Hybrid Hoopla

Cars that can run on both gasoline and electric power are a hot item in government these days.
by | June 2004

Johnson County, Kansas, is a patch of affluent Republican suburbia just across the river from Kansas City. It is not the sort of place where you would expect to see lots of cars running on funny fuels. For years, as government fleets around the country tried a variety of clean-air and fuel-saving innovations--ethanol, biodiesel, electric batteries--Johnson County stuck with plain old gasoline. The county's air didn't seem dirty enough to justify much experiment. A while back, the county did make a weak push to buy a few vehicles that could burn an alternative fuel as well as ordinary gas, but county employees chose to fill up their tanks with unleaded nearly every time.

So it's pretty interesting that Johnson County government is going gaga right now over the latest energy craze: hybrid-electric cars. There are seven hybrids in the county fleet of 600 vehicles and county officials, happy with them, are planning on adding dozens more.

Powered in part by a battery that charges itself every time the driver brakes, and in part by gasoline, these cars still spit out some noxious pollutants and greenhouse gases. But they produce a drastically lower amount of each one than ordinary cars and can run up to 60 miles on a single gallon of fuel. "Hybrids have been sprouting up like dandelions in our fleet in the past few years," says Tim Maupin, Johnson County's energy director.

Hybrid automobiles have been on the market for only a short time in the United States, and just two automakers so far--Toyota and Honda-- are selling them, both in limited numbers. Nevertheless, state and local governments are driving away with hybrids almost as quickly as they roll off the boat from Japan. Earlier this year, a survey by the National Conference of State Fleet Administrators found that hybrids already make up more than 1 percent of the vehicles state employees drive while they are at work. "That's actually huge penetration," says Joe O'Neill, the group's executive director. "Especially when you think about how little is being offered on the market."

Governments aren't just buying hybrid cars for themselves. They're also encouraging consumers to drive them. Several states, including Oregon and Colorado, are offering hefty tax breaks to residents who buy hybrids. Arizona, Florida and Georgia want to give hybrid drivers the gift of a faster commute. Each has passed laws, subject to federal approval, that would let hybrid drivers ride solo in HOV lanes. Virginia isn't waiting for the feds. Its policy is for police to wink at hybrid vehicles with a single occupant as they speed along in commuter lanes.

WORTH THE PRICE?

Why the hybrid hype? Rising gas prices have something to do with it. Governments are growing increasingly conscious of fuel efficiency. They're also eager to set a green example for consumers and to help establish a viable mainstream market for cleaner transportation. City councils and state legislatures around the country are speckled with hard-core fans who drive hybrids at home and want governments to use them too. Robert Cowles, a Republican state senator in Wisconsin, is one of those early-adopters. He has owned a hybrid Toyota Prius for three years and recently wrote a law adding hybrids to the list of cars the state can buy. "I believe strongly in trying to extricate ourselves from this tremendous dependence on Middle East oil," Cowles says. "The hybrid is one tool to do that."

Yet hybrids, for now anyway, come with a few clear disadvantages. For one thing, the cars can cost up to $6,000 more than comparable vehicles listed on state purchasing contracts. Resistance is particularly strong in the Midwest and the South where it's uncouth, if not illegal, for governments to buy foreign-made cars (that problem will diminish when Ford and General Motors introduce a hybrid S.U.V. and pickup truck later this year). Another issue for state fleets, if not for local ones, is a federal law known as EPAct. That law requires states to run 75 percent of their fleet vehicles on alternative fuels, but currently hybrids don't count toward meeting that goal. Meanwhile, some environmentalists complain that hybrids aren't clean enough and note that some of the new models coming out make only incremental improvements over conventional engines in fuel efficiency.

NEXT UP: HYDROGEN

Lately, the discussion about hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles has been obscured by talk of something else: hydrogen. Indeed, hydrogen is attracting lots of government interest lately, from President Bush's "FreedomCAR" research initiative to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to install 200 hydrogen filling stations along roads in California--the so-called "hydrogen highway." The buzz isn't all political sloganeering. Los Angeles officials have been test- driving five hydrogen Hondas for more than a year. "The hydrogen vehicles are very fun to drive," says Gretchen Hardison, air-quality director for the Los Angeles Department of Environmental Affairs. "They're totally quiet. All you hear is the sound of the tires."

Hydrogen's attractiveness is based not only on its abundance but also on the fact that the only thing coming out the tailpipe is water. Unfortunately, commercial availability is probably 15 years away-- L.A.'s test cars, for example, are valued at $1.5 million apiece. So green-minded fleet managers are left to decide which currently feasible technology is their best bridge to the hydrogen era: Is it hybrids, or is it something else?

San Francisco doesn't think hybrids are the answer. In the 1990s, the city invested heavily in zero-emission electric cars powered by plug- in batteries--cars that California regulators goaded Detroit into making but that are now being phased out. San Francisco also runs one of the nation's largest fleets of clean-burning natural gas cars and has invested in fueling stations for them all around the Bay Area. Fleet managers in San Francisco will purchase hybrids only for employees who regularly drive outside the Bay Area.

But in places that aren't so heavily invested in one technology or another--places such as Johnson County--hybrids are proving highly attractive. The foremost advantage is that there's no requirement for fueling stations--or any "infrastructure" at all, for that matter. On- the-road employees can gas up at any old service station. "What's easiest is usually what works," says Eric Wade, Johnson County's deputy manager. "Hybrids are what's easiest for us. You don't have to think about what fuel you put in, you just put in the same fuel as everyone else. And you don't have to fill up nearly as often."

In the past couple of years, Johnson County's environment department has bought five hybrids, while the human services department and the library have acquired one apiece. Those purchases were made somewhat ad hoc. Now, the county administration is promoting hybrids as the vehicle of choice for most departments, excepting public safety units that may need to have bigger or more powerful vehicles. "Word is out: If you want to buy something else, you better have a pretty good reason," says Tim Maupin.

To defray the hybrids' higher sticker price, Johnson County is using a $430,000 federal air-quality grant. That's an enviable subsidy, although hybrid aficionados argue it isn't needed because the cars pay for themselves over time--especially now that gas prices are so high. A leading proponent of this view is Windell Mitchell, fleet manager in King County, Washington, where employees are driving 60 hybrids and have recently ordered 15 more.

Last year, Mitchell developed a "life cycle" cost comparison between the 2003 Toyota Prius and a comparably sized conventional sedan, the 2003 Chevy Malibu. The hybrid costs over $6,000 more upfront. But Mitchell figures the hybrids will last longer and require less maintenance because they don't wear as severely as regular cars. Throw in the hybrid's fuel efficiency and Mitchell calculates that each hybrid actually saves the county $2,600 over eight years. "If governments want to use hybrids, they have to have the ability to make procurement decisions based on something other than the lowest bid," Mitchell says.

Like San Francisco, King County has an official green fleet strategy and used to rely on natural gas to implement it. But the county is now phasing out the natural gas cars in favor of hybrids. "It's the wave of the future," Mitchell contends. "The hybrids integrate seamlessly into a conventional market."