Global warming—hybrids to the rescue

With high prices and uncertain supplies of oil and natural gas, coal and nuclear power have given Illinois reliable electrical supplies and stable prices that benefit the economy. They also reduce our dependence on imported oil and gas, lessening the flow of money out of the state.

Reliance on coal and nuclear power for electricity suggests transportation may offer the quickest way to reduce carbon emissions. If oil prices remain high, hybrid vehicles will become more important in reaching this goal. In a recent Science article, Demirdoven and Deutch contend that industry and government actions should be directed at getting more hybrid vehicles in use.

A recent survey of 1,005 members of the ChangeWave Alliance, a group of business, technology and professional leaders involved with technological change, reveals a growing interest in hybrid cars. Only 1 percent of the members now own hybrids, but 27 percent are interested in purchasing one within two years. Their interest is driven primarily by high energy prices and secondarily by environmental concerns.

The Toyota Prius is experiencing record sales. Toyota recently announced it will double the number of hybrids available for sale in the United States to 100,000 next year. Global sales are expected to reach 300,000 in 2005. While the planned release of the Lexus RX 400 was delayed until 2005, 9,000 customers had paid cash deposits by the end of August and another 27,000 customers expressed interest in it. A hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander is expected to follow the Lexus.

Not to be outdone, Honda now offers three hybrid models. The new Accord reports a 43 percent increase in city mileage and a 23 percent increase in highway mileage over the standard Accord V6. Nissan Motors will offer an Altima hybrid sedan in 2005.

Ford recently entered the market with its hybrid Escape SUV. Daimler-Chrysler has focused on improving fuel mileage using diesel engines. A diesel electric Dodge Ram should be available this year. Chrysler is considering introducing other hybrids for 2006, possibly the PT Cruiser or the Dodge and Chrysler minivans.

Even GM is expressing interest in hybrid vehicles. CEO Rick Wagoner has promised the capacity to produce a million a year. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz , however, sees a more limited annual market of 700,000 vehicles and a market peak of 5 percent of all vehicle sales. The models expected to be offered in hybrid versions include the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups, the Saturn Vue SUV, the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

General Motors and other firms sell hybrid electric passenger buses. New York is committed to having 325 in service. Two Seattle-area transit systems have ordered 233. They are being tested in 26 other communities.

FedEx Express has put 10 low-emission hybrid delivery electric vehicles in service in New York to meet the peak holiday demand season. The vehicles reduce fuel costs by 33 percent, travel 57 percent farther on a gallon of fuel and cut particulate emissions 96 percent. If 10,000 of them were in use, the reduction in carbon emissions would be equivalent to planting 2 million trees.

Hybrid technologies are being tested in larger trucks as well. Peterbilt is field testing a 65,000-ton refuse truck with fuel savings of up to 30 percent and a 26 percent increase in acceleration, improving productivity by 11 percent. It could be in production in two to three years.

A recent MIT study concludes that diesel and gasoline hybrid vehicles offer the best hope of cutting emissions and fuel consumption in transportation in half by 2020.

Since these developments are primarily driven by the price of oil and secondarily by environmental concerns, an unexpected dramatic drop in oil prices could undercut their market presence. Energy policies addressing global warming would help secure a broad market presence for these hybrid technologies.

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