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On hybrids and the future

"Detroit has to change. Detroit won't change." -- Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, Nov. 5

"Why can't Detroit build a better car?" -- air-quality specialist, last month, in Annapolis.

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In this week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about all the promise surrounding the "car of the future," a super-vehicle that was to get 80 mpg and run on hydrogen. Japan, believing Detroit was serious (the Big Three auto execs, after all, did make this promise to the American people while standing next to President Clinton in 1993) figured they'd better build their own hybrid before they got edged out of the market.

Fast-forward to 2000. Toyota already has its early Priuses out, and the car of the future is still in the concept stages.

Fast-forward to 2008: Toyota and Honda are offering all sorts of different hybrid models, while Detroit still has not much to brag about in this area.

On Sunday, The Sun's Allison Connolly reports that GM is trying hard to catch up: It will be building hybrid SUVs at its White Marsh plant.

She writes:

GM probably will play up an overall fuel economy savings of 30 percent over their nonhybrid equivalents, with the same city mileage as a four-cylinder Toyota Camry. Dealers are expected to advertise them as a way to drive a big honking SUV without contributing to global warming.

The Tahoe and Yukon will get 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway, compared with 14 mpg and 20 mpg in their nonhybrid equivalents, according to federal standards.

"You have to remember that in a truck or SUV, the value of a hybrid is significantly greater than in a regular car," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The savings is much greater in a truck that usually gets 15 miles to the gallon."

No disrespect to David Cole, but who is going to buy a hybrid to possibly get 2 more mpg on the highway than its nonhybrid version? Who would even buy one for the six to eight extra miles?

Here's what has always perplexed me: Why doesn't the auto industry make fuel-efficient hybrids and then market them to those who would truly benefit from driving them?

My theory is that there is a small percentage of people, say 5 or 10 or at best 20 percent, who are willing to pay money to do something because it's the right thing to do. I'm guessing that a number of those people also appreciate comfort and have the means to purchase what they want. Maybe those people want to spend a few thousand dollars more for a hybrid SUV or a large car hybrid that doesn't do much better than its nonhybrid equivalent. So, make a small number of those, so that supply is small and perhaps demand will be high, and let them have their cake and eat it, too.

The rest of us, and in this I include myself, are largely motivated by affordability and economy. I drive a hybrid because I drive a lot, and I can get 45-50 mpg on the highway. Most of that driving is for work, and I get reimbursed, so it makes economic sense. That it's also better for the environment is a big bonus in my case, but even if it weren't, the numbers work for me.

So I can't understand why more journalists, photographers, pharmaceutical salespeople and business travelers do not drive hybrids. My colleague, fellow hybrid-driver Frank Roylance, said he counted about half a dozen hybrids in our parking lot. Our staff is shrinking, but we still have a couple hundred employees, at least, who park there. What gives?

I think there are two reasons. One: the car companies simply don't market the cars that way. I've never seen a commercial featuring a salesman pulling into his driveway saying something like, "I made $300 this week, and none of it was from sales. it was from driving this car." Note to Detroit: if I see this on TV, you will be hearing from my people!

The second reason is, that when you drive a small, fuel-efficient hybrid, you are giving up something. I can't get both groceries and a stroller into my trunk, and I can't get my jogging stroller in there at all. I can't throw a bike in the back, as I could in a minivan, and when we pack for road trips it takes twice as long because of the tiny trunk.

In my case, I never really considered buying an SUV or a minivan. But I have a friend who is of a similar disposition to me, and for a long time she was driving a tiny Toyota. When it died, her husband suggested they look at minivans. She was reluctant. But then she sat in one. She realized that, not only did the minivan mean they wouldn't have to take two cars anymore every time her family (two kids, one in-law) wanted to go out, but the vehicle was incredible. It even had a spacious changing table.

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As soon as she sat in it, she said, all those feelings of guilt melted away. And when I peered in, I could see why. In her situation, I don't know what decision I would have made.

Detroit has to change. Detroit won't change. But Detroit is just giving us what we ask for. Maybe it is us who really have to change.

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