Saturday, August 13, 2005

A small step

My parents drive an electric hybrid car and so does my brother and many of my parent’s friends do as well. I saw lots and lots of hybrids in California. The gas prices in California were the highest of the trip and so it makes sense that people would consciously want to economize, with prices nearing $3 a gallon. California also offers special incentives and rebates to people who own hybrids.

Driving home from the grocery store with my mom one day, she mentioned that I should go right instead of left. I thought it didn't matter, that each way was about the same distance. I asked her why and she said it was because it took less gas to go that way. She could tell in her car that going home this way, though perhaps not shorter, consumed less gas. It was a novel way to map the area and make navigation decisions, made possible by the readout in the hybrid car that details how much fuel is being consumed. People with hybrids form this whole new culture. When they get together they talk about what kind of mileage they are getting and my brother is having a competition with himself to see how well he can do. My mom says it has really changed the way he drives and he is now much less aggressive on the road.

So it seems to me that one small step to dealing with the fuel crisis in this country, while still acknowledging people's love of their cars and technology, would be to require that all cars, not only hybrids, have a readout that shows how much fuel is being used. It could even remember the most fuel efficient routes. With most new cars having computer screens these days and offering GPS, it seems a simple feature to add. People would learn how to conserve, perhaps have competitions with each other to conserve, and as an added bonus, tend to drive much less aggressively. They could see with their own eyes what really works. I, for one, am curious about how things like air conditioning and idling affect fuel economy. Education is the first step.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Our Prius hybrid get 48--50 mpg. With airconditioning on, it would be in the low 40s. The heater also reduces fuel efficiency, but not as much.

Idling is something the hybrid is very good at. For the first five minutes or so of a trip, the batteries that fuel the engine are being recharged, and there's not much reduction in gas consumption compared to an all-gas auto. But once the batteries are charged (which happens when the car coasts or brakes,) the gas engine turns completely off when the car is standing at a red light or stop sign. When first driving a hybrid, it seems as if the engine has stalled. But the electric engine is ready to go and will power the car totally until you reach about 18mph, at which point the gasoline engine kicks in. So while idling or driving in slow, stop-and-go traffic, there's no gas consumption.

The other thing the hybrid is good at (surprisingly) is long-distance mountain driving. We averaged nearly 60 mpg driving over the Rocky Mountains.

John's Prius, which is newer, has better efficiency --- close to 60mpg in ordinary driving, and the electric engine kicks in sooner, if not immediately, upon start-up.

When we bought our Prius in 2002, I calculated that at $1.50 per gallon for gas, it would take 100,000 miles of driving to break even on the higher original cost of the car compared to the cost an equivalent gas-powered car. With the increased efficiency of the new models and with gas prices approaching $3.00 per gallon, the break-even point is about halved. Not to mention the reduction in air pollution and the fun we have driving the car.