A growing dependence on imported oil, along with a heightened concern about the environment, has led to my increased interest in electric cars as an alternative to traditional gas-powered automobiles. True electric vehicles do not seem to achieve the requirements of the American car-buying public because of their high cost, which can be up to $30,000 or more for a compact car (Motavalli 2). Battery systems for electric vehicles are improving, but with their limited range of travel, they are still not feasible for most people. In addition, I believe that the average person making the decision to purchase environmentally friendly vehicles would demand that those vehicles be comfortable, attractive, convenient, and affordable to purchase and maintain.
Newly available automotive technology, known as hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), appears to fill these requirements. Hybrid power systems were conceived as a way to compensate for the shortfall in battery technology (Office of Transportation Technologies, HEV program). Hybrid electric vehicles recharge as you drive, get approximately double the miles per gallon of gas than current vehicles (Toyota, technology) and can be refueled at any gas station. Each hybrid vehicle will produce thousands fewer pounds of pollutants than the vehicles currently on the road. “According to Department of Energy estimates, a hybrid car driven 12,000 miles per year will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 4,700 pounds over its predecessor,” says the National Resources Defense Council article on earth smart cars.(National Resources Defense Council, cars of today and tomorrow).
There are currently only two hybrid electric vehicles on the U.S. market (Motavalli 3). The Honda Insight was the first hybrid electric vehicle to be available for public purchase in the United States. The Honda Insight is a two-seat sporty car that has
earned the best EPA mileage rating in history, rated at 61 miles per gallon in the city and 68 miles per gallon on the highway (Honda 6). Because of its size, however, I do not believe the Insight is practical for the average person. When I sat in the driver’s seat of the Honda Insight, it felt small and insubstantial, which led me to question the safety and durability of this car. In addition, I believe that people who are looking for a sports car are not the same people who will make environmental and fuel efficiency a priority over looks and power.
The Toyota Prius, on the other hand, is a five-passenger vehicle that equates in size to a Toyota Corolla. The Prius has been sold in Japan since 1997 (Motavalli 3), but has only recently been available in the United States. While the Toyota Prius has a slightly lower EPA mileage rating of 50 miles per gallon in the city and 40 miles per gallon on the highway than the Honda Insight, I believe it is more likely to be widely accepted because it is larger then the Insight and thus more appealing to the environmentally aware family person. Priced at just over $20,000, the Prius is comparable once again to the Toyota Corolla, which puts it within the financial reach of most middle class people. The Prius will comfortably hold a family of five and has the power to perform well in passing and up-hill driving conditions (Toyota, details, specs). Since much of the driving an average person in the Seattle area does is in heavy traffic and city driving conditions, the higher mileage rating in the city is a benefit.
I was impressed by the safety features such as side-impact door beams, front and rear energy-absorbing crumple zones, standard anti-lock brake system, both driver and passenger air bags, and child-protector rear door locks. In addition, the Prius features a security system and engine immobilizer. Unless the correct key is used, the starter system becomes disables and the car will not start. This anti-theft protection is achieved through a chip embedded into the key using a rolling identification code that cannot be duplicated (Toyota, details, specs).
The hybrid engine system of the Prius is a highly efficient gas engine combined with an electronic motor. Depending on the driving conditions, one or both are used to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize emissions. During initial acceleration, the electric motor is the primary source of power. The gas engine is started under heavy acceleration, such as passing or going uphill. During highway driving, the gas engine is the primary source of power with the electric motor assisting as needed to achieve power. When the vehicle is coasting or braking, the electric motor acts as a generator to charge the battery and when the vehicle is stopped, the gas engine shuts off to conserve fuel and eliminate exhaust emissions. The ability of the electric motor to recharge the battery means that the Prius never needs to be externally recharged and has a driving range of between 536 miles on the highway and 619 miles in the city on one tank of gas. The standard display panel allows continuous monitoring of the energy efficiency at work (Toyota, details, technology).
Cost, technology, and safety are, of course, not the only criteria considered when making a vehicle purchase. Comfort and looks often play a large part in making our
decision of which vehicle to buy. The Prius comes in four exterior colors with fabric-trimmed doors and seats. The rear spoiler and tinted windows give the Prius a sporty look while the four-way adjustable front seats, tilt steering wheel, and adjustable
headrests allow for comfortable driving.
The many attractive features of the Prius, (relatively low cost, ultra-low emissions and fuel economy) make this vehicle the only alternative available today that meets my requirements of safety, cost, environmental awareness, comfort, looks and fuel efficiency. I was also impressed with the 8 year or 100,000 mile warranty on the battery pack of the Prius and the three-year/36,000 mile roadside assistance and scheduled maintenance program for Prius owners (Toyota, details, FAQ).
Honda 2001 Insight. Honda Insight Brochure, 2000.
Motavalli, Jim. Your Next Car? A New Generation of Clean Cars is Coming to a
Showroom Near You. Sierra Club, 1999.
National Resources Defense Council. Cars of Today & Tomorrow
Office of Transportation Technologies. Hybrid Electric Vehicle Program.
Toyota Prius. Details, FAQ.
Toyota Prius. Details, Specs and Features.
Toyota Prius. Technology.