Auto Erratic

Two or three times a day, perfect strangers
come up to me in the parking lot at the grocery store or the bank and ask about
my hybrid car, a Toyota Prius.

Stranger: How do you like your car?

Me: I love it--it's great.

Stranger: Does it really get 50 mpg?

Me: No, it's doing mid-40s. My best tank was 49.

Stranger: How is it on the highway?

Me: Great, does 80 mph no problem. Small gas motor, but when you accelerate
the electric gives it a kick. That's why it gets such good mileage.

Stranger: It looks pretty roomy.

I may not be a marketing whiz, but I definitely smell a trend
here. For those of you living in a cave, hybrids have both a gasoline and an
electric motor that operate together to drive the wheels. The gas engine charges
the electric motor, which also captures energy from the wheels when the car
brakes. This means that, unlike an electric car, you don't ever plug it in. The
Prius drives just like a normal car, with one great twist: At low speeds or when
idling at a stoplight, the gas motor shuts off so the vehicle runs purely on
electric power, smooth and quiet. For this reason, the Prius is one of only two
vehicles in the country rated as "super ultra-low emission."

Japan pioneered the hybrid technology. The Prius has been commercially
available in that country for four years for about $20,000, and Honda also is now
selling a sports-car version, the Insight. Detroit, meanwhile, has been building
bigger and bigger SUVs and fighting any policy that would raise fuel-economy
standards and reduce urban air pollution and global warming.

Not that U.S. automakers had to fight very hard: Clinton and Gore never tried
to mandate higher efficiency by tightening the "corporate-average fuel economy"
(CAFE) standards, which have been in place, unchanged, since 1985. (SUVs
circumvented even these limits because Detroit got them classified as trucks.)
Instead, beginning in the mid-1990s, the administration poured around a billion
dollars into a joint-industry research venture--the Partnership for a New
Generation of Vehicles. The result? In the year 2000, Ford finally modeled a
prototype of a hybrid sedan.

Hybrids have the near-term capability to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50
percent and to reduce air pollution dramatically. But hybrids are only a
transition step on the way to the real prize: the fuel-cell vehicle. First
developed as part of the space program, fuel cells produce electricity by
combining hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of a chemical catalyst--a reversal
of the high-school physics experiment in which electric current splits water into
its component parts.

Over the next few decades, industry observers expect, fuel cells will replace
the internal combustion engine with a quiet, efficient motor that will emit only
water vapor as a by-product. (Existing fuel-cell vehicles, such as the buses
currently operating in Chicago and in Vancouver, British Columbia, also run on
natural gas and are not yet pollution-free.)

Detroit took four years and several billion dollars to generate a prototype
hybrid. In half the time and with less than $5 million in funding, Hypercar--a
company spun off from Amory Lovins's Rocky Mountain Institute--designed a
fuel-cell driven, zero-emission, Ford Explorer-size car that gets the equivalent
of 99 miles per gallon of gasoline. The vehicle, dubbed "The Revolution,"
recently passed a series of computer-simulated design tests, and Hypercar expects
to have prototypes on the road next year.

In the face of these new marketplace realities, Ford and GM promise to deliver
their own commercially available hybrids--in 2004. Maybe. By that time, of
course, Japanese producers will be marketing their second generation of hybrids,
with eight years of production and service experience behind them.

A clean-energy future is at last emerging, in both consumer products and
national policies. But the "partnership" road pursued by the Clinton-Gore
administration led to a squandered opportunity. Detroit fell years behind foreign
competitors in clean-car technology, and people around the world are paying the
price in the form of higher levels of urban smog and accelerated global-climate
change. Now Bush's decision to abandon the international global-warming treaty
means that U.S. industry is likely to face another period without a firm policy
signal for rapid development of hybrid and fuel-cell technology.

Bolstered by a recent National Academy of Sciences study showing that a 40
percent increase in fuel economy could be achieved with no net costs to
consumers, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is leading an effort
to widen CAFE standards to include SUVs and light trucks. But in early
August, similar legislation was defeated in the House by a 100-vote margin.

Eventually, of course, the United States will face up to the reality of global
warming and join with the rest of the world in requiring domestic carmakers to
clean up their act. By that time, Detroit may find that it is too late to play
catch-up. Until then, I'll keep answering questions in the parking lot.