If you own a Prius or Escape, you’ve probably tried this game: how far can you drive solely on electric power before the engine turns on? (Don’t bother trying with a Civic or Insight…they don’t have an all-electric mode.) I usually can make it a few blocks if my car is warmed up. But imagine running in electric mode for your entire commute—and not using a drop of gasoline to do it. That’s the promise of plug-in hybrids.
While Detroit’s ad gurus on Madison Avenue have gone out of their way to convince you that you don’t plug in a hybrid car, the reality is most people would probably prefer to. Drive in quiet, all-electric mode around town and save the gas for long trips. Recharge the car at home while you sleep and reduce trips to your neighborhood’s multinational corporate representative (a.k.a. the corner gas station). Reduce emissions of smog-forming and global warming pollution—unless your house is powered by an Eisenhower-era coal plant.
If plug-in hybrids are so attractive, why can’t you buy one? Perhaps it’s a revival of the GM-Standard Oil-Firestone conspiracy where the companies got together to buy up (and then rip out) urban rail lines that stood in the way of automobility. While oil companies certainly stand to lose from plugging in, it’s not likely to put a dent in their profits anytime soon. And it’s not that the technology doesn’t work, either: university professors, home hobbyists, and now DaimlerChrysler have demonstrated that it can be done.
The question is whether automakers can make money selling plug-in hybrids. Installing enough batteries to run a car for moderate distances may add thousands to the sticker price. Time will tell whether the extra you pay at the dealership will be offset by lower fuel costs that come from plug-in’s more efficient use of energy. The technology’s advocates certainly think so, and some argue (correctly) that not everything has to pencil out for the pocketbook to make good sense.
In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on progress with plug-in hybrids and ensure that policies for cleaner cars reward the technology for its environmental advantages.
Posted by: Jason Mark (a.k.a. "The Management")