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Crossing Over

Local drivers of hybrid cars are testing the future.

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The only emission is a little water vapor — zero pollution. There's plenty of power, too. Some fuel-cell cars in development are doing zero to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. Shell Oil predicts that 50 percent of all new vehicles will be hydrogen-based by 2010 and says it can convert thousands of gas stations to offer hydrogen within two years.

But fuel-cell cars are a long way off — some four to eight years. In the meantime, some Richmond drivers aren't waiting for the future. They're driving away from local dealers in hybrids, which run on an engine powered by gas and electricity.

"The first question everyone asks is, 'Do you have to plug it in?'" says Mark Riblett. "When I tell them it recharges when the brake is applied they are surprised."

Riblett's family bought a new Prius last year, he says, because it's economical and has low air emissions. "It's the first new car we've ever purchased, and we got it because it's a hybrid," he says. "My son, a seventh-grader, has been so influenced he's building a fuel cell for his science project." Neighbors and friends have been impressed too, Riblett says. "I may have helped the car dealers sell a few," he jokes.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have been the first models available, but all the major auto manufacturers are planning to introduce hybrids during the next few seasons [see sidebar].

Drivers say they're attracted by the improved gas mileage — up to 70 miles per gallon — even with engines that provide sufficient power. And some drivers are buying the cars for more philosophical reasons.

"I bought it because I'm a conservationist and it fits my lifestyle," says Prius owner Nancy Alexander, a systems analyst with SunTrust. "I have friends and relatives who bought the car after seeing mine, and even people at gas stations come over and ask questions." Of course she's not stopping at gas stations as much anymore. "I'm getting over 500 miles to the tank, and the tank is only 11 gallons," she says.

J.D. Power and Associates estimates that nationally, hybrid sales will climb from 40,000 this year to 500,000 by 2006. In a survey of 5,200 new-car buyers, Power found that more than 60 percent of them would "definitely" or "strongly" consider buying a hybrid.

In Richmond, the waters are being tested more gradually than in places like Northern Virginia, where dealers sell as many as they can get. One dealer even traded some SUVs with a dealer in Detroit to get more hybrids. A bonus: Single drivers in Northern Virginia can use the HOV lanes if they're driving a hybrid.

That perk was enough for Patricia Bradshaw, a Fredericksburg resident, who bought a $20,000 Honda Civic hybrid in Richmond. She commutes daily to D.C., she says. "I bought it so I could save an hour and a half a day by using the HOV lanes."

Ultimately, the cars we drive will change considerably in the coming years. It's very possible that consumers will buy a base model that starts with a chassis and fuel-cell motor, whose components last for 20 to 30 years. Then customers would choose an interior and exterior style package, upgrading or changing as often as they want. The body panels would pop off and a different configuration and color would be installed. The interior could even be changed as new accessories become available. Now that's an electric idea. S



Phil Bailey is an environmental consultant and freelance writer in Richmond.

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