Much to do about hybrid cars

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Now that we got our gas guzzling fix from the '57 Chevy Bel Air and '67 Stingray I’d like to crank up a discussion of hybrid cars and vehicles. A new Consumer Reports survey out today says 37 percent of consumers plan to replace their current vehicle with one that gets better gas mileage. Most say they'll buy a hybrid. What about you? Which make and model appeals to you? Those of you who have made the plunge, how has the experience been for you. The pros and cons. Business Week recently ran a story on the top ten hybrid myths. We’ll use this condensed version as a discussion starter.

1. You need to plug in a hybrid car. False.Today's hybrid cars don't need to be plugged in. Auto engineers have developed an ingenious system known as regenerative braking. (Actually, they borrowed the concept from locomotive technology.) Energy usually lost when a vehicle is slowing down or stopping is reclaimed and routed to the hybrid's rechargeable batteries. The process is automatic, so no special requirements are placed on the driver.

2. Hybrid batteries need to be replaced. Worries about an expensive replacement of a hybrid car's batteries continue to nag many potential buyers. Those worries are unfounded. By keeping the charge between 40% and 60% -- never fully charged and never fully drained -- carmakers have greatly extended the longevity of nickel metal hydride batteries.

3. Hybrids are a new phenomenon. In 1900, American car companies produced steam, electric, and gasoline cars in almost equal numbers. It wasn't long before enterprising engineers figured out that multiple sources of power could be combined. In 1905 an American engineer named H. Piper filed the first patent for a gas-electric hybrid vehicle.

4. People buy hybrids only to save money on gas. Hybrid cars top the list of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Going farther on a gallon of gas -- and thus reducing a car owner's tab at the pumps -- is a logical advantage of a hybrid car. But car shoppers seldom buy based purely on a logical economic equation. Besides, as critics of hybrid technology frequently point out, those savings seldom add up to the extra cost of buying a hybrid over a comparable conventional vehicle. So, if it's not to save money, why are more and more shoppers going hybrid? Many reasons: To minimize their impact on the environment, to help reduce the world's addiction to oil, and to earn technology bragging rights. Who was the first on your block to have a color TV? Who will be the first to drive a hybrid? The car you drive sends a powerful message about who you are and what you think about the world. Hybrid drivers take pride in letting other drivers -- especially those behind the wheel of gas guzzlers -- know that getting from point A to point B doesn't have to lead us to an uncertain environmental and economic future.

5. Hybrids are expensive. Hybrids are available in 10 different models ranging in price from $19,000 to $53,000. The most efficient models -- the Insight, Civic, and Prius -- are available well below $30,000. By the end of the decade, more than 50 models are expected. By that point, hybrids will represent the full range of sizes, shapes, and costs.

6. Hybrids are small and underpowered. The Honda (HMC) Accord hybrid is the fastest family sedan on the market. The Lexus Rx400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid share the same 270 horsepower system. The Lexus GS 450h hybrid sedan, expected later in 2006, will exceed 300 horsepower with 0-to-60 performance below six seconds. And the Toyota Volta concept is a 408-horsepower scream machine.

7. Only liberals buy hybrids. The long list of celebrity hybrid drivers includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Larry David In the ensuing years, Americans of all political stripes have become more aware of the economic and political costs of oil dependency. Conservative pundits claim that our petrodollars end up in the hands of repressive Middle East regimes and their patrons. As a result, we fund both sides of the war on terror. In addition, auto workers have grown more interested in fuel-saving technologies, recognizing that they bear the brunt of Detroit's reluctance to abandon once-profitable SUVs.

8. Hybrids pose a threat to first responders. Now that hundreds more hybrid cars take to our roads each day, some critics have wondered if public safety agencies should be concerned about all those high-voltage battery packs zipping along at freeway speeds. Not too much. Turns out that a good amount of training -- and, in case of fire, lots of water -- should be most of what a first responder needs upon arriving at an accident involving a hybrid. Firefighters have coped with advancing automotive technologies for years, and they will skillfully deal with hybrid cars.

9. Hybrids will solve all our transportation, energy, and environmental problems. The hybrid car market is ramping up. In the past five years hybrid sales in the U.S. grew twentyfold. The numbers are encouraging but must be viewed in the context of the overall car market. The 200,000 hybrid car sales in 2005 represent 1.2% of the 17 million new cars sold last year. If every new hybrid driver doubled fuel economy from 20 mpg to 40 mpg for 40 miles of daily driving -- an optimistic estimate -- then a gallon per hybrid car would be saved every day. That's a whopping 100,000 gallons per day chalked up to hybrid car drivers. But we've only reduced our daily U.S. consumption from 400 million gallons to 399,900,000 gallons. Hybrid cars can only be viewed as a partial solution.

10. Hybrid technology is only a fad. Hybrid technology is often pitted against fuel cells, diesel engines, and/or hydrogen as the silver bullet approach to sustainable mobility. The debate over the future of automotive technology has now turned toward finding the best ways to combine systems and fuels in a single hybrid vehicle. The experience of mass-producing hybrid gas-electric vehicles has given engineers the insight needed to develop complex systems needed to combine multiple sources of power. In an Associated Press interview, Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said: "I think everything will be a hybrid, eventually. It will either be a gas hybrid, a diesel hybrid, or a fuel-cell hybrid."

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