The fact that hybrid electric vehicles are becoming wildly popular with consumers, and that the auto manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with demand is good news all around, because gas-electric hybrids represent the simplest, most effective, most affordable short-term way to reduce fossil fuel consumption in passenger cars and the environmental impact of driving motor vehicles.
A hybrid combines the best features of internal combustion and electric drive, while eliminating the worst parts of each. Hybrid vehicles have both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, with a highly sophisticated automatic control system that chooses which one is running under what conditions. The electric motor is used at low speeds and for acceleration boost; the internal combustion motor delivers cruising speed and long range but automatically shuts off at stoplights. Deceleration and braking actually capture energy by generating electricity that recharges the batteries.
Hybrid vehicles are available right now and getting better all the time. The 2006 Toyota Prius gets 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway—a 15% improvement over the 2003 model. The 2006 Honda Civic hybrid gets 49 and 51 mpg, respectively. Even better, Honda’s two-seater hybrid car, the Insight, rates at 57/56 mpg. These three models, all qualifying as SULEVS, have the highest “Green Scores” issued by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. These early-generation hybrids continue to lean heavily on the internal combustion engine, because it’s the technology we understand best. Future hybrids will rely more on electric storage and drive and will increase fuel mileage greatly.
The other good news is that hybrids are affordable: The Prius, Civic, and Insight each cost between $20,000 and $22,000. Furthermore, the automakers are finding hybrids to be profitable, indicating that this technology is poised for longevity in the marketplace. Honda now makes an Accord hybrid with a V6 engine that lists for around $31,000.
Hybrids are the technology that is most immediately accessible to manufacturers right now. Every major manufacturer has hybrid models in the works. You’ve probably noticed that they’re even advertising hybrid SUVs. The number of models that meet the toughest emissions standards now stands at nearly 90, in all classes of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs.