- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Patrick Bedard, a columnist for Car and Driver, recently took a trip in the environmentalist's dream car, the hybrid Honda Insight, and his report is telling.
If this is the car of the future, enjoy yourself now.
First, a little background. The Insight is a technical marvel that combines a three-cylinder, 1-liter internal combustion gas engine with an electric motor/generator that adds boost when needed.
This deserves a little explanation of some basic physics. Cars convert potential energy to kinetic energy by burning fuel to drive mechanical components. This propels the car down the road. When a car is braked, that dynamic energy is bled off through the brakes. Brakes convert kinetic energy to heat. The heat dissipates into the atmosphere.
With the Insight, when you apply the brakes the motor/generator is engaged and converts some of the kinetic energy into electrical power, which is stored in a small battery, so not all the kinetic power is lost in heat at the brakes. When the anemic engine is stressed, the motor/generator kicks in in its motor phase and sends power to the wheels.
Consequently, the Insight conserves fuel very well. Mr. Bedard reported that he got 56.8 miles per gallon driving 572 miles over a week's span. But its success stops there. He reports that it's noisy. It's cramped. It's underpowered. And at $20,520, it's expensive for what you get.
This is not to decry in any way the achievement of Honda and its engineers. They have brilliantly fulfilled their task, which was to produce a car that keeps the environmentalists and the California Air Resources Board off their backs.
But those folks, with the best of intentions, have decreed that major automakers must provide zero-emissions cars (meaning not hybrids but all-electric cars) in the state if they wish to sell others, the ones people like to drive. This forces automakers to produce cars at great expense that few people will be interested in driving. Consumers aren't stupid. Who wants an underperforming car with an 80-mile driving range that then needs to be recharged for a few hours? Are there any hands raised out there?
The latest wrinkle is the state's insistence that 22,000 such vehicles be on sale by 2003. In all probability, car manufacturers will comply and write the enormous expense off as a cost of doing business, however absurd. (Actually only the big six sellers in the state are affected: Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Honda, DaimlerChrysler and Nissan.)
These costs are going to be passed on to the public in the form of higher new-car prices. In essence, one state is going to raise the price of new cars in the other 49 without people there getting any benefit. Talk about taxation without representation wasn't that what the American Revolution was about?
Unfortunately the ill effects don't stop there. Higher prices mean fewer people will buy new cars, instead retaining their older cars that, you guessed it, pollute more. Whoever said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions was a very insightful person.
Meanwhile, these electric vehicles will sit somewhere and accumulate dust.
Not so, said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Mr. Martin swears electric and hybrid cars will sell like hot cakes once they are readily available. He supports this claim with 75,000 letters the board has received calling for electric car development. He also believes that company fleets will be good electric-car customers.
They're blowing smoke, say carmakers and dealers. Why did only 2,300 electric cars make it to the streets once they were offered a few years back? Bad marketing, environmentalists say.
Ron Defore of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, said that GM has been trying to market its electric EV1 for several years and has only been able to lease a small number, even after lowering the lease price to $399 a month. It's a hard sell.
Greg Dana of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers adds that gasoline-burning cars are so clean now that you don't gain much with electric vehicles. He illustrates this by quoting CARB's data showing that in the Los Angeles Basin the slice of the pollution pie for cars will drop from 54 percent in 1985 to about 10 percent in 2020.
So who needs electrics?
Meanwhile, Honda officials are happy with market response to the Insight. They sold 2,390 Insights nationwide as of Aug. 1, and as a result have increased production from 4,000 to 6,500 a year. But a hybrid is a far cry from an electric. You don't have to recharge it, there is fuel (gas) available wherever you go and you don't have a serious range limitation.
Try as I might to believe CARB's claims, I have to say I never saw lines at the dealerships, nor heard of dealers adding a premium to the cost of the electrics as they traditionally do when popular new models hit the showroom. Perhaps the laws of economics are suspended for zero-emissions vehicles. That would be news indeed.



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