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Hybrid Cars: How Alternative Technologies Are Shaping the Future of Car Travel

StoryAugust 24, 2005
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We take a look at sustainable energy solutions as gas prices skyrocket, focusing on the increasingly popular hybrid cars. We speak with the founder of hybridcars.com and go to an interview with an activist from the alternative energy movement. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to the future of fossil fuel-based transportation in the United States. Gasoline prices continue to hit record highs this week, reaching above $2.60 per gallon and $65 a barrel. According to the Washington Post, last week saw the biggest one-week jump in the average price of a gallon of gas since the Energy Department began compiling the data 15 years ago. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed new fuel efficiency standards on Tuesday. The updated standards would change the way compliance is measured starting with some SUVs and trucks built in 2008. So-called light trucks would be required to increase their fuel efficiency by 1.8 miles per gallon over four years. President Bush’s Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, announced the proposal in front of a Los Angeles gas station.

  • Norman Mineta, Secretary of Transportation, speaking August 23, 2005.

Environmental groups criticized the proposal for failing to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and for opening up new loop holes for car companies to get around fuel efficiency standards. For example, companies can get around the new standards if they build trucks that run on a mix of ethanol and gasoline, even if the proportion of ethanol is very small.

  • Brad Berman, founder and editor of Hybridcars.com. His writing on hybrids has appeared in the New York Times and Energy Security.

The Bush administration has proposed slightly increasing the fuel efficiency of minivans, pickups and some SUVS over the next five years. Environmentalists have criticized the proposals because the rules will not apply to the biggest SUVs such as the H-2 Hummer. This comes as gas prices are reaching record high.

Amy traveled to SolFest, an annual festival in Hopland, California that showcases sustainable energy solutions and also features hybrid cars. The increasingly popular vehicles run on a combination of electricity and gasoline. These are some voices of the alternative energy movement.

  • Ty Robinson, Intergalactic Hydrogen

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush’s Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, announced the proposal in front of a Los Angeles gas station.

NORMAN MINETA: Our plan will require light trucks to be more fuel efficient regardless of size. Now, this plan is good news for American consumers because it will ensure that the vehicles that they will buy get more miles to the gallon and ultimately save them money.

AMY GOODMAN: Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Environmental groups criticized the proposal for failing to reduce US dependence on foreign oil and for opening up new loopholes for car companies to get around fuel efficiency standards. Well, we’re going to go right now to a person who has been talking about fuel efficiency for quite some time. Brad Berman is in the studio with us. He is editor of HybridCars.com. Welcome to Democracy Now!

BRAD BERMAN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you us with. First respond to Mineta’s statement, and what this means?

BRAD BERMAN: Well, I think the key thing to look at are the numbers. And to suggest that the big goal is to reach 23.5 miles a gallon by 2010 for light trucks is not to close an SUV loophole and, in addition, the way that they have structured it and the complexity of it creates more loopholes. The fact is that approximately 50% of the cars on the road today are these light duty trucks because of the popularity of SUVs, and to not require them to reach certain levels of fuel efficiency and high levels of fuel efficiency that are possible is just to procrastinate when we’ve already been procrastinating for 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Okay. How much gas miles per gallon do these cars get, basically?

BRAD BERMAN: You know, it depends. If you look at the big monster SUVs which are not even — like the hummers, are not even included in this at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Why can they exclude them?

BRAD BERMAN: I think the original thinking was that they were business related. When these laws were initially put in, the idea was that if you need a truck for your business, then in order to keep the wheels in motion for business to do its work, then we don’t have to require these big hauling trucks to fall in line, but with the popularity of SUVs and the fact that they’re called light duty trucks even though they’re being used to go to the grocery store, is the result of —

AMY GOODMAN: And their fuel efficiency or inefficiency?

BRAD BERMAN: It depends. I mean, they can go down to single digits, you know, or maybe more commonly 13 or 14 miles to the gallon.

AMY GOODMAN: Hybrid cars, first of all, a lot of people won’t even know what we’re referring to, but you are a specialist in this area. What are they?

BRAD BERMAN: Well, we currently have eight hybrid gas/electric vehicles on the market today. And it’s essentially a technology innovation, which means that we are moving away from strictly using a gasoline internal combustion engine to combining the gas engine with an electric motor and electric batteries. So, it’s — you don’t — first of all, you don’t need to plug them in. The electric batteries, the hybrid batteries recharge themselves and the car uses a sophisticated computer technology to decide, okay, I need to go faster, or I’m slowing down, when do I use the batteries, the electric side, and when do I use the gas? And as a result, commonly you can double the fuel economy of your car.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the average miles per gallon?

BRAD BERMAN: Well, if you look at the smaller hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid or the Honda Insight. The Toyota Prius, you are talking in real world conditions about 50 miles to the gallon. Honda Insight, which is just a two-seater car, is closer to 60. And the Civic Hybrid, which I drive, is in the mid-40s.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I was at Solfest this weekend in Northern California, which is an annual festival in Hopland that showcases sustainable energy solutions. And I went over to the area where people were promoting hybrid cars. Let’s just listen and watch.

TY ROBINSON: Hi. My name is Ty Robinson from Intergalactic Hydrogen. Our company supports all fuel types, and we believe in a distributed approach to fuels. This is a multi-fuel vehicle. It can run on hydrogen or natural gas or ethanol. And it still retains its ability to use gasoline. It’s an historic vehicle, gold medal-winning; we won a gold medal at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum with this vehicle for emissions. This is the first vehicle to cross the country using compressed hydrogen for fuel. We led Dennis Weaver’s “Drive to Survive” from Santa Monica to Washington, DC. It also has an altitude record for driving on hydrogen at 13,114 feet over Imogene Pass.

Basically, this vehicle saves me a lot of money, because hydrogen is available today at half the cost of gasoline. My favorite place to fill up is in Phoenix, Arizona, at APS, Arizona Public Service, where they make what I call “free range hydrogen.” They make hydrogen from the electrolysis of water using solar panels. So this is a renewable form of hydrogen that we can make again and again, and it’s an endless supply, because we put electricity in the water to make hydrogen and oxygen. When we burn the hydrogen with oxygen in the engine it makes water out the tailpipe. And so, we make purified water again, and it’s half the cost of gasoline. And that’s the second most used fuel I use in this vehicle.

The primary fuel I use for transportation, because this is my daily driver — it’s got over 140,000 miles on it — I use methane or natural gas. Where I live in Utah, it’s available for $1 a gallon. So that’s cut my fuel costs by two-thirds. I’m saving a lot of money with natural gas, and natural gas even cleans the air. On an inversion day in Salt Lake or any time down in LA, the air coming out the tailpipe is cleaner than the air coming in the air filter. So that’s a pretty good deal: save money, clean the air, support our economy and, boy, probably help our nation’s security at the same time.

Then I use ethanol as a last resort to gasoline. And the ethanol I get comes from corn, corn-based, so supporting our American farmers. The ethanol is available predominantly for less than the cost of gasoline. So that’s again a great deal. This year, so far, I have had to buy 13 gallons of gasoline, but I made a point to buy American-sourced petroleum gasoline. I actually buy from Sinclair, so it comes from Wyoming. So that’s why I call this an American-fueled vehicle. A lot of people call these alternative fuel vehicles or AFVs. I figure if we are going to make this go mainstream, we can’t keep calling it the alternative. So we can keep the AFV initials, but we gotta call these American fuel vehicles here.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do people get cars like this?

TY ROBINSON: Well, you know, these vehicles should be rolling off the assembly line in numbers, because if they were, it wouldn’t cost any difference than building the vehicle to run on gasoline. But right now, they’re being built one at a time at our shop. We can build a natural gas vehicle for just about anybody, take any vehicle, make it run on natural gas and start saving you money immediately. We can also build hydrogen vehicles for people. Building them one at a time, though, isn’t economical, so that’s for the rock stars and the movie stars, people that want to promote their green side and do a good thing for themselves, for the health of people, as well as for the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Berman, your comment.

BRAD BERMAN: Well, he was speaking about a lot of different choices for how we’re going to fuel our cars, and that’s great. We should be looking to all kinds of different options. I think the distinction between what he was speaking about and hybrid gas/electric vehicles are that hybrids are being sold. This year, we’ll have over 200,000 sold in the United States. So, we can continue to try to innovate and think about new ways to change our automotive technology, but the key thing is for people right now, they can make a decision, they can go to a local dealership, they can check out things on HybridCars.com and they can be in a hybrid car in the next couple of days.

AMY GOODMAN: People may say, okay, 40, 50, 60, that’s pretty astounding, but the cost of these vehicles will in the end balance that savings out on the road, not maybe environmentally, but certainly price-wise.

BRAD BERMAN: Right, if you look at it in pure dollars and cents, the argument is commonly made in the mainstream media that hybrids don’t pay off. You don’t get a payback period. Even if you look at — if you disregard the fact that people don’t really buy cars that way and you just look at the equation, I think as a result of rising gas prices, strong resale values for these cars, tax credits, which go in on January 1, that will be — will greatly increase the tax incentive, all — and savings at the pumps all add up to a good deal. I mean, you’re going to not only save money, but you’re doing it for many other reasons, obviously, such as energy, security and the environment, but all of it adds up to essentially a no-brainer from my point of view.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Berman, why haven’t hybrid cars been more developed in this country? Can you talk about the history of them?

BRAD BERMAN: Sure. Well, you know, at the turn of the century — I don’t want to go back too far, but at the turn of the century, we had gas — we had gasoline engines like we have now, we had electric cars and we had steamers. And people preferred electric cars. It wasn’t until Ford came along with some innovations like the electric starter that it completely wiped out all those choices. As the clip pointed out, we’re now at the point again where there are a lot of choices. You can carry it straight through to the 1960s, where backyard tinkerers started looking at electric vehicles again, especially as a result of environmental concerns, and as you move into the 70s concerns related around oil. So, the main factor is that the carmakers haven’t, especially Detroit carmakers, have not jumped forward with this. I mean, it’s — the technology is there. It has been there for 30 years. And the constant excuse is that the American public cares more about speed and performance than they care about fuel economy. In the last couple of years, with the innovation with hybrids that’s completely changed, and people are caring a lot more about fuel economy.

AMY GOODMAN: What role does the government play, and did the government play a role in suppressing the development of hybrid cars?

BRAD BERMAN: I think it was more total disregard. I mean, and looking at pie in the sky plans, such as hydrogen, which we’re probably still a decade or two away from any kind of viable hydrogen vehicle. So, it’s more not making it an imperative that we increase fuel efficiency. I mean, that’s the great unfinished business.

AMY GOODMAN: The current energy bill, what does it do, that was just signed, the Energy Act of 2005?

BRAD BERMAN: It does increase the tax — the federal tax incentive on hybrid cars from a current deduction, which is a reduction of taxable income of $2,000, which is worth about $300 to $500 in people’s pockets, to a full-out tax credit with a sliding scale, meaning that a Toyota Prius, you can take as much as about $3,000 directly off of your taxes. So that’s part of the equation why it makes sense starting on January 1. But, you know, it’s — again, this is a little bit of window dressing. I mean, the point is unless we increase fuel efficiency standards or increase gas taxes — I mean, that’s a taboo that nobody will touch — but if we increase gas taxes like they have higher gas taxes in Europe and use the proceeds from that to invest in alternative vehicle technology, then we start to have a solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you plug in your car?

BRAD BERMAN: No, you do not need to plug the cars in. The innovation with hybrid cars is that it’s the first, quote/unquote, “alternative” technology that requires no special usage. You don’t have to do anything differently.

AMY GOODMAN: It just itself shifts from electric to gas, back and forth?

BRAD BERMAN: It does it all by itself. You get in the car, you turn the key, you go. You don’t have to do anything special. And that’s why it’s being adopted by larger and larger numbers of people throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a few seconds, and I wanted to ask with our latest discussion about Pat Robertson talking about the assassination of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, big oil supplier; on the blogs around hybrid cars and energy, has there been discussion about this?

BRAD BERMAN: Yes, we have a very active set of — group of bloggers on HybridCars.com, and people have commented about Pat Robertson and Hugo Chavez. The fact is that all the government incentives won’t have as much of an effect as rising gas prices or insecurity in the gas market. If something happens with Victor Chavez, it’s gonna disrupt our oil supply, prices are gonna go way up, people are gonna be lining up at the pumps, and people are gonna be wanting hybrid cars even more.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Berman, thanks for joining us, editor of HybridCars.com.

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