Hybrids Hit the Road

Vol. 9, No. 3
Jan. 18-24, 2001
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A new generation of environmentally friendly autos is arriving in Chesapeake Country. We took a trip to find out what they're all about.

by Sandra Martin

"What the heck's that thing you're driving?"

If Jerry Karsh had a nickel for every time he's heard it, he'd be filling up his tank for free. Of course, he doesn't need many nickels considering that he's getting 46.5 miles per gallon driving his new gas-electric "hybrid" to work from his home in Arnold to Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt every day.

Karsh, who is an electrical engineer, doesn't mind saving fuel costs by driving the $20,450 Toyota Prius sedan he received as a birthday present in October from his wife, Vicki Halper. But what tickles him most is that he's saving Chesapeake Bay.

So he doesn't really mind all the questions, the sort of inquiries that we at Bay Weekly also got when we rented another hybrid, a Honda Insight, in California last month.

It's the look of these new EVs - which stands for Environmental Vehicle - that starts people wondering. Karsh's Toyota Prius is a snub-nosed little four-seater that looks like a cross between a new VW bug and a van. The Honda Insight is stranger still. At just under 13 feet long, it brings to mind a vintage Citroen. Shimmering, eye-catching silver is the color you're most likely to see either drive by in.

For looks alone, both these brand-new imports say 'notice me!'

It's a Hybrid

"What is that thing you're driving?" Those were my first words, too, when I saw Karsh's car catching the winter sun. As I soon found out, what's inside is stranger still.

Its a Prius, Karsh said, as if that explained it.

Prius? Toyota's model name meant nothing to me. It's what I heard next that postponed Karsh's Saturday afternoon chores for a ride around the neighborhood.

Prius, he said, is the world's first mass-produced hybrid car.

Hybrid, like corn seed, I asked?

Sort of, he replied.

Crammed under the foreshortened hood of the Prius is your typical 1.5 litre, 70-horsepower, gasoline engine - plus a 44-horsepower, electric motor. Between the rear wheels, dividing the passenger compartment from the trunk, is a battery, about the size of a very big suitcase, putting out 273.6 volts.

As a gas-electric hybrid, the Prius uses both modes of power and innovations that shut off the gasoline motor when the car is idling at an intersection or in traffic. The cross-breeding inside this shiny little package makes it the long-awaited answer to the environmentally urgent question of how we're going to start driving cleaner.

A century ago, when automobiles were a bright and, to some, dubious new idea, electric cars stood on equal footing with gas. Thomas Edison invested heavily in electric cars, envisioning then as the eventual winner against gasoline. But gas won out, and that has made all the difference.

Electric cars run cleaner than gas cars and, of course, they use less fuel, something to think about in these days of buck-50 gasoline. The problem - which some say we've been slow to solve because of the profit motives of interlocking petroleum and automotive industries - has been how to get an electric power plant to fit under the hood of a car.

Out of Technology's Closet

At Bay Weekly, we've avidly watched an array of experiments to solve that problem. In our first summer, 1993, writer Bob Weckback drove an experimental electric car. "You were going fast at 35 miles-per-hour," he recalled recently, "And you knew you weren't going far before you had to plug in."

We've seen wonders at the annual Tour de Sol rally pitting the country's cleanest-running, most fuel-efficient cars, trucks and buses in a 250-mile event from New York City to Washington, D.C. during Clean Air Week in May. Pretty much, they've been science lab experiments on wheels that have yet to make it to mass production.

At the millennium, the divergent paths met again. The big surprise, Karsh tells me on a ride that's like, well, a car ride, is that the technology is nothing new. "Hybrid technology has been in use in Diesel locomotives for decades. The Diesel drives a generator, which supplies electrical energy to the motor, which runs the train.

"What's new," he says, "is using computers to optimize emissions and mileage." Which answers, for now, our how.

People still ask, 'Where do you plug it in?' But Karsh has the last word: "I don't."

That's because these new hybrids recharge themselves while driving on the road.

As we wind through the streets and around the coves of Arnold - turning a few heads as we go - the gasoline engine is recharging the battery. What's more, the car tells you what's happening, flashing a graphic gas-to-electric flowchart on a display screen on the console. The screen is front and center, so passengers back and front - as well as driver - can see how the Prius is being powered.

When I've figured out the first display, Karsh activates a new screen with the touch of a finger that displays his mileage-per-gallon. The news appears in real-time consumption, so the chart reads from one to over 100 mpg as speed and terrain change. On average, the Toyota hybrid gets 52 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on highways.

"With this bar graph that tells me my mileage, it's right in your face how much more sense it makes to drive 60 than 65. It gives you the push to modify your driving habits if you want to see a difference," says Karsh.

The way Toyota explains the workings behind the graph, you'd think the android Data had stepped out of Star Trek: "The Advanced Control System is specially programmed to minimize fuel consumption during city driving. Both the gas engine and electric motor are used equally and the driver may notice the engine starting and stopping, depending on the situation."

The recharge comes compliments of the generator, which - as in regular cars - recharges the battery, turning rotational mechanical energy into electrical energy. But, like the hybrid's battery, the generator is a lot bigger.

That's not all. It's got - and this is the technology that really impresses Karsh - something called regenerative braking. "When you put your foot on the brake," he says, "the energy stored in the motion of the car charges the battery. At the same time it takes energy out of the motion of the car, the wheels are turning the generator."

Karsh's Prius uses energy so efficiently that the government ranks it as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. That means, among other things, that its engine emits only 2.3 pounds of ozone-forming hydrocarbons during 100,000 miles of driving, about the same as spilling a quart of gasoline. It also means the Prius runs 75 percent cleaner than the next-best Ultra Low Emission Vehicles.

That is welcome news in Chesapeake Country, where we have begun to understand in recent years that tailpipe emissions return to earth as pollution that fouls the Bay.

Karsh still has to fill 'er up. But only about half as often as he used to. That's one way his Prius saves him money. Another is that he didn't have to pay state sales tax. That's an incentive that the state of Maryland offers to promote environmentally friendly machines - from kitchen appliances to cars.

Of course, if his Prius breaks down, you won't see Karsh pulling it into the neighborhood garage. Sure, any gas station could change the oil. But he intends to do that himself.

Beyond changing the oil, Karsh may want to head for the Toyota dealer.

Toyota's computerized ordering is part of its plan to keep data on ownership and service history. "They want every single one to be tracked so it's introduced right," says Guy Davis, sales manager at Koons Toyota in Annapolis.

Behind The Wheel

We seized an opportunity to test a hybrid ourselves over the holidays in San Francisco, one of the nine American cities where you can rent such a hybrid. Seven of the nine are in California, which has set the nation's standard for clean-running cars.

The fleet owner is EV Rental Cars, which rents out about 260 EVs, in three categories: hybrid, all electric and natural gas. Our rental agency was Budget.

The EV was waiting at the San Francisco International Airport less than 24 hours after I made my toll-free reservation.

We did pay a somewhat higher rate than had we rented a standard automobile. But the real surprise came when we picked up our hybrid. Instead of a Toyota, it was a Honda. Instead of a Prius, it was an Insight.

We had rented one of 4,000 Insights imported in the hybrid's first year in America. Its breed came to the States beginning December 15, 1999. So the Honda Insight holds rank as the first gasoline-electric hybrid car sold in the U.S. The Sierra Club greeted it with the first product award in the organization's 108-year history: The Sierra Club Award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering.

Instead of a four-door, compact sedan we expected in the Prius, this was a two-door, two-seat coupe. Instead of being slightly odd-looking, it is, well, peculiar. Like the Prius, it was sparkling, eye-catching silver.

The difference on my mind as we packed the little EV to drive north from San Francisco into Sonoma wine country was how we'd ever get everything in. Our selves were no problem. Only two were making the trip, and the front seat was at least as big as that of the Prius, which Toyota describes as "roomy" enough for five "with amenities for all." The Insight offered nearly 43 inches of leg room compared to about 41 in the Prius, in both back and front. The Prius' 50.7 inches of hip room compares with the Insight's 48.7

But the luggage of cross-country travelers, embellished with holiday gifts, is never small. And it would be ever-growing with bottles from stops at wineries. We shoved it all in, wishing for what seemed the roomier trunk we'd admired in Jerry Karsh's Prius.

The figures tell a different story: Specs claim only 11.8 cubic feet of cargo volume in the Prius compared to 16.3 cubic feet in the Insight. Plus, we discovered two more cubic feet in the hidden rear storage bin beside the huge battery with the die-if-you-touch warning.

Neither hybrid has drop-down seats, so you've got to get your cargo from the back. That was no problem; the Insight hatch opened wide. But when we tried to release the front seats to reach back from inside, we invariably got smacked in the head. That may have been because seat adjustment levers are oddly located in the center.

Fully packed, our little Insight gave us a great ride. We could drive the speed limit - and more if we wanted. "It's no golf cart," said my husband, Bill Lambrecht, as we braked upon spying a trooper in the redwoods. We could climb the hills, though a little sluggishly. But, he concluded, "if you want a hot rod, you'd better get something else."

We were cozy, comfortable and catching lots of attention. Drivers stared. When we were parked, somebody was sure to walk up and ask 'What's that thing you're driving' or 'how does it do on the hills?'

But our Insight didn't tell us enough about itself. Only the driver could see and neither driver nor passenger could decipher the skimpy energy-use display. The hybrid's mileage was consistently reported at 44.6; we had a bit of trouble calculating our own trip mileage, though we didn't know whether it was the car's shortcoming or our own.

What we would have learned is that the Insight is in another class from the Prius. To earn its Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle rating, Prius runs 75 percent cleaner than an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle like the Insight.

When we compared rides, Karsh explained the reasons for the difference. "Insight uses its electric motor only to get more acceleration," he said. "I don't think they limit demands on the gas engine the way Toyota does. Honda has not made as productive a use of the hybrid technology."

Still, we passed a Prius on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Slumbering Motors

The disappearance of engine noise when the motor rests at stop lights took some getting used to. Over the years, my husband has become conditioned from auto and boat problems to worry whenever engine vibrations cease.

You've got to have a cool head, lest you panic over the thought of a big repair bill every time you pull up to a stop sign or a red light. For, instead of sitting idling, your engine turns off.

In the continuous, variable, belt-driven transmission of the Prius, where the belt makes all the shifting decisions, the engine quits when you stop. In the five-speed Insight, it happens when you shift into neutral, thereby increasing mileage and decreasing tailpipe emissions. The engine restarts the moment you step on the gas - or shift into first gear.

The feeling as the engine vibrates back to life reminded my husband, he said, of the old "magic fingers" vibrating beds in motels of years past.

EV drivers get their own magical kind of feeling. "I know I'm making a difference when I'm at a stoplight and my engine's not running," says Karsh.

Bay-Friendly Driving

What's not happening at that stop sign is why Jerry Karsh drives a Prius.

More than one of the 20th century's abiding air pollution problems - from ozone to global warming - popped out of the Pandora's box we opened when we got hooked on gasoline. A few of those problems are the nasty gases that stream out of our tailpipes - carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, to name a few.

Hybrids help.

As Karsh explains, when he's tooling down the road at an average 45 or 50 mpg, he's getting about twice the miles per gallon of his old car. That's a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide.

The Insight cuts back even further on CO2. Averaging an advertised 61 mpg in the city and 70 mpg on the highway, it earned the EPA's highest mileage ratings ever.

Worse as far as the Bay is concerned is nitrous oxide, which is a product of incomplete combustion plus the chemical reaction of nitrogen in the air with heat in the combustion chamber.

As every citizen of Chesapeake Country knows these days, our Bay suffers from too many nutrients, one of which is nitrogen. It's one of the villains that over-nourishes the Bay, sending algae into frenzies of growth that devour oxygen and suffocate other life.

Auto emissions are such a source of pollution that, according to the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they contribute as much as one-third of the nitrogen that falls into the Bay and its watershed.

Prius cuts those emissions by as much as 90 percent. What happens is something like imagined over three decades ago in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Brainy computers like Hal tell the Prius how to blend its gas and electric power. The driver doesn't have to do anything.

One way it works, as Karsh explains, is acceleration. "If you want to accelerate in a normal car, you step on the gas, and it dumps a lot of fuel into the engine. But your car becomes a lot less efficient, and tailpipe emissions go up.

"In this car, when you step on the gas, you get more power from the electric motor and battery without dumping gas into the engine."

It's not only Karsh who's impressed. With government certification as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, or SULEV, Prius gets the highest energy-efficiency and lowest emission rating of any car with a gas engine.

"So driving my Prius," says Karsh, with more than a touch of pride, "I'm working as an ordinary citizen to save the Bay. For me, that's it in a nutshell."

New Generation

Another question Karsh's new car answers is when we're going to start driving cleaner.

When is now.

Demand is part of the reason we can now drive cleaner than ever before. On the carrot side of demand, the federal government has invested billions of dollars since 1993 to encourage America's Big Three automakers to come up with a car that gets 80 miles per gallon. The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles set 2004 as a deadline for prototypes from Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler. That partnership has spurred the race for new technologies, often based on research by universities like University of Maryland, which raced a Saturn souped up with an electric motor and ethanol-burning engine in the 1998 Tour de Sol.

But high mileage per gallon isn't the only way to remove nitrogen from our waterways. For cleaner-burning engines, more incentives are coming from California, the leader among states in setting clean-air regulations. Starting in 2003, California will phase in exhaust emission standards for cars sold within its borders.

All those government actions are part of the reason that, by the first months of last year, the Port of Baltimore unloaded the first clean-running hybrid Toyotas bound for American owners along the Atlantic seaboard. Already, 35,000 Priuses were on the road throughout Japan, and the Japanese auto manufacturer had greeted the millennium by earmarking some 12,000 of its bright new SULEVs for the U.S.

Karsh, a reader of trade journals, was ready for them. He'd waited for three years to replace his aging Chevy Cavalier. He dialed up Toyota on the web, which is the only way you can order a Prius. He ordered in July, and received his new EV in October.

At www.prius.toyota.com, you, too, can choose your Prius, "colorizing" it from silver strata metallic to aqua ice opalescent, electric green Mica or super white. Be careful, the way the web page is set up, it's too easy to order one. Even if you mean to order a Prius today, you won't get it until May or June.

"They call and say this customer's car will be in tomorrow," says Koons Toyota's Davis. That's where Karsh and many other Mid-Atlantic Prius buyers pick up their cars. Koons has sold about 30, Davis says, and has "running orders for over 20" more.

Not all Toyota dealers sell the Prius. "It takes a commitment to training and service. There's special training for sales and mechanical staff, plus special equipment to service the cars," Davis says.

Chose an Insight, and you can buy your EV out of the showroom at Honda of Annapolis, where two of the silver cars are parked, waiting for you. Sales manager Damion Burtis has sold six more since he ordered his first Insight early last year.

What's Next?

Karsh says his new car is great, but says what he likes most is not its silver strata metallic color, its gas-pump savings or even its clever technology.

"Interesting as the technology is," he says, "that wasn't the reason. It was the environment. I'm a nature lover."

By driving a Prius, Karsh is hoping to bring back the Bay.

"Can I go to the water today and see it clearer?" he asks, rhetorically. "No. That's not going to happen from what one person does. What I hope for is very much delayed - but rewarding nonetheless."

Karsh hopes he is sending a message to other drivers. Even with all the questions he's answered, "I'm afraid," he says, "most are not listening."

He may be right. "True believers," according to American Demographics magazine, are the buyers manufacturers count on to buy these new hybrid automobiles. To reach beyond environmentalists like Karsh, the cars will have to live up to American buyers' expectations for comfort, price and performance. A gas crisis would also help.

So Karsh satisfies himself that he's "sending a message to other car companies by not buying their products."

American auto makers are, apparently, listening. Ford and GM are each announcing hybrids soon to roll off their assembly lines. First Ford promised to hybridize its Escape, a small SUV, by 2003. Just this month, GM countered with promises of a line of hybrids - from cars and SUVs to minivans and trucks - starting with a new SUV in 2004. Now Ford has promised to produce a hybrid model of its popular Explorer - raising its fuel efficiency from 19 mpg to 27 – by 2004.

Who knows what's next? I hope it's a metalic-silver hybrid Saturn SULEV that tops federal Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles standards and gets 85 miles to the gallon.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly