Hybrids Bring Eco-Green To Your Vacation December 11, 2015

HybridsThe question: How far can a family of four travel on one tank of gas? The answer: Farther than you might think. In a bright-blue Toyota Prius, my family embarked on a six-day, 600-mile loop around New England on a single tank of gas. Better still, we spent just $16.54 to fill the 11.9-gallon tank and achieved about 50 miles per gallon, an average consistent with Toyota’s estimates of 52 mpg city/45 highway. Broken down, the per-person fuel cost was a little more than $4 for a trip that took us around the historic haunts of Salem, Mass., antiquing in Philadelphia, camping on a beach nearby, then driving across the state to stay with Grandma in the Berkshire Hills, before returning home to Redding, Conn.

Clearly, our savings at the gas pump were significant–we spent more on soft drinks than on fuel that week. Even more impressive: The two hybrid cars currently marketed in the United States, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid (47 mpg city/51 highway), offer an important savings to the environment. “The Prius emits roughly 90 ercent fewer tail-pipe emissions than most conventional cars,” says Wade Hoyt, a spokesperson for Toyota. Currently, cars and passenger trucks are the second-largest U.S. source of carbon-dioxide pollution (behind industrial polluters), releasing more than 1.3 billion metric tons of this greenhouse gas in the year 2000, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. If all Americans drove hybrids, car emissions would be slashed to as little as 10 percent of their current totals. “The technology exists. The power is with the consumer now. It’s up to us to show automakers that we will buy and drive these cars,” says Rob Stuart, campaign producer for the Web-based Patriot’s Energy Pledge Campaign. Through its campaign, the nonprofit group hopes to convince Americans to drive greener for yet another reason: The United States has possession of just three percent of the world’s oil reserves, but accounts for 25 percent of oil consumption worldwide. This imbalance results in our pouring “billions of dollars into volatile regions to protect access to the fuel we need,” states Stuart, who says that the campaign was born after September 11, 2001, as a grassroots way of getting Americans to reduce their national reliance on foreign oil. For instance: “If we all drove cars that achieved just 40 mpg, drivers would save 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, the same quantity of oil that we now import from the Persian Gulf;” Stuart says. “Our last two wars were fought over oil. The link between fuel co nsumption and national security is becoming clear to the average American.” Surprisingly, support for hybrids is coming from a consumer group we tend to associate with Jaguars and Bentleys: Hollywood’s glitterati. Celebrities who have downshifted to gas-saving hybrids include Cameron Diaz, David Duchovny, Billy Joel, Patricia Arquette, and Carole King (see “What Celebrities Are Saying About Hybrids” on page 30). The glam quotient for hybrids may be high–but how comfortable and convenient are they to drive around in? Well, for starters, you don’t have to plug it in at night, or ever, to recharge the battery; when in operation, the gas-driven engine regenerates the battery, which runs for 10 years or longer. And both the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid drive just like any other sedan of their class–the only critical difference is the electric motor and its battery pack hidden under the hood or back seat. While in motion, a computer decides whether the car will run more efficiently on gas or electricity, switching seamlessly between the two. At lower speeds and in reverse, the clean, quiet electric motor takes over almost entirely, which means that as the car slides up to a stoplight or backs out of a parking space, it makes no noise at all–prompting many drivers to check to be sure the vehicle is still running. In general, both the Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid have good pickup and are smooth and stable a t high speeds. They also offer roomy (three seats in back) interiors. And while hybrids are priced a bit higher than comparable conventional models, at about $20,000, they save consumers money at the gas pump–and if the federal energy bill currently in Congress passes with the provision intact, hybrid purchasers will also enjoy a tax rebate from Uncle Sam. The trunk space is typical for cars of this class: never enough. But after a moment or two of marital discord, my husband and I managed to body-slam an enormous duffel, camping and tennis gear, a Razor scooter and helmet, and two beach chairs into it.

Indeed, one of the few frustrations triggered by hybrid cars is that there are no family-sized models offered in the United States, even though the technology is appropriate for use in larger vehicles. In Japan, hybrid minivans, full-sized sedans, even a small bus are already available. Slower to come to market are hybrids–large or small–by American manufacturers. Automakers in the United States are pinning their performance hopes on the development of fuel-cell-powered vehicles, explains Therese Langer, transportation program director at the American Council for an EnergyEfficient Economy, which publishes ACEEE’s Green Book: The Environmental Guide to Cars & Trucks ($8.95; available at 202-429-8873 or www.aceee.org) annually. The good news is that family-size, American-made hybrids will become available in the next few years: The Ford Escape HEM a hybrid SUV slated to debut late in 2003 (with a projected mid-30s mpg), a hybrid Dodge Durango, and a General Motors pickup truck are also in the works. Meanwhil e, fuel-cell vehicles are emerging as test vehicles, using no oil at all and producing near- zero carbon-dioxide emissions (see “Fuel-Cell Facts” on page 28).

One problem with fuel- cell-powered vehicles is that it will be at least another 10 years before they’re mass- produced, says Langer. Until then, hybrids will likely be the high-tech vehicle driven by green-minded Americans, especially those who reside in California, where lawmakers recently signed legislation that will set state-mandated limits on the amounts of carbon dioxide vehicles can emit. Heralded as the first of its kind worldwide, Assembly Bill 1493 requires the California Air Resources Board to develop carbon pollution standards for vehicles in model years 2009 and beyond. The standards will apply to automakers’ fleet averages, rather than to individual vehicles, so while larger, more gas thirsty vehicles will still be sold in California, the average fleetwide mpg achieved by any carmaker selling cars in the state will drop significantly. “Opponents of this bill say the sky is falling,” said California Governor Gray Davis when he signed the bill into law. “But they said it about unleaded gasoline. Th ey said it about catalytic converters. They said it about seat belts and air bags. But the sky is nor falling. It’s just getting a whole lot cleaner.”

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