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My blog comments on NYTimes series
Sep 25, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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Power, Plugs and People Sept. 25, 2005: The New York Times takes the measure of hybrids

As a former New Yorker (24 years in Manhattan), I pay extra attention to how The New York Times -- sometimes called "the newspaper of record" -- reports on the world. I'm also very gratified that Danny Hakim's April 2005 story gave the first full report on CalCars' PRIUS+, thereby paving the way for the still-growing wave of media attention accorded to plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and CalCars.

The Times's Sunday Magazine's special section on hybrids (that's the URL for the first story), surprisingly entitled "STYLE: The Way We Drive Now," is important because a top national magazine is paying so much attention. It's an indication of the growing recognition that hybrids are the first step away from a century of gas-guzzling. It's both an encouraging and a complicated and contradictory mix.

This section picks up the story from July when The Times ran several articles about hybrids in one Sunday Automotive section, including one by Matthew Wald, "Designed to Save, Hybrids Burn Gas in Drive for Power." He raised the possibility that car makers would turn hybrids' benefits, like so many other technologies, into a way to build efficient "muscle cars" and heavy SUVs. While we may be glad this means hybrids won't be stereotyped as underpowered, concern about this "slippery slope" is growing.

Now, on that question, this series points both ways. "High-Performance Hybrids" weighs in most favorably on L3 Research's Enigma, yet inexplicably never distinguishes it from other powerful hybrids. In fact, it's not simply an "awesome" race car -- it's a plug-in hybrid, achieving much of its high performance through its large battery pack. It delivers power and 80MPG. And later, the author points to "hybrids' enormous marketing problems" about power that many observers feel were dispelled as soon as the '04 Prius reached the market.

The article later quotes Toyota's Dave Hermance saying drivers perceive less frequent fueling as a greater benefit than fuel economy. That matches up with focus-group-based research by Amanda Miller from Standard & Poor's Corporate Value Consulting, published by EPRI, showing among PHEVs' greatest selling points drivers' distaste for going to gas stations. (Missing in this article is that logical conclusion: plug in nightly at home to refuel your hybrid, and as long as you drive locally, your trips to the pump will be few and far between.)

"Cars That Guzzle Grass" comes close to concluding that biofuels and ethanol will be the future liquid fuels for cars, citing many obstacles to hydrogen. But it ultimately shies away from its own analysis, citing flawed studies (e.g. Pimentel on ethanol -- for critiques see CalCars' Global Warming Page). It then engages in fanciful speculations that forget that hydrogen is not a fuel but an energy storage system -- much like a battery, just less efficient and less market-ready.

Readers may differ on whether the third article, "Pimp My Prius," whimsically positions the Prius in the mainstream of cars that can benefit from a makeover, or whether it trivializes their significance. Fortunately, it is accompanied by mini-profiles of some of the creative people whose work points to promising new solutions.

The series will introduce a large audience to the hybrid future. We're still in the early years. The next series won't overlook the challenge/opportunity presented by PHEVs: The industry could be building them now to begin our escape from dependence on imported gasoline, and take the first steps to eliminate greenhouse gases from the passenger vehicle fleet. One consolation is artist Chip Kidd's contribution to the multimedia slide show, "The Future of Driving," whose Empty-Full fuel gauge depicts a battery, not a tank, with the caption, "I'm hoping that in the near future when you charge for your car's fuel, it will be with a plug as opposed to a credit card."

Comments here (and letters to magazine@...) will be most
appreciated. For those without access to the NYT, I've reposted the three
stories at the CalCars-News Archive:
Pimp My Prius (the only one that mentions plug-in hybrids)
The High-Performance Hybrids
Cars That Guzzle Grass


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