|You know the times are a-changing when the Terminator announces he will convert one of his five three-ton Humvees to a hybrid gas/electric vehicle.
But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the only environmentally sensitive driver on the road. Dickinsonians from the nation’s greenest state—California—to the truck mecca of central Pennsylvania are paying more than lip service to their pledge to reduce pollution and conserve gasoline.
Paul Hedli, father of Laura ’08, actually has had hybrids—cars powered by gas engines and electric motors—on his mind since the first Earth Day in 1970. “They were talking about hybrid cars back then,” says Hedli.
“I’m sort of a tree hugger,” confesses the Clinton, N.J., environmental engineer who traded his Buick LeSabre for a hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape, in October.
Seeing fuel prices ratchet up this fall gave him an added incentive to put his money where his conscience was. A $2,500 federal tax break sweetened the deal and hastened his purchase.
“I thought if you want to get a tax break this year  you need to get it now,” Hedli says. “It’s like having a child on Dec. 31.” Though the cost of the battery added a few thousand dollars to the sticker price over an Escape with a conventional engine, Hedli didn’t blink.
The allure of driving an automobile with a global-positioning system and a panel that displays which engine is powering the car at any given moment drew him to the dealership. “I’m a professional engineer, and it’s high tech. I like being on the cutting edge.”
Eight months after buying the six-cylinder Escape, which looks identical to the conventionally powered one, he declares, “It’s been a fun car to drive, and there have been some fuel savings. I’m getting about 29 miles to the gallon.”
He’s found that city stop-and-go driving is more fuel efficient than cruising on the highway, because the electric motor solely runs the SUV in slow traffic or at standstills. The gas engine kicks in at speeds over 25 mph.
“I’m more fond of traffic jams than before, because I’m sitting there and not burning any gas and doing mental calculations about my fuel savings,” says Hedli with a chuckle. Hitting the brakes provides another bonus, regenerating the electric battery.
“If all of us had one of these we would be saving a lot of gasoline,” asserts Hedli. “I recommend hybrids to anybody. I think they will be the mode of transportation in the future.”
Another happy hybrid Escape owner is Pierce Bounds ’71. The college photographer had test-driven a Toyota Prius, the top-selling hybrid but was concerned about having room for his camera equipment and for hauling his daughter and her belongings back and forth to college.
When an Escape landed at a Carlisle dealership in March rather than the usual destinations—New York or California—Bounds rushed to purchase it. A $500 state rebate for going hybrid and the federal tax break he will get next April made amends for the $3,000 extra he paid to have a car with a big battery under the rear cargo area.
It was a move he’s long been anticipating. “I was already attuned to the fact that we are running out of oil, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Amy Farrell, associate professor and chair of American studies, also had the urge to do the right thing. When her husband, John Bloom, nearly flipped their top-heavy Jeep Cherokee on an icy road two winters ago, they decided to get a car they felt was safer for the family—and the environment.
According to Farrell, many people marvel at how a family of four can get by in a compact car like their hybrid Honda Civic. But she doesn’t consider traveling in what is touted as the greenest car on the road any hardship. They’ve just learned to downsize a bit—when they go to the beach, they don’t pack a big umbrella, only necessities.
“As Americans we’ve been sold a bill of goods that bigger is better,” she says. “I actually have a better quality of life now. We have more money to go out to dinner when we get where we’re going,” due to gas savings. Their old SUV got 12 mph; the Civic gets 45. “Between the tax break and the gas savings, it’s more than paid for itself,” Farrell says.
Besides being good for her pocketbook, she feels having the hybrid is good for humanity. “I’m being patriotic, doing things to lessen our dependence on fuels that are finite, which will mean there is less reason to drill in the Arctic or to be at war with other countries over oil.”
Though hybrids are less polluting than conventional cars, they are not the saviors of our green earth, according to campus environmentalists.
“What I would like to see, because I am concerned about global climate change—the most serious environmental threat facing humanity—is a renewable transportation system,” says Michael Heiman, chair and professor of environmental studies. He favors a plug-in electric car that would derive electricity from renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. “Existing hybrid cars could be converted,” he says.
Such cars could be plugged in at night, when the electric grid is operating at the lowest cost and could travel up to 60 miles on one charge. For longer trips, biodiesel fuels made from cornstalks and other discarded agricultural products could supplement, he explains.
But plug-in vehicles raise environmental concerns, too, according to Marcus Key, professor and chair of geology, who discusses sources of electricity generation in his course Energy Resources. Coal—a brown, not green source of energy—is the most common electricity generator.
“Yes, hybrid vehicles are very clean and a good temporary solution, but downwind of the power plant that is generating the electricity that charges the plug-in car, there is more pollution,” Key points out. “We need a cleaner way to make electricity.”
Heiman, whose expertise is energy policy, says the Bush administration plan of promoting hydrogen-driven fuel-cell vehicles is not a viable solution. “Hydrogen fails in every possible way. It’s expensive, and it’s difficult to store and transport.
“Moreover, the hydrogen is only as green as its source,” Heiman adds. “Currently, most of the nation’s hydrogen is derived from natural gas, with the administration favoring coal and even nuclear power through electrolysis as future sources.”
Getting 500 to 600 miles on a tank of gas with her year-old hybrid Civic brings a smile to Kristi Brant’s face. But the regional development officer notes there is one drawback. “I drive slower. It’s a good incentive to go the speed limit because, otherwise, you can see your gas plummet. It takes me longer to get somewhere, so I have to plan accordingly.”
California businessman Adrian Bradford ’59 also noted that going hybrid is “a mixed blessing.” Bradford says he owned the first hybrid in San Francisco—a tiny, underpowered Honda Insight that got up to 69 mpg. After four years he gave it up.
One reason was the potentially costly repairs on the horizon. The other big reason was safety.
“When the world is full of SUVs, and you’re out there with them, it’s just not safe,” says Bradford. “I’m not proposing that everyone go out and get an SUV or a Hummer. People need to drive smaller vehicles.”
When he sold the hybrid he replaced it with … nothing. “I buy tickets on public transit,” he says. “I’m an urban dweller and find the cost of maintaining a car doesn’t make sense. Any time I need a vehicle, I rent one.”
Though he no longer is a car owner, he’s still an advocate for a more fuel-efficient and less-polluting society.
“In California, in order to try to encourage hybrids, our governor added them to the list that qualifies for fast lanes, regardless of the number of persons in a car,” Bradford says. “Our governor also has 20 new hydrogen fuel-cell autos in the state fleet. Only the Terminator knows what they pay for the hydrogen, but he’s trying.” •