Hybrid vehicles are at the crossroads
August 11, 2005
Imagine the public outrage if it were discovered that Philip Morris developed a cure for cancer but used it to merely make cigarettes taste better. While that is fictional, something very similar, and very real, may be happening to hybrid vehicles.
Right now there are more than 100,000 fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles on the road in America, most notably the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid. Hybrid sales shot up a remarkable 81 percent in 2004, and, based on early projections for 2005, there appears no end in sight to hybrids’ popularity.
Unfortunately, some automakers are offering models that fall far short of their potential.
The best hybrid vehicles use advanced technologies that blend gas and electric power to create fuel-efficient, consumer-friendly cars and SUVs. While Ford, Honda and Toyota’s hybrids set new standards for fuel economy, General Motors has short-changed the technology by introducing “hollow hybrids” that barely increase fuel economy 1-2 miles per gallon.
For example, the “hybrid” versions of GM’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups use only conventional technology improvements rather than the full combination of gas-electric engines (these pickup trucks could easily reach 30-35 miles per gallon if GM had done a better job).
But GM is not stopping there. Its “Green Line” Saturn VUE and Chevy Malibu “hybrid” will only marginally more fuel-efficient.
While mislabeling conventional cars as hybrids is disturbing, GM’s plans to hybridize its massive Yukon and Tahoe SUVs in 2007 is a potential poison to the market. GM officials call these vehicles “strong” hybrids, which may well be a euphemism for “muscle hybrids” -- vehicles that use hybrid technology primarily for performance rather than significantly boosting fuel economy.
This obsession with performance is what led to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil in the first place. As a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency shows, leaps in engine technology over the past 20 years have been used almost exclusively to make cars faster and heavier, not more efficient.
True hybrids can play an important part in reducing both our dependence on foreign oil and the emissions that cause global warming pollution.
Our government should foster such hybrids.
New federal tax credits for hybrids are starting in 2006, which is a positive step.
But it could be better. For instance, the four-wheel drive Toyota Highlander Hybrid will actually get a larger tax credit than the more fuel-efficient two-wheel version. “Gas guzzler” incentives like this could encourage hybrid buyers (and hybrid producers) to upsize their power and downsize their fuel economy benefits.
Everyone from auto executives and engineers to city council members and consumers has a part to play. For two decades we have been in the fast lane of foreign oil dependence. Now is the time to use hybrid technology to take the road less traveled. Too much is at stake to let the benefits of hybrids go up in smoke.
Michelle Robinson is the Washington office director, Clean Vehicles Program, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and scientists. The group combines rigorous scientific analysis with innovative thinking and committed citizen advocacy to build a cleaner, healthier environment and a safer world. © Michelle Robinson