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Choosing a hybrid car—named for its combination of conventional gasoline power and assistance from an electric motor—aids in reducing greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and reliance on petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

Find it! Hybrid vehicles

Although the Toyota Prius may be the most ubiquitous hybrid vehicle—it was named the world’s greenest car by the Swiss government in July 2007 and has been the fastest selling hybrid model since its introduction into the Japanese auto market in 1997—other major automakers, both domestic and foreign, have followed suit by producing their own hybrid models.[1] Here's a sample of hybrids available in the US. For more detailed information on current models, check out CNET's Hybrid Car Buying Guide or The Edmunds Green Car Guide.

Before you buy

It goes without saying that sharing a ride, hopping on the bus, hoofing it, or straddling that old Schwinn are the greenest modes of transport. If you choose to buy or lease a hybrid vehicle—be it an iconic Toyota Prius or a more luxe (and larger) Lexus RX Hybrid—proceed with foresight. Despite the basic electric motor/small gas engine similarities, hybrids have disparate fuel economies, features, and degrees of “clean.” According to Fueleconomy.gov, a joint effort between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE), the “cleanest” hybrids of the 2007 model year were the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic.

As is often the case, green living requires an elevated financial commitment and hybrids are no exception, making them a sound ecological investment but not necessarily a sound economical one. So, despite lucrative incentives and fuel economies, if you’re looking to save the earth and money, a small, gas-efficient used car might be a better option. And gadgethounds considering buying a hybrid for novelty's sake, keep in mind that despite its green stature, a vast amount of energy and resources went into its production and it is, when it comes down to it, just another car on the road.

Choosing a hybrid car helps you go green because…

  • When accelerating, hybrid vehicles run off a battery-charged electric motor, not gasoline, curtailing global-warming-causing tailpipe emissions. Hybrids can reduce air pollution by as much as 90 percent.[2]
  • While at a standstill, a hybrid’s engine shuts itself off and the vehicle runs on electricity. Every two minutes of idling in a standard car consumes the same amount of gas required to drive approximately one mile—a waste of resources and a contributor to smog.[3]
  • As concern over the cost and source of petroleum soars, hybrids have been proven to have excellent fuel economy due to advanced aerodynamic designs (which reduce wind resistance), weight-optimized design, and other fuel-efficient features.
  • Unlike electric cars that travel at slower speeds and require plugging-in to recharge for hours at a time, a hybrid's battery is recharged naturally from energy recovered from braking.

By harnessing advanced technology to provide higher fuel economy and lower emissions than possible with conventional engines, hybrid cars—launched domestically with the Honda Insight in the 2000 model year—reached a new sales high. In May 2007 after a slow but steady eight year ascent, sales of hybrids represented 2.9 percent of the domestic auto market.[4] Despite a small slice of the overall market and a slump in sales in 2006, according to auto market analysis firm R.L. Polk & Co., hybrids are shedding their auto-esoterica/for-celebrities-only reputation as the Prius remains one of the top 15 selling vehicles in the US.[5] In May 2007, 45,000 light-duty hybrids were sold (not including those made by General Motors), a 91 percent increase from May 2006.[4]

The US remains the leading hybrid vehicle market representing 70 percent of global sales in 2005 with foreign automakers, Toyota and Honda, leading the pack.[6] California held a sizable lead in domestic new hybrid registrations in 2006 with 67,533 (26.5 percent of total US hybrid registrations) followed by Florida and Texas, each with under 13,000 new registrations.[7]

The science of hybrid automobiles

By definition, a vehicle that combines two separate power sources to propel itself is considered hybrid. Furthermore, hybrid vehicles are not exactly a newfangled concept—the locomotives used to pull trains are diesel-electric hybrids and submarines use a combination of either nuclear or diesel and electric power. Public buses in cities like Seattle run on electricity from wires installed above the street and diesel when not connected to the wires.

Yet consumer vehicles are just now seeing hybrid technology come to life. Hybrids on the domestic market are primarily gasoline-electric. The operation of the modern hybrid vehicle is simple: a small, fuel-efficient gas engine receives an extra “boost” from an electric motor while accelerating. The motor is powered by batteries that have the ability to recharge themselves while the car is in operation. Additionally, economical and ecological advancements are displayed through regenerative braking, low-rolling-resistance tires, and streamlined aerodynamics.

Hybrid engines also shut themselves down while stopped in traffic and resume when put back into gear, curbing tailpipe emissions generated from excessive idling. Due in part to these advancements, it's estimated that 230 million gallons of gasoline have been conserved since 1999.[8]

The future of hybrids

As fuel prices rise and more consumers adapt to green lifestyle changes, the hybrid continues to rise from its niche positioning in the global auto market. In April 2007, the Prius went “mainstream” as Toyota launched its first national ad campaign for the car and began offering incentives such as no-interest financing. Hybrid Mercury Milans, Ford Fusions, a Saturn Vue Green Line SUV hybrid, and a “Next Generation” Prius are all scheduled to be released in 2008, and in 2010, Porsche plans to unveil a hybrid Cayenne SUV.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a large-scale effort to reduce air pollution, ordered all taxis in New York City to be hybrid by October 2012. As of May 2007, 375 of New York's 13,000 registered taxis ran on hybrid engines.[9]

In spite of the budding interest in hybrids, many believe them to be simply transitional as green automotive technology evolves. For example, advancements in the battery storage capacity of electric cars continue and hydrogen-powered vehicles are in development. Ford and GM have chosen to focus on flexible-fuel vehicles that run on E85 fuel—85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas—or pure gasoline. Ethanol-based fuel (distilled from corn and grain) emits less pollution than gasoline but currently faces limited availability in the US.

Tax breaks and subsidies

Federal tax rebates

Federal tax credits based on fuel economy advancements make the purchase of hybrid vehicles a more economically viable option to consumers by offsetting their high costs. US car buyers purchasing new-model gas-electric hybrids or cars that use alternative fuels are eligible for the Alternative Motor Vehicle Credit. The credits vary from $450 to $3,000, depending on which quarter the vehicle is purchased. Tax credits begin to phase out after the 60,000 vehicle of each model is sold. For specific information, see the Internal Revenue Service’s document on Hybrid Cars and Alternative Fuel Vehicles.

Other benefits and breaks

Alongside federal tax rebates, 36 states offer various incentives to consumers who purchase hybrid vehicles. For example, New York State offers a $2,000 income tax credit and a partial refund of sales tax paid upon purchase to buyers of “qualified hybrid vehicles.” For more state-by-state hybrid incentives—including those allowing solo hybrid drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV, also know as carpool) lanes see HybridCenter.org.

In response to the nascent, eco-benevolent hybrid movement, cities like Los Angeles and Albuquerque permit hybrid drivers to park gratis in paid meter parking spots, and in October, 2006, Baltimore passed a measure that would allow hybrid owners to pay discount rates at select city parking garages.

What's more, bridge and tunnel travelers in New York and New Jersey who drive a hybrid get perks when it comes to tolls. In November 2007, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced it would offer a $2 EZ-Pass discount to drivers of three specific hybrids: the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the 2000 to 2004 model year Honda Insight. As of January 2008, about 1,240 of these green toll transponders have been issued out of nearly 2.3 million total. Such discounts have been instituted in European cities like Milan to combat pollution and encourage public transport.

And the corporate world also rewards employees for going hybrid. Google and Timberland are among companies offering employees handsome incentives for purchasing hybrid vehicles. Google, for example, extends an incentive of $5,000 to buyers and $2,500 to employees who opt to lease.

Controversies

Special incentives

The perks that hybrid owners are granted have caused many transportation experts—and fellow commuters—to decry these well-intentioned benefits, asserting them to be unfair and at risk of making the raison d’être of hybrid ownership—to decrease both dependence on oil and air pollution—futile. A main point of contention is hybrid drivers’ access to HOV lanes. In Virginia, the first state to open carpool lanes to solo hybrid-drivers and the state with the fifth most registered hybrid vehicles in the nation, these lanes are becoming congested.[7] Critics claim this negates the less-cars-on-the-road-the-better objective and may force carpoolers to use regular traffic lanes. In terms of emissions, a standard SUV traveling in a carpool lane with three passengers pollutes less than three Honda Civic hybrids with solo motorists traveling in the same lane.[10]

Inaccurate EPA mileage readings

In 2007, the EPA revised their outdated mileage estimates and the advertised—and inaccurate—fuel economy for hybrids plunged. In the case of the Prius, its previously estimated average of 60 miles per gallon (mpg) for in-city driving dropped to 48 mpg, a figure more realistic to the one many drivers (some who purchased their cars purely on fuel economy) were experiencing. Its highway mileage fell from 51 to 45 mpg. The EPA maintains that mileage readings still depend on how a driver handles a car, and despite the decreased averages, a Prius can still achieve up to 62 mpg in city driving.

Battery concerns

Some hybrid owners—and potential owners—worry about the durability of their car’s battery given its integral function in the hybrid operating system. The 2007 hybrid models come equipped with batteries designed to last eight years or 100,000 miles (and offer warranties to this effect) and feature built-in thermal management systems to adequately perform in extreme hot or cold climates. Although the price for a replacement battery for a 2007 hybrid is high—$3,000 to $3,600—Toyota claims that since the Japanese release of the Prius in 1997, there has yet to be a battery replacement.[11]

There is also concern regarding the environmental impact of expired hybrid batteries. However, the batteries found in hybrid vehicles, which are nickel metal hydride (NiMH), are less toxic than standard lead acid and nickel cadmium batteries. Additionally, Toyota has instituted an intensive NiMH battery recycling program and claims that every component of the batteries in their hybrids has been recycled.

Drawbacks

Economic issues

There is a dispute as to whether or not hybrids are the most fiscally responsible choice when considering a green vehicle. According to Physorg.com, hybrid models generally outperform fuel-efficient cars like Honda Civics by 20 to 30 percent in terms of fuel economy. Yet the price of a hybrid—anywhere from $19,000 to $25,000—is significantly higher than a gas-saving car like a Civic that can run from $14,000 to $17,000. In terms of yearly gasoline bills—$405 for a Honda Insight and $635 for a Civic—a hybrid owner saves $2,300 over a 10-year period, a lower figure than the cost difference for a similar, non-hybrid vehicle.

Additionally, hybrid owners may face higher repair bills than standard car owners and have difficulties finding a hybrid-certified mechanic. Strong warranties issued by automakers and incentives offered by federal, state, and local governments are meant to offset financial anxiety and apprehension. Controversy over costs and mileage aside, hybrids still cut emissions by 25 to 35 percent over gas-powered models.[12]

Safety issues

With electrical systems that have 10 to 20 times more voltage than the 12-volt-range batteries used in standard automobile makes, the potential danger presented by a hybrid involved in a major collision is of concern to emergency workers. Although there have been no fatalities (due to the relatively small number of hybrid vehicles on the nation’s roadways), the threat of electrocution remains an issue.

Hybrid automakers like Honda and Toyota are quick to point out that onboard computer systems lessen the risk of electrocution and that high-voltage compartments in the cars are color-coded to warn first responders. Meanwhile, rescue workers are educating themselves while taking extra precautions as new, high-tech hazards become more prevalent in their already precarious line of work.

Glossary

  • automotive fuel economy: Fuel economy in cars is important because carbon dioxide emissions are directly related to the amount of fuel burned. Miles per gallon, or mpg, is the way most Americans measure fuel economy. (Europe, for example, uses l/100 km or liters of fuel per 100 km traveled.) To measure your fuel economy, fill your tank and reset the odometer. At your next fill-up, divide the miles traveled by the amount of fuel needed to refill the tank.
  • regenerative braking: Regenerative braking occurs when heat created by applying the brakes of a hybrid vehicle is recouped by the electric motor. Furthermore, each time a hybrid decreases its speed the motor becomes a generator and charges the battery. For more on the science of regenerative braking and how it differs from braking systems of standard automobiles see wiseGEEK.com.

External links

Comments

07/14/2010
10:45am
charitabledonations

In addition to trying to conserve energy, donate your car instead of giving it to a junkyard. You will help someone in need and help the environment!

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