New Electric Car Helps Save Money at Gas Pump

Yolanda Perdomo- At first glance, this red two-door, two-seater car looks like any other compact on the road. But this car is partially powered by electricity. And while electric cars have been around since the 70's, the Honda Insight doesn't need to be plugged into a wall to be recharged. It uses a gasoline powered combustion engine assisted by an electric cell that recharges itself every time you brake. Michael Tebo with American Honda says the gas-electric hybrid uses what is known as an integrated motor assist system.

Michael Tebo- So its got a very small one-liter 3-cylinder gasoline engine. That's the primary means of propulsion. And then that's a 67-horsepower gasoline engine. And then with the battery pack, you get an equivalent of 73-horsepower. So, the batteries assist you in acceleration.

YP- The Honda Insight, along with Toyota's Prius, are the two latest ventures in alternative fuel vehicles. Both cars, currently in limited production, are priced between $18,000-$20,000. Tebo says they're being marketed to a specific group of consumers - those who are almost split on being concerned with the environment and getting in on the latest car technology.

MT- In terms of gas money, if you're a teenager or college student, not much gas money required. The second buyer profile is a second of third family car. So you would have a conventional car or an SUV, and then you would have this car to run errands around town on the weekends. And then the third profile is a baby boomer male, and someone who is very interested in technology.

YP- The Insight got an endorsement from the Sierra Club for using what it calls "green technology." Katie Simmons is an associate representative for the environmental group. She says the Insight, which gets 60 miles to the gallon, and cuts hydrocarbon emissions by 84%, is not polluting the air as much as other cars and SUVs.

Katie Simmons- Numerous polls have shown that Americans are willing to pay several hundred dollars more for a car if they will make that up and then some in fuel saving costs. So this car needs to go to the pump less. And by combining things like the gasoline engine with the electric motor, and putting low resistance tires and extremely efficient aerodynamics; putting all those things together, it gets great miles per gallon standards.

It just doesn't make sense to consumers in terms of the utility availability nor the economics.

YP- David Cole is the director for the study of automotive transportation at the University of Michigan. He says despite attempts by car makers to use everything from steam to solar power to natural gas, today's consumer may not be ready for a new type of car if it doesn't function the way others do.

David Cole- The advanced technology that we're looking at, whether they're hybrids or fuel cells, it's still not there in terms of both matching the utility expectations of people. Range, speed, acceleration, as well as the economics. And that economic trade-off and that value-cost trade off is ultimately going to determine how successful those alternatives are in our marketplace. If the customers don't go along, these alternatives are going to disappear - no matter how much regulators or legislators want to make them happen.

YP- He adds that today's cars are more fuel efficient than they were decades ago.

DC- We also have to keep in mind that the current engine that has become so reliable and so effective is about 98% cleaner than before we had emission controls. So its not like the dirty smoke belching monster of 40 or 50 years ago.

YP- Cole says it's no accident that the combustion engine has been around for the better part of a hundred years and that is has outlasted the alternative competition. Still Japanese auto makers are rolling out their gas/electric hybrids, and General Motors is planning on introducing an SUV using the same technology. Yolanda Perdomo, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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