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A red Ford Escape SUV hybrid.

A Ford Escape SUV hybrid, one of 14 hybrid vehicles in the U's fleet.

Hybrids: in or out?

U professor offers insights on the hybrid vehicle technology

By Pauline Oo

Sept. 18, 2006

Hybrid vehicles are like low-calorie, diet foods, said Alfred Marcus in his Center For Transportation Studies lecture last week. They fool people into believing that they can indulge more. For example, people think they can eat larger portions of fat-free ice cream because it's not going to make them fat or they can buy a bigger hybrid car and drive it more because hybrid technology uses less energy.

Marcus, a professor of strategic management and organization at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said this "snapback" phenomenon will dilute the advances of the hybrid technology and do little to make us less reliant on carbon-based energy.

His talk, "Hybrids: Hope or Hype," addressed the need to encourage the development of hybrid vehicle technology and to experiment with alternative government policies, such as higher gasoline taxes, to enhance its fuel efficiency benefits.

The use of hybrid vehicles in the United States has grown rapidly since they became widely available in 2001. New hybrid vehicle registrations reached nearly 84,000 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, while sales of hybrid cars and light trucks in the first six months of 2006 reached almost 120,000--public and private fleets are contributing to this surge in popularity. California, Florida, Texas, New York, Virginia, Illinois, Washington and Pennsylvania account for more than 56 percent of the nation's hybrid registrations. And today, we can choose from six hybrid cars, five hybrid SUVs, and two hybrid trucks. But Toyota Prius continues to lead the market. (The Prius was the second hybrid model introduced in the U.S.; it followed the two-seater Honda Insight.)

Hybrid cars combine a smaller gasoline engine with a battery-powered electric motor. The electric motor assists the engine when accelerating or climbing a hill and in low-speed driving conditions when the internal combustion engines are least efficient. Some hybrids can also automatically shut off the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop and then restart when a foot hits the accelerator. This prevents wasted energy from idling. Unlike fully electric vehicles, hybrids do not need to be plugged into an external source of electricity to be recharged; conventional gasoline and regenerative braking provide all the energy the vehicle needs.

"I don't own [a hybrid car] now, but I would consider driving or buying one as my next car," said Marcus.

"Technological innovations are critical for solving our energy problems. We need to use less carbon-based energy for environmental, economical and national security reasons. But as much as I am fascinated by the [hybrid] technology, I also look at it skeptically."

DID YOU KNOW?

The University of Minnesota has a fleet size of 832 vehicles --mostly cars, vans, trucks and SUVs--including 14 hybrids (Toyota Prius and Ford Escape SUV hybrid).

The U has a Center for Diesel Research, within the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The center is focused on developing new technology designed to reduce engine exhaust emissions. You can call the Diesel Helpline (1-800-929-3437 or 651-330-0450) with questions about biodiesel fuel, including its use, storage or availability.

The hybrid technology can get, "on average, about 25 percent improvement on energy efficiency," said Marcus, but that second engine or the electrical power components can add between $3,000 and $5,000 to the cost of the vehicle. "Almost all manufacturers charge about $4,000 to $7,000 more for your hybrid," he added.

And you'll likely see the payback on your investment, only years down the road, he said. "If current gasoline prices of over $2 a gallon persist, the payback of buying a hybrid takes more than five years," said Marcus. Even with tax incentives, he added, most of us won't save money during a hybrid's normal life or ownership cycle. According to the Internal Revenue Service, 36 states offer some kind of rebate, incentive or benefit to encourage consumers and businesses to go hybrid--in addition to federal incentives. (According to fueleconomy.gov, you can get up to $3,400 in tax credits if you buy a hybrid after 2005, and a $2,000 tax deduction if you bought one before the end of 2005.)

The promise of hybrid technology, however, is that it can offer greater fuel efficiency. Most hybrids can get up to 60 mpg, and most models do best in stop-and-go city driving.

If you're considering a hybrid, Marcus said you should compare apples to apples. "Look within a class," he said. "For example, the conventional Camry versus the Prius or the Escape versus the Escape Hybrid. Or look across classes, [such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry hybrids.]

In the future, Marcus said, hybrid technology could conceivably combine its electric component with ethanol, a fuel produced from a renewable resource such as corn, or diesel, which is prevalent in Europe and would provide an additional 25 percent boost in energy efficiency. Then there's biodiesel, a vegetable oil-based fuel that runs in diesel engines. "We're beginning to get to the point where this isn't science fiction," Marcus said. "These are technologies that can be combined and are being proven on a daily basis."

Technological advances alone are not going to lead us in the direction we want to go, he said, if we don't have good public policies in place."

"What the government should do is introduce higher gasoline taxes--but that won't be a popular policy--or it could penalize individuals for buying inefficient autos, which is done in Europe," he said. "Remember, the goal isn't to see more people drive hybrids. It's for people to drive more efficient automobiles. If we can get greater efficiency out of conventional engines, that's fine. I'm not an engineer or a physicist, but if they could conceivably make conventional engines 50 percent more efficient, that would be just as exciting to me as everyone driving hybrids."


With excerpts from Insights@Carlson School, July 2005, a publication by the Carlson School of Management.


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