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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 00:00

The hype on hybrids

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Editor’s note: Naturalist Don Hendershot is writing a series of columns exploring the use of alternative energy and fuels.

 

Hybrids are supposed to offer the best of both worlds, quiet electrical propulsion for stop-and-go driving and the power of internal combustion for those interstate cruises. The electric motor uses no energy when idling and produces no tailpipe emissions. At higher speeds the internal combustion engine kicks in for power and the acceleration American drivers have grown accustomed to.

Some of the pros of hybrid vehicles:

• They run cleaner than conventional autos with lower emissions.

• There are tax deductions/credits for hybrid cars.

• Increased fuel efficiency — urban drivers especially see a big boost in fuel efficiency .

• Commuters can use HOV lanes even if driving alone.

• One benefit over straight electric vehicles is that hybrids recharge their batteries while you drive.

• Hybrids fit right into the current fuel distribution infrastructure.

Some drawbacks of hybrid vehicles:

• Initial cost — hybrids can cost from $3,000 to $5,000 (or more) than comparable conventional models.

• If most of your driving is on the highway, the difference in fuel efficiency between hybrids and fuel-efficient conventional vehicles is greatly reduced.

• There is the environmental issue of battery disposal.

• Repairs are generally more costly. Unlike total electric vehicles that reduce engine components, hybrids rely on two engines and a more complex computer model to merge the two plus still require the same type of fluid replacement and maintenance as conventional engines.

• And remember, just as in conventional autos, actually fuel efficiency can be up to 20 to 30 percent less than manufacturers claim.

All hybrids aren’t created equal

While most all automakers market one or more hybrid vehicles, the Union of Concerned Scientista recently denounced GM’s hybrid pick-ups as “half-hearted attempts at the hybrid market.” The UCS complains that the vehicles still use old battery types and technology and only increase fuel economy by 10 percent or less.

And some other automakers seemed to have cooled on their hybrid efforts. Ford has cut back on its projection of 250,000 hybrids by 2010 in favor of producing more “flex-fuel” vehicles. The “flex-fuel” model seems to be playing big with automakers as a result of recent energy legislation.

Ford and others are also working on hybrids that are electric and flex-fuel and/or hybrids that are electric and biodiesel. These vehicles are far from the mass production stage, however.

Some stronger industry critics believe hybrids are just tokens at this time. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards require that the average mileage of an automaker’s models must be 27.5 mpg. So, in theory, manufacturers could sell one hybrid with a 60 mpg rating and four vehicles that average only 20 mpg and still meet CAFÉ standards.

Another knock on hybrids is that much of the fuel efficiency comes from improvements in aerodynamics, weight reduction and harder, smaller “low-rolling resistance” tires.

Many auto analysts think that hybrids are basically a transitional technology. If there were more on the road, the overall environmental impacts could start to add up and perhaps greater market demand would produce a hybrid that even I could afford. But it seems many in the industry are still waiting for that magical, technological “silver bullet” that will produce the environmentally friendly, affordable vehicle much of the public is beginning to clamor for.

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