Buying Hybrid Car More Than Just About Money

In the end, the resistance to hybrid technology is an expression of fear of change.

Published: 21-Jun-2006

Last summer, when gas first hit $3 per gallon, I bought a hybrid vehicle. Although I had been planning to make that purchase before gas prices hit the roof, now that they are once again soaring, I have to admit a bit of smugness has set in.

You see, I took a lot of flak when I bought the hybrid. I was bombarded with such comments as: "It's not worth it." "You'll never make your money back." "These cars don't get the mileage that's advertised." And on and on.

The scorn and ridicule I endured was not born out of a lack of belief in hybrid technology, which relies on a combination of gasoline and electricity to power the vehicle. In the end, the resistance to hybrid technology is an expression of fear of change.

When the Internet first emerged with 14.4 bandwidth dial-up modems, people broke into two camps. The first group rushed out, got online and suffered through some excruciatingly slow evenings of downloads and e-mails. Meanwhile, the second group ignored the innovative technology, thinking "The Internet is too slow and it will never really be useful."

We all know how that ended: The Internet is a crucial part of most American lives today, whether you're in the workplace, classroom, at home or on the road.

These days, another group of skeptics looks at hybrid cars and finds a host of reasons to question these new types of vehicles, despite the fact that hybrids are proven to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, reduce air pollution, and spark interest and investment in new technologies. To these naysayers, I offer the following lessons I have learned so far while driving a Prius:

Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency mileage estimates for the Prius may be overstated, but I do get 55 m.p.g. in the suburbs and on the highway (traveling at 65 m.p.h.), 43 m.p.g. tooling around my Mount Airy neighborhood, and 60 m.p.g. in Center City. The bottom line: That is at least double the fuel efficiency of the average car (22.4 m.p.g. according to the U.S. Department of Transportation) and at least triple the fuel efficiency of monster SUVs. Try filling up a Ford Excursion XLT, which averages 14 m.p.g.).

I paid $5,000 more for the Prius than I would have for a comparable but non-hybrid Honda Civic, but received $2,500 in rebates and tax breaks for closing the deal. And with gas now back at $3 a gallon - and climbing up to who knows what price - the remaining $2,500 premium for the car will be paid off in three to four years. So the Prius will become a break-even buy and maybe even a better dollar value over the long term, depending on gas prices and how many miles I put on the car.

But driving a hybrid is not just about money. Consumer Reports magazine estimates that every gallon of gas saved by hybrid cars prevents 18 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That's a rate of return I can live with.

The Prius' continuous display of current fuel efficiency allows me to see at any given moment how many miles per gallon I'm getting, as well as the fuel efficiency achieved for the current tank of gas. This feature has completely changed the way I drive. Now, with the numbers staring at me from the dashboard, I coast whenever possible, drive close to or at the speed limit and accelerate very slowly. This achieves two important goals: It increases my fuel efficiency and my more careful driving really annoys the oversized, gas-guzzling SUVs driving behind me.

I like being part of the future. You may not like the look of my car, but its aerodynamic shape is playing an important role in the fuel efficiency of the vehicle while making a bold aesthetic statement. Design and efficiency are interrelated to promote the best outcome, which, as an architect who focuses on green design and good building practices, I especially appreciate.

Finally, buying such a car makes a statement about courage, the notion that hybrid buyers are brave enough to embrace new technologies that will help the environment, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and change the research and design of vehicles in the future.

Just as the Internet started slowly, imagine today's Prius as the 14.4 modem of the Internet. Bandwidth on the Internet continues to rise and so, too, will the mileage of fuel-efficient cars, but only if we are brave and committed enough to take steps today and look to the future.

In the meantime, if you're stuck on Kelly Drive behind a tan Prius cruising along at the speed limit, you can be sure that a broad, self-satisfied grin will be looking at you from the rear-view mirror.

Rob Fleming is associate professor of architecture and codirector of the Engineering and Design Institute at Philadelphia University.

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