available (go to a show-room and you will see them!). Others such as Ford (Escape) and GM (Silverado) are planning on offering HEVs in 2005. And more will come; in fact, Toyota recently announced that by 2011 every vehicle model they offer will come with an HEV option.

So what is the down side? Well, currently HEVs cost from $2,000 to $5,000 more up front; however, some of that is offset by lower annual fuel costs. For example, the Ford Escape hybrid will average 33 mpg, versus 15 mpg in its conventional form. A consumer who travels 10,000 miles per year will save about 550 gallons of gas. This represents an annual savings of about $960 (assuming a gasoline price of $1.75 per gallon) and a simple payback of less than five years.

In addition, a tank of gas for the HEV Escape will last 600 miles, so you’ll spend less time at the gas station. Finally, tax incentives are available from federal and state governments that can reduce the upfront costs of purchasing an HEV. Up to $2,000 in federal tax deductions are available for consumers who purchase HEVs and similar deductions are expected to be extended in New York’s state tax law.

And what about performance? Automakers recognize that one of the key determinants dictating whether HEVs receive widespread market acceptance is vehicle performance. All indicators point to HEVs performing as well or better than their conventional counterparts. For example, one reason why GM is looking to “hybridize” its best-selling Silverado pick-up truck is so the truck will have greater pulling power (using the electric motor) while maintaining a reasonably sized internal combustion engine.

James Winebrake is chair of the public policy department in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. His primary area of research is the energy and environmental impacts of advanced transportation technologies. Winebrake holds a B.S. in physics from Lafayette College, a M.S. in technology and policy from MIT, and a Ph.D. in energy management and policy from the University of Pennsylvania.

The movement towards HEVs is a positive step in the automotive industry. For current consumers, models are limited, so there just might not be an HEV available for your needs – yet! But in the near future, HEVs will become an option for almost every driver.

For interested readers, more information about HEVs can be found on automakers’ Web sites or at http://www.ott.doe.gov/hev/.