Even the most environmentally conscious among us probably have to face the fact that we aren't willing to stop driving a car. Taking public transportation, carpooling and bicycling are all great ways to save energy, but most of us would be hard-pressed to use these modes of transit all the time. Still, we don't have to hitch up the horses to make earth-friendly improvements in our driving records.
With a growing array of models available, "hybrids" offer a realistic way to keep driving a vehicle while caring for our surroundings. By doing so, we can reduce our need for scarce oil overall, decrease our dependency on foreign oil and lower air pollution all at the same time. Since two-thirds of the oil we use goes toward transportation, according to Warren Leon of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NSEA), we can really make a difference by changing our habits in this area.
Increasingly popular, the gas-electric hybrid-commonly referred to as just the "hybrid"-works by combining a small combustion engine with an electric motor and battery, notes the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on its website. Hybrids use special technology called "regenerative braking" to capture energy lost during braking and return it to the battery, the UCS explains. (This means they don't need to be plugged in to recharge the battery.)
Hybrids produce far less pollution than conventional vehicles, helping to reduce greenhouse gases. "Hybrids can reduce smog pollution by 90% or more compared with the cleanest conventional vehicles on the road today," the UCS says. In addition, "hybrids consume significantly less fuel than vehicles powered by gasoline alone," it adds. "The first hybrids on the market will cut emissions of global-warming pollutants by a third to a half." Using less fuel has the obvious added bonus of saving significantly at the gas pump, especially as prices rise.
In use, hybrids don't seem much different from non-hybrid vehicles: Hybrids don't need to be plugged in, they do well in various weather conditions, and the battery packs are designed to survive for the lifetime of the car. You can stop at any regular gas station to refuel and you don't have to carry around special tanks.
While hybrids had the reputation of being slow when they arrived on the market, they're now considered to offer comparable performance, according to Consumer Reports magazine, which regularly conducts extensive evaluations of most car models. "Some of the new hybrids are, dare we say, performance vehicles," their evaluators said in the May 2005 issue of Consumer Reports.
Different models are now on the market, including five-passenger sedans, a two-seater, sport utility vehicles and full-size pickups. Some of these include the Honda Insight, Civic Hybrid and Accord Hybrid, the Toyota Prius and Highlander, and the Ford Escape HEV, as well as the GMC Sierra Hybrid pickup. More SUVs and mid-sized cars as well as full-sized pickups are expected to come down the pike in the next several years.
Some hybrids offer more environmental benefits than others, so doing a little background research is key, such as by checking the website of the California Air Resources Board (ARB), which offers a way for consumers to identify the "cleanest" hybrid models. But no hybrid is a panacea. "Hybrids will never be true zero-emission vehicles, however, because of their internal combustion engine," notes the California ARB. "But hybrids certified to the ARB's super ultra low emission standard can significantly reduce ozone precursor emissions and global-warming pollutants by a third to a half, and future models may cut emissions by even more," it says.
Be forewarned, however, that shopping for a hybrid may be a little more complicated than looking for a conventional vehicle. Some dealerships don't have hybrids in stock and others can't even tell you when or where there may be one. One saleswoman at a local Chevy dealership, for example, told me she couldn't say if or when she would have a 2005 Chevy Silverado Hybrid pickup for viewing, even though consumer information websites indicate it's on the market. "We don't know who's going to get them and where," she said. Even if a dealership has a hybrid model in the showroom, it may take more than six months to order. Another local dealership told me the Toyota Highlander could be test driven, but there would be a "five- to eight-month wait" if I wanted to order.
Also note that hybrids tend to cost more than similar non-hybrid models. The Honda Accord Hybrid, for example, carries a price tag of $30,655, while the Accord EX (V6) comes in at $27,365, and the Honda Accord EX (4-cylinder) costs $23,515, according to Consumer Reports.
To offset the higher cost of the hybrids, however, both federal and state governments have been offering some tax incentives, and rebates may be available. While the tax incentives are phasing out at the federal level, state incentives are still running. In terms of your federal taxes, you could receive a deduction of $2,000 this year (2005), or $500 in 2006, if you are the original owner of a qualifying hybrid, according to the Internal Revenue Service. To find out what your state offers, you may need to check in with your state tax authority, but you can also get an idea of what's possible by looking at the "Hybrid Car Tax Breaks" section of the website <http://www.hybrid-car.org>.
As an added benefit, some states may allow you to drive your hybrid in a car-pool lane (HOV lane) without additional passengers. Such exceptions, however, are controversial due to increasing congestion in car-pool lanes. Because federal legislation could eventually prevent such provisions, don't count on this perk. But keep posted, and you may end up speeding past your fellow commuters!
On balance, whether you consider yourself "green" or just cost-conscious, hybrids are worth a look. An exciting choice, they represent just the tip of the iceberg in new fuel technologies. But they provide us a realistic option now for getting on with our lives and caring for the earth at the same time.
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