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Honda Hopes for a Historic Hybrid

Posted by | March 21, 2009

Remember gasoline prices last Fourth of July?

Those were the days household budgets collided with gasoline prices that were over $4 per gallon.

Even us geologists – who are sometimes quietly glad to see high energy and metals prices because our jobs depend on them – whimpered loudly when we pulled into the pumps. I can quite clearly recollect the first time I put more than $125 of gas into my beloved 1987 pickup. Ouch!

Our friends at Honda are betting that you, too, harbor some vivid memories of gas-pump pain last July. The company is putting many millions into the wager that many of us will want our next car to be a whole lot more fuel-efficient than our current one.

This month Honda is launching its 2010 Insight, the first hybrid vehicle to carry a sticker price just under $20,000. Honda hopes to entice you into showrooms using the pitch that a hybrid “for everyone” has finally arrived.

There’s interesting physical science at the core of all hybrids. Ford, Toyota, Chevy and other automakers all have hybrid cars, each a bit different, but all pairing an electric motor with a gasoline one. Many hybrids have the same simple-yet-smart approaches, like turning off the gas engine at red lights and automatically starting it up again only when needed.

Most hybrids also capture energy that’s otherwise wasted in a regular car. For example, if you are cruising down the highway and have to hit the brakes, a standard vehicle simply loses the energy that was bound up in your speed. The energy-of-motion turns into a great deal of heat in the braking system, and the heat isn’t available for any good purpose. But many hybrids are engineered to put some of that energy-of-motion into the battery system, and later in your journey the car uses that juice to propel you down the road.

Using such energy-saving features, hybrids go farther on a gallon of gas. EPA mileage estimates for the Insight are in the low 40s.  All Insights have a four-cylinder 1.3-liter gas engine and an electric motor that boosts performance by drawing on energy in the car’s battery.

The cost of manufacturing hybrids – which used to be sky high – is dropping as more of them are produced. Honda is making the wager that the time is right to convince us that hybrids are “for everyone” – and the sticker price under $20,000 is meant to emphasize that message.

The 2010 Insight is worth investigating if you are considering a new car. But if you have a garage, you might want to wait on any purchase if you can. Here’s why: within 12-18 months a couple of major automakers are likely to market hybrid vehicles that are built to be plugged into a wall outlet at night. If you have a garage or another way to connect your car to the power grid, you’ll be in business. In the same basic way you recharge your cell phone, you could recharge your car, either a hybrid or a fully electric model. And because the cost of electricity is less than the cost of gasoline – much less in most cases – your household budget might finally get a good break.

Here’s a sidelight on new cars this year:  your 2009 federal income taxes could be reduced if you buy a new car. Like everything about federal taxes, however, the details are too complex for a mere geologist to explain. Ask a tax professional for more information if you’re sitting on the fence concerning a new vehicle.

Here’s quite another connection between new cars and taxes. About five years from now, when I expect many of us will have switched to plug-in hybrids, we won’t be paying gasoline taxes like we are now. Without those funds to support road repairs, the government will have to find other ways to pay for our highways. There’s talk of taxing us for miles-per-year we drive rather than on the gallons of fuel we purchase at the pumps.

But let’s not look that far ahead.

Enjoy some good spring driving, whether it’s in a fine new hybrid car or an aging pickup like mine.