Get rolling with hybrid vehicles
Light trucks are now the fastest growing source of all vehicle pollutants in Canada and the United States. Although SUVs are used primarily as passenger vehicles, they don't have to meet passenger vehicle emission requirements. It's a loophole that automakers have exploited to the fullest. .............
Hybrids are great, but they are too expensive for the average consumer. The reason they're too expensive is because they're not being mass produced. And the reason they're not being mass produced is because there's no incentive for automakers to improve fuel efficiency.
GUEST COMMENT: Get rolling with hybrid vehicles
BY JIM FULTON
January 15, 2004
There's something you won't find on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week.
Absent among the gleaming muscle cars and souped-up sport-utility vehicles is a serious effort to reduce the damage the car does to our lives, our environment and our health.
Before you go thinking that I'm about to rant about the evils of the automobile, I have to admit up front that I love cars. I've owned cars all my life, and I still do. But as much as I love cars, they need to change.
The fact is, we rely on cars way too much. We use them to get to work, take the kids to school, to go on vacation. New highways are built, bridges are widened and farmland paved over, all because of our love affair with the car.
We all know that cars create smog and air pollution. They drive up the emissions that cause climate change. They cause entire neighborhoods to spring up 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) or more away from work so we can sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic along highways and expressways for hours every day. City planners and municipalities have to deal with the number of cars on our streets, so let's just focus on the cars themselves.
We can produce better cars that pollute less, a lot less, and that require less raw materials to build. The good news is that we have the technological expertise to do just that. Cleaner and more efficient cars could have a bright future in North America.
Some automakers are showing off promising new cars, like Toyota's signature hybrid Prius. But without policy changes that would legally require automakers to build better cars, hybrids and fuel cells won't make much of a dent.
So what is happening now?
Hybrid cars are certainly creating a buzz at this year's Detroit Auto Show. These vehicles, which use a combination of electric and internal combustion engines, get excellent gas mileage. The 2004 Prius uses just 4.1 liters (about 1 gallon) of gas to travel 100 kilometers (about 62 miles), twice the mileage of passenger cars in its class.
Both Honda and Toyota began offering small hybrid cars for sale in North America in 2000. But the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight are heavily subsidized by the manufacturers and are not considered to have wide appeal to U.S. and Canadian customers because of their high price tags.
Hybrids are great, but they are too expensive for the average consumer. The reason they're too expensive is because they're not being mass produced. And the reason they're not being mass produced is because there's no incentive for automakers to improve fuel efficiency. Somehow, we need to shift the industry from the quicksand of big profit, big polluting vehicles to safer, cleaner cars.
To do so, the federal government must impose stricter fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles. That's not to say we haven't tried. In Canada, legislation designed to increase the fuel efficiency of new vehicles, including SUVs, was passed by Parliament in 1981. At the time, I was a member of Parliament and was excited to vote in favor of this much-needed legislation. However, 22 years and six prime ministers later, the legislation has never been proclaimed.
Light trucks are now the fastest growing source of all vehicle pollutants in Canada and the United States. Although SUVs are used primarily as passenger vehicles, they don't have to meet passenger vehicle emission requirements. It's a loophole that automakers have exploited to the fullest.
Don't think for a minute that automakers were simply responding to consumer demand by producing more and more SUVs. Rather, by slapping a fancy skin on a cheap truck body, throwing in a couple dozen cup holders and a massive advertising campaign, automakers managed to shift consumer preference to their most profitable vehicles. It's a tactic that worked wonders for profits, but one that we're all paying for in terms of our health and quality of life.
So what are we waiting for? On Sept. 27, Bank of America Securities completed an industry overview of hybrid electric vehicles including some observations on fuel cell vehicles.
The Bank of America study found that the major catalyst for hybrid electric vehicle demand is the decrease in costs from mass production. That means moving to mass production in American plants.
Honda and Toyota seem to be reaching consumers Toyota has about 150,000 hybrid electrics on the road worldwide and is already in its third generation of hybrids. But Honda and Toyota are just recovering the additional costs of components in their hybrid electrics to stimulate demand.
I would like to think that North American manufacturers are well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity, and all levels of government should be playing a role to ensure this by providing tax incentives for investing in assembly line infrastructure geared toward hybrid manufacturing, as well as research and development support for high efficiency vehicles.
Changing for the better is the real road to freedom and the North American love affair with cars.
JIM FULTON is the executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental organization in Vancouver, British Columbia. He served as a Canadian member of Parliament for 15 years with a focus on climate change, air pollution and energy. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.
Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press I
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