Friday, August 11, 2006

Hybrid Vigour

The Driving section of today's Ottawa Citizen carries yet another puff-piece on hybrid vehicles from Toyota, Honda and Toyota again (that's Lexus to those who insist on the ridiculous badge-engineering that pervades the North American auto market).

I am all in favour of green cars, and anything that reduces fuel consumption is fine by me, especially as I drive well over 60,000 km a year. However, I am still immensely frustrated by both Canadian and US government policies on emissions regulation and alternative fuels.

The hybrid car is still a relatively new technology. It's expensive to build and to buy (even though they are often loss-leaders for the manufacturers). Real-world hybrid fuel consumption often exceeds the published figures by a long way and in some cases is only marginally better than the regular gas model of the same car.

By contrast, in Europe, the self-same manufacturers are already selling fleets of cars that offer 30% less carbon emissions with little or no sacrifice in performance. The modern diesel engines used in today's Chrysler, Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, GM and Ford cars are in most cases superior to their gasoline counterparts in all metrics. Diesel cars can pull heavy trailers - try doing that with a Civic hybrid. They are now as quiet, as refined and as fast if not faster than gasoline equivalents.

Given our taste on this side of the Atlantic for larger luxury cars, SUVs and trucks, the potential CO2 emissions reductions are even bigger here than in Europe.

Chrysler and Jeep manufacture diesel models in the USA, and send them over to Europe. But we can't buy them here.

The reason is that North American emissions regulations pre-date awareness of global warming. They are all about smog reduction. The emphasis is on nitrogen, sulphur, etc. rather than CO2 emissions. Now, nobody wants to see more, or worse smog. But I can't help feeling that turning our backs on a readily available, accessible, affordable and above all quick way of reducing automotive emissions of greenhouse gas by 30% is a little shortsighted.

Diesel isn't perfect, and it needs work to resolve those pollution and smog issues - which is ongoing. But it's a heck of a lot cheaper to implement than the hybrid, and it's here right now and could be in the dealerships tomorrow across most of the model ranges of cars sold in this country. Wouldn't it make sense to let that 30% cut in CO2 emissions start to happen now and give the manufacturers 5 or 10 years to solve the other emissions problems with diesel?