Here Come the Hybrids

When is the American auto industry going to "get it" and start producing gas-electric hybrid vehicles to compete with the Japanese models already here from Toyota and Honda? From the looks of the New York International Auto Show, which runs from April 9 to April 18, the environment is still not coming into focus in Detroit.

Many of the glossy concept cars on display are high-concept SUVs. Consider these worthy additions to the automotive pantheon: the Jeep Rescue, with 3-D maps, thermal cameras and VHF radio, should come in handy for the Outside magazine-type sheer rock face rescues that we all do every day; the Hummer H3T offers 34-inch wheels and a "50-degree departure angle." In addition to all of this, the Ford Bronco is back, now with a turbodiesel powertrain. The British carmakers don't get it either: Land Rover's "Range Stormer" is "muscular and edgy," powered by a supercharged V-8.

The trends emerging at the show include, in this era of $2-a-gallon gas, $500,000 supercars with a minimum of 500 horsepower and zero to 60 times under four seconds. As if there was anywhere you could actually drive a car like that.

The "hybrids" Detroit is putting on display are simply traditional vehicles that cross over into several marketing categories, station wagon SUVs, for example. Only one show car has an actual hybrid drivetrain, the Mitsubishi Eclipse-E, and it's hardly a card-carrying member of Greenpeace. This sucker has 470 horsepower under the hood, with 200 of it coming from a rear-mounted electric motor. It looks like an Eclipse on steroids, not an unassuming eco-vehicle. Mitsubishi claims that the hybrid drivetrain "improves fuel economy and lowers emissions," but it isn't specific.

Toyota and Honda are actually putting hybrids into production. On the stands in New York is the long-awaited Toyota Highlander hybrid, which features an on-steroids version of the established Prius" drivetrain. The engine is a 3.3-liter V-6, which when combined with the on-board electric motor produces 270 horsepower and achieves a combined 28 miles per gallon. The public is still convinced that hybrids need to be plugged in, but this Highlander can travel 600 miles before needing a conventional fill-up.

American carmakers will have to play catch-up. It's too early to know if the Ford Escape hybrid, which won't appear until this summer, will be a worthy contender. It looks good on paper. First of all, the forthcoming Escape is a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV), which means it's as clean as the Prius in tailpipe terms. In prototype form, it combines a 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack (under the cargo floor) with a more efficient version of the Escape's traditional two-liter engine (which shuts off at traffic lights, thanks to an Integrated Starter Generator). Also part of the package is a 65-kilowatt electric assist motor, plus a 28-kilowatt generator. Sources say this Escape can achieve 35 to 40 mpg, with a range of 500 miles.

Ford's green Escape is a full hybrid, which means it can go as fast as 25 miles per hour on battery power alone. The brakes are regenerative, feeding the battery when in use, and allowing accessories like the CD player and climate control to run on battery power alone. The Escape could be a rare U.S.-built hit in Europe, where SUV lust (sad to say) combines with $5 a gallon gas.

With or without the carmakers, hybrids are here to stay, and environmental benefits are a major reason. A major growth area for hybrids is the lowly transit bus. A Department of Energy (DOE) study reports that hybrid buses, combining a diesel engine with an electric motor, outperform regular diesel buses in a variety of categories, offering 10 percent higher fuel economy, 19 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions and a 97 percent reduction in carbon monoxide emissions.

"The days of the dirty diesel bus are numbered," says Dan Becker, director of Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. "The federal Clean Air Act requires states to reduce soot and smog emissions, and hybrids are a good way to do this." New York City's transit agency recently ordered 325 diesel-electric buses, and Seattle is taking delivery of 235. New Jersey Transit, the nation's largest statewide public transportation system, has used $8.5 million in federal funds to buy seven hybrid buses. Connecticut, Minnesota and Toronto, Canada are also buying hybrids.

UPS introduced a hybrid delivery vehicle in 2001 (and is also looking at fuel cells). FedEx is fielding a fleet of 20 OptiFleet E700 hybrid delivery vehicles in such cities as Sacramento, Washington, DC, New York, Houston and Denver.

The Escape rollout is encouraging, but it's been delayed several times as engineers tinker with the hybrid package. Meanwhile, General Motors has also delayed its hybrid Saturn Vue from 2005 to 2007. DaimlerChrysler sells only specialized hybrid trucks for contractors. It's time for Detroit to get with the program and stop denying the huge environmental benefits of hybrid cars and trucks.