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Sustainable Energy

Finally, My Last Conventional Car

From the editor in chief

Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait in August 1990, and probably because I was the newest mid-level editor, I became de facto energy editor of BusinessWeek. What followed was a rash of stories about oil, natural gas, and U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. That led to articles about conservation and alternative energy-and, inevitably, to cars.

Then, as now, internal-combustion-engine vehicles consumed a huge percentage of all fossil fuel burned in the United States. We wrote about electric cars and other technologies that promised to wean Americans of their gas-guzzling ways. When I bought a new car in January 1992, less than a year after the Gulf War ended, I told my friends it was the last conventionally powered vehicle I would ever own.

I was off by one car. There was just no proven, competitive, and readily available alternative to the conventional internal-combustion engine a few years ago, when I bought my next (and present) vehicle. But as writer Peter Fairley makes clear in this month’s cover story-“Hybrids’ Rising Sun“-that is no longer true. Whether I buy my next car in eight years or eight months, I am sure to have a viable choice. My next car will equal or surpass the performance of the one I drive now, spare the environment from tons of pollutants and greenhouse-gas emissions, and with double the fuel efficiency, save me several thousand dollars over its operational life. My next car, of course, will be a gasoline-electric hybrid.

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A hybrid car, which uses both a gasoline engine and an electric motor for propulsion, can deliver 50 to 60 miles per gallon. Some 130,000 Prius hybrids will roll off Toyota’s assembly lines this year. On the way are hybrid versions of the Lexus luxury sedan and the Highlander SUV. The company estimates that by 2006, hybrid sales could hit 300,000. Honda is not far behind, and General Motors last year announced that it would have the capability to build as many as one million hybrids by 2007. While such offerings will total a small percentage of overall vehicle sales, they could make a noticeable dent in U.S. oil consumption. And as Fairley reports, if we could somehow boost the average mileage of all U.S. vehicles to 40 miles per gallon, we would save three million barrels of oil a day-more than we import from the Middle East.

Many people see hybrids as a steppingstone on the way to even more radical changes in what we drive. The buzz right now is around the hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered car-under research and development at several automakers-which would burn no fossil fuels directly and produce no harmful emissions.

But while car companies and politicians get PR mileage out of promising such advances, I’ve learned to be skeptical about how fast a big change like that will come, since it will take a compelling shift in the economics of hydrogen to convince carmakers to speed things up. But I do know that I can finally keep my promise.

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