The hybrid hype is no hype at all

Jan. 1, 2020
We?re probably two to three decades away from when hydrogen technology will be a viable fuel alternative.

My next car might be a VW microbus. Vintage 1966. You know, the rolling Grateful Dead billboard that was a symbol for a whole lot of love: for life, for earth, for man (and woman).

Well, you might believe that if I was 30 years younger. On the other hand, getting my hands on a miocrobus would give me an excuse to wear a bandanna, which would help cover up my thinning hair.

OK, so my quest for hipness (sorry, I know the term hip is no longer, well, hip) is some strange perversion to cling to the past. But look at my vehicle choices of today to try to recapture the Woodstock era. The car that best personifies this notion is the Toyota Prius, an environmentally friendly gas/electric vehicle. Leonardo DiCaprio has one. So does Cameron Diaz and a host of other Hollywood types. They’re part of the environmentally elite who could afford an Abrams tank if they wanted one. Hybrids for the high brow, if you will.

The Prius is hardly the only hybrid choice. Several models that look just like their combustion engine counterparts are in production or on the drawing board. Honda already offers one in the Accord line (it was Consumer Reports’ top sedan). And there’s a Camry and a host of others on the way.

If you want to be part of the DiCaprio/Diaz crowd, you’re probably not going to go for a mainstream hybrid. You simply don’t get any credit for helping save the earth unless somebody takes a second look to see the little hybrid badge on the back of the car. The whole idea of cool is to stand out, isn’t it? The question is how much.

The Pruis stands out alright. Even the redesigned one is odd looking, but there’s another hybrid that is so ugly that it should fly as an attempt to redeem itself from its horrible looks. Yes, I’m talking about the Honda Insight. Ironic that Honda chose that name since it had none (insight that is) as to designing something people would want to buy. The Insight at this stage of its existence is all but a memory; at best it will wind up in a circus near you as a clown car.

In fairness to the manufacturers, they probably had to choose quirky designs over looks to maximize aerodynamics. They were successful enough to get us to the next stage where hybrids are a lot more than just novelties. In fact, over the next two decades it’s inevitable that hybrids will replace conventional vehicles.

 According to Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., many U.S. families will consider a hybrid the next time they buy a car. By 2012, Press says a million hybrids a year will be sold in the U.S. There’s no doubt that this is a possibility, especially considering Toyota’s commitment to the technology. Even though the market is limited at this point (about 100,000 hybrids this year), it is boldly promoting them like they are mainstream products.

Toyota is so far ahead of its competitors in the hybrids race. In fact, Toyota’s competitors are likely to either give up trying to develop hybrid technology and license Toyota’s (which is what Nissan did) or turn to developing other technologies such as clean burning diesel and hydrogen vehicles.

Ford seems the most committed domestic manufacturer when it comes to hybrids, however, it will only build 20,000 Escape hybrids this year for fear that consumers will not pay a $5,000 premium.

General Motors is banking on hydrogen technology. Ultimately, this is probably the long-term solution in the U.S. and perhaps the short-term solution in China where some of the toughest fuel-efficiency standards are mandated. But strictly from a U.S. viewpoint, most experts say that it will take two to three decades to solve a long list of problems with hydrogen technology that range from the lack of an infrastructure to producing hydrogen cheaply.

President Bush is backing hydrogen technology, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. He and several members of his administration have close ties to the oil industry and hydrogen technology is a technology for the distant future. With that as a backdrop, it’s safe to say that the weaning of America off fossil fuels will not be part of Mr. Bush’s legacy.

Whether you want to recognize it or not, we’re reaching the end of the free fossil fuel ride. We may not run out...or be cut off...today or tomorrow, but rest assured we need to be transitioning away from it while we can still make a smooth transition.

Moving away from such a heavy reliance on fossil fuels will bring a healthier economy and automotive business, including the aftermarket. New technology –– no matter if it’s hybrid, diesel, hydrogen or all three –– can stimulate our economy just like when “motor carriages” started replacing horses and buggies. From strictly a selfish perspective, all of the new technology vehicles will need parts and skilled technicians to service them.

Will we face difficulties? Of course. Change always presents challenges, but the difficulties of clinging to an outmoded energy policy will present even greater problems. Staying the course will mean higher gas prices and eventually gasoline lines. Again from a selfish aftermarket perspective, higher gasoline prices will mean people will drive less and when they drive less, they wear out fewer parts.

Essentially, the combustion engine of today is not much different than when it was invented in 1885. We’ve pretty much perfected it except for one minor detail...it still needs gasoline to work!

 Many futures have come and gone since 1885 only to find out that we’re clinging to the past. That sounds as desperate as my efforts to do so...with or without a bandanna.