Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The first hybrid car I ever saw

The Detroit Auto Show got lots of coverage, though the big story wasn’t the new driving machines but whether the big U.S. carmakers will still be around for 2010’s show.

Another big story is speculation about hybrid cars, plug-in hybrid cars and electric cars. Toyota’s Prius is no longer alone in the hybrid arena, and more cars are on the way that don’t rely totally on a gasoline engine for motive power.

Back in 2001, the Prius was a curiosity, and I remember my first sight of and ride in one.

I was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) – yes, there were men who were members – and I attended a meeting in Palm Beach County, Fla., at the main library with my friends and mentors (mentioned earlier in this blog). The speaker was a political science professor from my alma mater, Florida Atlantic University, on the future of the oil industry.

He was young, brilliant and well-spoken, and he gave a good talk. He ended by noting that he had recently acquired a Toyota Prius hybrid. Well, even though almost all of the members of the club were long past the age of running sprints, there was a race to the doors at the back of the room to see this amazing car.

It was the first-generation Prius, but the idea of an engine that shut off and the use of battery power for low-speed driving was exciting for those concerned about the environment and the troubles in the Middle East. (Mind you, this was that summer of 2001, before 9/11).

Everyone got a ride, and the professor showed off the displays and controls, and then he popped the hood so we could look at the engine.

“If I had known this was going to turn into show-and-tell,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, “I wouldn’t have said anything about the car.”

In reality, battery-powered cars were pretty common in the early years of the 20th century (see The Complete National Geographic of those years, which had ads for them), and in my reading of The New Yorker magazine from the 1920s, there was talk about how traffic in Manhattan was getting to be too much, what with all the pollution, and its writers asked why cars couldn’t run on batteries when stopped or at low speeds so the engines could be shut off, thus limiting pollution.

Even in 2001, the Prius seemed to be overkill. Oil was cheap, gas was relatively low, and the car seemed to be aimed at those who were really on the fringes, those “the world will end soon if you don’t do it our way” types.

Well, here we are in 2009. Gas and oil prices have soared and crashed, the economy soared and crashed, and hybrids appear to be here to stay.

True, Toyota is having to offer rebates to move them, but that’s because people are wary of spending any money when they’re worried that their employer will be announcing “Opportunity 2009: Changing the Way We Work” (read: mass layoffs). Until then, the current car seems to be doing the job, even if the engine’s on all the time.

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January 23, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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