The Car Industry Introduces Cleaner Air Hybrid Cars

Learn about the car industry's introduction of cleaner air hybrid cars. The hybrid cars are as fast, and cheap like piston-engine-only models, yet they have near zero emissions and get up to 70 miles to the gallon.

| December 1999/January 2000

The car industry introduces cleaner air hybrid cars, including information on the Honda Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Ford Turing, the Toyota E-Com and GM's EV-1. 

These days there seems to be a surfeit amount of talk on saving the ozone layer with alternative fuels and hybrid engines. So much, in fact, that I keep asking myself if this is just another industry pep rally akin to the hoopla made over electric cars during the OPEC oil crisis in the '70s. Back in 1976, while waiting in gas station lines 20 cars my family would have gladly swapped our Ford Capri for a Sebring-Vanguard electric Citicar, even if its top speed was a sad 32 miles an hour. But we didn't. The technology, the convenience and the price just weren't right.

So why are today's clean air cars any different? It's not as if the price of gasoline is expensive enough to pry consumers out of their SUVs, even if carbon emissions are at an all-time high. But the fact is the United States uses 17 million barrels of oil per day, nearly half of which is imported. And if you consider that one Boeing 747 burns 6.7 gallons of fuel per mile, it's easy to see why fossil fuel-burning engines are a major health concern not just for the nation, but for the planet.

Which is why the car industry, having been urged on by state and federal legislation, has finally put its money where its mouth used to be creating cleaner air hybrid cars. Leading the cheers for cleaner air is, of course, California. The state's Zero Emission Standard of 1993 calls for 10% of California's vehicles to have zero emissions by 2003-that means electric cars only. Arizona, New York and Massachusetts have since signed on and in 1998 the federally sponsored Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century became the biggest public works bill in U.S. history, setting aside $9.1 billion for environmental programs, including those that encourage the use of alternative-fuel vehicles. As we enter the next century, every major auto company has increased the time and money spent on alternative car research.

So far, not only are Toyota, Honda, Fiat, BMW and Audi marketing fuel-saving and hybrid-engine cars, but Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have added clean air cars to their salesrooms in the U.S. What distinguishes this burst of activity from the last go-round is that people are actually buying the cars. And no wonder, given the strides in the technology surrounding hybrid and alternative-fuel engines. These cars are as fast, as cheap and as attractive as piston-engine-only models. Plus, they have near zero emissions and can get up to 70 miles to the gallon.

But what exactly does hybrid mean? A hybrid car uses two engines, combining the power and longevity of a piston engine with the zero emission efficiency of an electric motor. Toyota's Prius, like General Motor's EV1 Parallel Hybrid and Honda's Insight, stores the battery pack under the passenger seats; an electric drive unit powers the front wheels, while the piston engine drives the rear wheels from the back of the car. Onboard computers determine when one or both engines should power the car, usually switching to the gas engine at higher speeds and the electric one at idling or slower speeds. These hybrid cars also use the piston engine and rear brakes in what the industry is calling "regenerative braking" to recharge the vehicles' battery packs. That means none of the time-consuming or expensive plug-ins that you might have on an all-electric car. It also means ultra-low emissions.

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