Monday, July 18, 2005

Hybrid Purpose
Few advanced energy technologies generate more interest and excitement than hybrid cars. However, not all hybrid cars save huge amounts of fuel, as explained in this article in Sunday's New York Times. Nor did the Times mention the new "mild hybrid" pickup trucks, such as the Chevy Silverado, that are barely hybrids at all and get little better mileage than their conventional twins. With the federal and various state governments offering tax credits for consumers who buy hybrid cars, should these be restricted to hybrids that deliver substantial fuel savings, or are all hybrids worthy?

In some respects, this is a problem we've created for ourselves, by targeting government support at a specific technology, rather than offering credits based on actual fuel economy--which is presumably the end goal at issue. (We will face the same problem when fuel cell cars hit the road.) But since we're in this pickle, I'd opt for generosity, for two reasons. First, hybrids are a critical tool for retarding the further deterioration of fuel economy in the US. As the Times article noted, the long-term consumer trend has diverted most of the advances in engine technology in the last 20 years and yoked them to hauling heavier and heavier cars with ever greater acceleration. So the context for the Lexus RX-400h luxury hybrid SUV is not just its conventional version, but competing SUV's such as Volvo's XC90, which has just launched its first V-8 engine to meet customer demands for more power. A peppier hybrid six-cylinder is still likely to use less fuel than a V-8 with comparable performance, and is thus a step in the right direction.

In addition, every new hybrid put on the road advances the technology and moves manufacturers down the learning curve. This will result in better and cheaper hybrids in the future. It's important to remember that hybrids are still at about 250,000 cumulative units sold, while conventional cars are well over a billion.

This is an issue that should be resolved sooner rather than later, because within a few years there will be dozens of hybrid models available, with even greater confusion about the benefits provided.

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