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Confessions of a hybrid car owner: Living with a Toyota Prius

by Thomas C. Dowd

I admit it. I confess to being in love with a car for the first time in 30 years of driving. How, un-American I always felt to admit that I don't like to drive. But now I look forward to getting behind the wheel of my hybrid car. I get giddy when talking about my Toyota Prius, because the level of discussion about cars, about driving and about what makes a good car is in such need of change. There has been a great deal of talk of late about American's falling out of love with automobiles. One executive blamed government regulation. It's not a love of regulation as much as a love for the right priorities.

I love my year old hybrid because I also love my planet. I love my money and I don't enjoy wasting it. I love clean air and want it in the city, not just in the countryside. I want the idea of a car and driving to be good for all of us. I love being safe on the road.

Hybrid car owners quickly learn that the paradigm of most discussions about cars is all about power and speed and not what is good for all of us. The dialog put out by supermarket auto magazines is about smooth horsepower and pure power and greater power. It's gangster power to overwhelm the other drivers putting everyone in danger. Power is the intractable opiate of the driving public's psyche. Get over it! There are important power related questions but they don't relate to how many horses are under the hood. The important questions are:

Pondering these real power questions begs the question of how to build a car that can pass and go at a sustained speed without creating a wasteful monster. The skinny on hybrid car power is that these cars can enter a highway from a dead stop to highway speed in acceptable time -- zero to 40 mph. done in about 6 seconds. Yes, I confess to loving to pass. I love to pass SUVs and Town Cars that have all the horses and pass everything on the road but a gas station. The Toyota hybrid starts by powering the forward movement of the car with 110 pounds of batteries. There is no "horse whinny" sound from a starter under the hood. After twenty miles per hour, the four cylinder gas engine kicks in, to either power the wheels or to fill the battery.

Prius Productive Power

The gasoline engine in my hybrid assists the 175-volt electric motor. The electric motor is the primary power source in the Prius. Honda makes the electric motor assist the gas engine, losing some of its environmental benefit. When you step on the brake in a hybrid, or just take your foot off the gas, the four wheels will resupply the battery with juice. The act of stopping produces energy instead of wasting it. That's productive power. Alas, you will not do zero to sixty in 7 seconds in a first generation hybrid. When is that important anyway? I am not trying to win the Indy 500; I am trying to get on to a highway or away from a truck. By engineering cars for the zero to sixty race situation, cars become very inefficient for 90% of what people do with them, the standard driving experience we are supposed to love but few of us actually do love. Most cars burn gas most efficiently at about 5000 rpm. What a waste. My power questions don't involve hauling a boat, or racing from a dead stop or impressing some babe. If you need to car to do these things, don't buy this year's hybrids.

The American mind set about power in cars is that lots of cylinders are strong and electricity is weak. Folks think electric cars are just golf cars that made good. Let's think of the hybrid car as a locomotive on tires, not a vehicle with only 73 horses under the hood. A locomotive is usually a diesel engine running a generator, which produces enough electricity to turn the steel wheels of several hundred freight cars. The diesel engine by itself could not pull the freight without the productivity of the electric motor's superior torque at lower rpm. The current crop of hybrid cars can't pull much, but the idea of locomotives on tires is more important that the small task of taking the hybrid car concept and scaling it to the size of a taxi cab, a school bus or an 18-wheeler. There are hybrid buses being tested in California. From a historical point of view, the feared Panzer tank of World War II was a hybrid vehicle.

The Prius Panzer Car

What really makes me giddy about my hybrid car is not only realizing that I am driving a powerful vehicle but also that the distribution of power between multiple motors (one gas and one electric) has another big advantage over a one motor configuration. The hybrid car will not overhead in traffic. Not long ago, I was crossing the Whitestone Bridge in Queens, NY during the morning rush hour. Just after arriving past the point of no exit from the bridge lanes, a truck overturned blocking all 4 lanes. Pretty soon I saw seven news helicopters circling the scene like carrion. For two hours I listened to the anchormen tell the radio audience to avoid the bridge. However, every time I advanced a few inches and stopped my hybrid car, the gasoline engine turned off. I could not burn fuel needlessly in my car but as soon as I stepped on the gas, both the electric motor and the gas engine sprang to life. The engine can't overheat if it is off.

One of the unexpected amusing things about the hybrid is that you can't rev the engine. Gone is my capacity to stop at the light next of a Porsche and race my engine to give a takeoff challenge. I have been told that the Prius is faster than a Porsche if the race begins at 30 and ends at 60mph. I guess I'll never find out. While in "Neutral" in a hybrid, pushing the gas produces no sound and no reaction at all. In "Drive," pushing the gas gets you going with either electric only or both gas and electric, depending on your take off speed. If engine noise is really about impressing the blonde in the little red car in the next land, the Prius is not for you. In a hybrid car, the engine quickly goes to a constant RPM, which matches the requirements of the electric motor, the desired speed and the environmental goals of the car. Those goals include 70% less greenhouse gas escaping into our environment.

The car's computers adjust the opening of the valves to limit pollution and maximize efficiency. The productivity of the power distribution between motor, wheel and engine is important to a driving experience to fall in love with.

Secret Weapon

Quiet is the secret weapon of the hybrid car in the battle for the great driving experience. It is the one element that makes this type of car superior to gasoline only cars and fun to drive. Yes, I did say superior and fun, not almost as good or will do. It is superior now. Quiet performance is central to raising the bar of satisfaction with the chore of driving. There has not been a quieter car than the Toyota Prius since the Rolls advertising that you could only hear the clock tick. You can't even hear the digital clock tick in the Prius. The quiet of the hybrid starts when you turn the key. The cranking of the started motor always reminds me of the yelping of an untrained terrier. In a hybrid, there is no cranking noise. Turn the key and the ready signal appears on the dashboard. The next great quiet space is accelerating from first to drive. There is no high-pitched noise of first great to be followed the lower sound or send and the final purr of third gear. In my hybrid, there is a continuously variable speed transmission, which makes no audible protests about changing gears and does not send you back into a transmission spasm.

I have another confession to make about the quiet of the Prius that will send shivery down the spines of American shock jocks and media moguls. I love the quiet of the drive so much that I don't want to listen to the radio, or the tape or CD. I just want to listen to my own thoughts for my two-hour commute. The tension of work melts way in my quiet little egg.

Miles per Gallon

Somewhere on the flatlands of Michigan, there is a guy who makes his living establishing the gas mileage of American cars. He is a professional driver who I have named Sandpaper Sam. I imagine that he sand papers the bottom of his right foot just before he enters each of the highly tuned gems of the auto industry. The cars run on a perfectly flat track at a constant speed until enough data is collected to proudly send to some doe eyed federal bureaucrat and to the people who print in big window stickers, showing the EPA ratings for city and highway driving. My fantasy test driver is no more real than those big numbers printed on the car sticker.

Miles per gallon in all cars, including the Prius, is as dependent on the driving environment and the driver as it is on the technology putting energy into the drive shaft. Most people do the math of gas mileage once in a while or when on a long trip but soon tire of the math or get used to paying an average amount of money for gas.

The hybrid Toyota does much better at measuring mileage and even trains the driver to do better. A dashboard readout reports your gas mileage to you every 2 seconds on a graph like touch screen. The screen is located between the driver and passenger seats and has multiple functions. The lure of this device is kind of like a video game and a biofeedback device for the efficient driver. In case you're wondering about the safety of the video game like measuring tool on the dash, I judge it safe. It's like watching a tachometer in order to decide when to go into another gear.

Foot Training

One of the fun things about hybrid driving is to know that you can be as good at manipulating the mileage as my imaginary friend Sand Paper Sam. The first two-hour commute with the Prius along the curvaceous and hilly Taconic Parkway in New York State yielded 38.7 miles per gallon for the entire trip. This was far below the hype of 46 highway and 52 city that Toyota has on the window sticker. At times, however, the meter would jump to 100 miles per gallon. The light upstairs went off. At almost every speed, I was getting less than 25 miles per gallon or up to 100 miles per gallon. The difference was the geography and how I was reacting to it with my foot. My tendency was to accelerate when going up hill and to keep my foot at the same position going down hill. If I was willing to give up two or three miles per hour of speed, my mileage stayed at 50 miles per gallon while still going 65 or 70 miles per hour. Down hill is a different story. If I were doing 70 just at the crest of the hill and eased up on the gas or just tapped the gas frequently, I would get to and stay at 100 miles per gallon for the time of the downhill travel and remain at 70 miles per hour speed. In some strange way I was regaining the feel of the road that is always talked about with great cars.

It's not a revolutionary thought that you can get good mileage going down hill if you coast. However, the hybrid institutionalizes the coast and makes it the most productive use of energy at any speed. As soon as you take your foot off the gas or even just let up on the gas, the wheels start generating power to the battery. If you remember to lift your foot going down hill and keep a steady foot up hill instead of accelerating, you get a large gain in efficiency without lowering your speed. By using what I call the hybrid car driving technique, I now average 51.4 miles per gallon on my way home. However, I have never done better than 41 miles per gallon in the city or 45 miles per gallon on my reverse commute from home to work.

The reasons for a difference between my homeward route mileage and my reverse commute relates to speed. On the hilly highway, I usually do about 60 but on the straighter, flatter commute to work, I go 70 to 75 for a sustained period because there is little traffic at 6am. No matter what drive technology you use, slow down and you will save money. Don't think a hill means step on the gas. If all cars had a read out that monitored your miles per gallon IQ, we could really make a sheik scream. Don't expect American car companies to install gas monitoring devices anything soon. In myth opinion, it's too easy to persuade Congress to delay efficiency ratings of the American fleet.

My Toyota Prius did not come with cruise control. I guess the engineering on the cruise control did not catch up with the manufacturing run of the 12,000 cars meant for the American market in 2001. Since mileage monitoring is possible, it is feasible to envision a type of cruise control that would allow the driver to pick the miles per gallon instead of the just the speed so that he could give up a few miles per hour on a hill to get the benefits of higher miles per gallon, matter what the drive train technology.

George Carlin has said in his comedy routine," Everyone who drives faster than me is an idiot and everyone who drives slower is a moron." That commend has a special meaning for a hybrid car driver. You can do anything to accomplish high mileage when no one is near you on the highway, but when someone is in a car or a 18 wheeler is just behind you, don't be an idiot or a moron. You want to drive at the speed of traffic.

Gallons Per Mile

The quest for more miles per gallon hits the American driving public every time the price of a gallon gets close to $2.00, but how many are thinking of gallons per mile. How many gallons of gas are we burning while stopped at red lights, bus stops and tollbooths. How many clouds of greenhouse gas are we creating for the privilege of keeping those engines running all the time? Perhaps the reason the Prius does not register the 52 miles per gallon in the city is that the monitor gages do not measure the gasoline saved when the engine is not running.

There is another gasoline factor that I never see mentioned in the "mags" or even the on line "zines". The amount of money I save by driving a hybrid is not only how I teach myself to drive but how much I ante up for gas. If gas prices are low, the difference between owning a hybrid or a SUV is just a few bucks a week. However, owning a car that goes over 400 miles between fillings is a strategic advantage to the hybrid driver. First, you can pick the best gas station for price or service without worrying so much if you will make it. In times of high prices, you have the most flexibility in finding a good deal. If you can find a good deal you can try every place between Manhattan and Pittsburgh before you really need to fill up. In the argument about how fast you can get somewhere, the hybrid owner can ask the Corvette guy, how many pit stops did he make on that long trip. The hybrid is the turtle that keeps going while the gas hare stops to fill up every 200 miles or less.

The ability to start and stop the engine when it is not needed to power the wheels is the most innovative automobile technology to hit the streets in forty years. A Ford engineer told my once that drivers would not get used to the quiet of the engine not running at traffic signals or in other situations. It took about two days for me to get used to the ergonomics of the engine turning off. My passengers say "wow." The only ones with a problem seem to be car wash attendants who insist the car has stalled.

Gallons per mile measure, through the ability to stop the engine, are an important part of the value proposition of the Toyota hybrid and the environmental benefits as well. The ability to stop the start the engine upon the push of the gas pedal is not about hybrid drive trains and mush as it is about computer controlled cars. Toyota also had to give up hydraulic power steering for an electronic power steering that is excellent in turning radius. Toyota's hybrid car represents the next generation in computer control in cars. It has several different computers on board and 4 local area networks to control windows and other devices. Computers sense important things about the way your are driving and the road and make split second decisions about whether the engine should be on or off, whether the motor should power the wheels or the wheels should power the battery. The common wisdom of power has to shift from gas to electric and from mechanical linkage to electronic decision-making if we are to have a national debate about transportation.

Mechanic to Technician

In the year that I have owned my hybrid, there have been no mechanical failures but if the industry goes toward hybrid and low emission vehicles we will have to rethink the way we repair cars and train mechanics. Instead of an auto mechanic, we will need an auto technician to service the new generations of all electric and hybrid cars that use advanced technology. I don't think even Toyota is ready for that change and I know the current generation of mechanics is not ready. A jeweler once said to me sadly that he used to be a watchmaker, but now he was only a battery replacer. The emergence of the electronic car, will affect the cars will be serviced and the kind complexity they represent.

Complexity is a major issue with cars in general and hybrids in particular. A car with two engines and generators at each wheel is more complex than the "54 Nash of my youth. But complexity in the electronic car world is simplified by being made up of cheap parts that are never repaired and fail infrequently. Parts are swapped, just as they are on a PC.

Electronic complexity leads to mechanical simplicity. Toyota offers a transmission with 14 moving parts instead of 300 moving parts in a gas only car. The PC controller that makes all the displays digital and makes the engine turn on and off and tells the wheels when to power up the battery is sophisticated without being complex. We have to stop thinking of the car as the perfectly oiled machine and start thinking about it as the perfectly programmed machine. If the programmer machine is burned in for 100 hours, it will run for 1- or 15 years without the hitch. That represents reliability beyond what mechanical cars can deliver today. All of that said, the current PC driven hybrid, presents a single point of failure that keeps everything running.

Reliability of a car is also a function of stress. The less stress, the longer the mechanical parts will last. In the hybrid, the electronic components that can best tolerate heat take the stress. The batteries, without moving parts heat up to the point of needing vents behind the second seats and a ceramic rear window. The engine, gets to an optimum RPM and stays their like a good locomotive engine. I am expecting that the electronics will help to preserve the mechanical. The whole drive train is under an 80k mile warrantee. So long as you are not pulling the family boat, the car should be very reliable. Perhaps because of the heat from the electronic portion of the car, the Prius warms up the interior of the car faster than any car I have owned. I love the creature comfort.

Hybrid Balance

Balance is a tern often abused in car magazines to represent good suspensions buy in most gas cars there is really little balance. SUVs roll over like a trained dog during emergencies. Front wheel cars have all the we ight in the front. My hybrid has 110 pounds of batteries in the back and the small transmission, engine and motor in the front. This leads to some balance of weight in snow and ice. The independent suspension on all wheels give my car pretty good balance in the traditional sense being able to turn and do emergency maneuvers.

Toyota Prius Creature Comforts

A Prius is not "Your father's Oldsmobile." Your legs don't stretch out like in a 1950s Olds 98 but it's not bad for legroom. Legroom is about the same as a Camry or Corolla. However, the bug shaped body is actually good for headroom. It's a five-passenger car but don't take five people to the other coast. If you haul five, make sure they work out. You are limited to 800 pounds of body in the seats. For the commuter who weights less than 800 pounds, it is perfect. The front seats are very comfortable for a two-hour commute.

Other creature comforts are fabulous. The Prius heats up faster than any car I have had. The air conditioner also works well and does not reduce mileage by much. Number one on my top ten creature comfort list is the radio. A touch screen centered in the dash controls the radio, tape and CD player. The touch screen is much safer to use than the tiny buttons on most car radios. When I don't want the quiet of my little egg, I can blast my entertainment center by touching well-placed buttons on each side of the touch screen. There is even a button to scan for traffic news. However, I have not yet found a station that transmits such a traffic message.

Return on Investment

The disappointing thing about buying a hybrid in 2001 is that the return on investment is still kind of long at about 10 years. A gas car about the same size and design as the Prius is about $5000 less expensive. It will take ten years to save $5,000 from the savings on gas assuming a per gallon charge of $2.00. The $5,000 in extra equipment will pay for itself in 10 years if you get 40 miles per gallon for all that time.

This is where the government helps to bring this technology to the public. In 2002 the federal government gives a $2000 reduction in your taxes for owning a hybrid car and the state of New York also gives about $2000 off your taxes. It's kind of like being a rich farmer being paid to not grow greenhouse gases on planet Earth. I like it. Doing the right thing does not have to be a sacrifice and being in love with hybrid cars means that I can be in love with driving and still do good.

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