Hybrid cars: the future is today

When I was a very small boy, my parents had on the shelves on their library a few issues of a hybrid, a cross between a book and a magazine called Planète. Of Planète, I remember three things: a sexy James Bond cartoon; the excellent extraterrestrial short story "Comment servir l’homme"; and a drawing of the "car of tomorrow", slender lines, bright colors and a person sitting in the passenger seat, door open upwards and legs stretched, writing a letter on some folding tablet extended from the dash. The rest has blurred into oblivion.

Last week-end, however, as I drove up the Sea to Sky Highway with Marie towards Whistler and its hives, I suddenly realized that "tomorrow" had arrived silently, creeping up from the very bottom of my past until it stood in front of my amazed eyes, proud and true to itself. Sure, cars have been evolving continuously since the Planète days, and technology has slowly turned my drawing into a reality with the appearance of marvels like on-board GPS navigation. But I had never been as impressed by the car industry’s yearly advances as I was this time, driving a hybrid car.

My prior knowledge on the subject, I’ll admit it gladly, was rather fuzzy. I knew that hybrids existed, that they involved electricity, and that they were usually kind of ugly. That’s it. Oh, and the price tag wasn’t that thin, which to me defeats the purpose for the time being.

But on Sunday, I rented a Toyota Prius from Budget at a very reasonable rate and we took it for a spin. When I sat in the car for the first time, my eyes instantly went wide. I was inside a science-fiction story. Picture this: no key, no ignition. Instead, you carry a lock that you fit into the dash when ready to start. Then you press a power button similar to that of a computer and the car comes to life, powering itself and getting ready to roll. Don’t look for a conventional gear shift or lever, it doesn’t exist. But right on the dash you’ll find a smaller lever the size of a mini joystick, with a Neutral stop and 2 spring-loaded positions: Drive and Reverse. The Parking position has been replaced by another dash mounted button that you just push to engage.

So you get going and for a while, the car feels very much like a normal one. But soon you have to stop at a red light, and suddenly the engine stops. "Crap, you think, I’ve stalled." But the light turns green and just to be sure you press the gas pedal. The car moves forward normally and you think you misheard. Then it happens again at the next light. So you start paying attention to the color LCD display that’s mounted on the dash and notice it seems to be showing information about the car’s power and drive.

Soon it becomes apparent that a lot more is going on than you’d thought. As it turns out, the Prius is equipped with a conventional combustion engine AND two AC motor/generators; a highly sophisticated system controls the various elements in order to combine all power sources, save energy, and reduce emissions. But the beauty of it is the way it works: if you slow down or brake, the gas engine’s consumption drops to zero and the electric engine turns into a generator, using what is called regenerating braking to slow the car down and recharge the battery at the same time.

Then come to a full stop. You’ll almost instantly hear the gas engine simply stop. The car becomes silent. Fuel consumption is at zero. Emissions are none. When you get moving again, the initial drive is supplied not by the gas engine but by the electric drive. Great for traffic. But that electric drive packs enough power to supplement that of the gas engine and they combine their efforts if you suddenly need a quick or fast move, as when passing a car.

Do you think that the car sounds different? You’re probably noticing the effect of the drive-by-wire Hybrid Synergy Drive, or Electronically-controlled Continuously Variable Transmission. Sounds too complicated? OK: there are no gears and no mechanical linkage between the driver and the engine. A computer is in charge of communications and silently transmits your orders to the car’s muscles. The gas engine can be designed smaller than average thanks to the help of the motors, and the car has very impressive aerodynamic and friction coefficients.

You’re still driving. The LCD display now becomes clearer. You can follow the colored flow of power on the diagram, as it runs towards the front wheels during acceleration, back to the battery when slowing down or disappears completely at times. The screen is touch-activated and can be switched to trip and economy statistics or audio control. And GPS if installed, I presume.

Very cool toy. But I like gadgets, so is it worth it? Well, the bottom line is this: this Sunday driving my rented Prius, I suddenly felt like I was doing the right thing. For the first time since I began driving vehicles (and that means ahelluva long time, and ahelluva lot of vehicles), I had a sense of pride, a sense of actually having an impact on our efforts to save the planet from the nightmare of fossil fuels. It wasn’t some obscure maneuver, some long-term goal that I hoped my children would benefit, maybe. It was happening in real time: Red light – engine off. Downhill – zero gas consumption, recharging. Traffic – silence and no emissions.

I’m sold. I don’t own a car and living downtown, wouldn’t want one any way. But things are changing fast, and when I’m ready, I now know what I’ll drive. I don’t know what color it will be, or what shape, or brand. I don’t know if it will cost a lot, or less. I don’t know if it will make coffee for me. But there’s one thing I know. It will be smart. It will be clean. It will be a hybrid.