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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Promising Compromise

Air Date: Week of

The Swedish company Volvo is working on a hybrid car that uses both electricity and gasoline. An on-board gas generator will keep re-charging this electric car's battery. Matt Binder reports from Berkeley, California where in 1998, the car is expected to be available.


CURWOOD: Solectria's Sunrise marks a breakthrough in automobile technology, but it'll still have to stop and wait a good while to recharge its batteries. But from the other side of the Atlantic, the Swedish car maker Volvo has announced an electric vehicle that'll go further, by combining an electric motor with an on-board gasoline generator that keeps on charging the batteries. The concept is called a hybrid car, and Volvo hopes it'll appeal to consumers who like the idea of an electric, but who don't want to wait hours to refuel. Volvo plans to put it on the market in California by 1998. We asked reporter Matt Binder in Berkeley to look into it.

(Horns honking; sounds of metal)

BINDER: The Volvo hybrid car is an innovative design. Electric motors drive the wheels and the car will have 850 pounds of nickel cadmium batteries so that the car can run 100 miles on battery power alone. When the batteries are drained, the car can be plugged into any outlet to recharge, or it can keep going by switching on an on-board gasoline generator which will produce enough electricity to recharge the batteries and keep the car running for another 150 miles. When the gas runs out you just fill it up with regular and go on. Bob Austin, the marketing director of Volvo of North America, says the hybrid car is meant to be as similar as possible to a normal car in operation and appearance.

AUSTIN: Any low-emission car of the future really has to operate in very much the way that we're used to using cars today. People are willing to stop every 250 miles or so or 300 miles and fill the tank of their car, which may take 5 minutes. They're not willing to stop every 100 miles and charge their car for 4 hours. So that's really one of the big hangups with electric cars.

BINDER: But the Volvo hybrid itself has some serious hangups. Though it will look on the outside just like a full-sized Volvo 850, it will have less passenger and trunk space, sluggish acceleration, and cost $40,000, or $10,000 more than a normal 850. In addition, the batteries will have to be replaced every 2 or 3 years at a cost of $3,000. Austin admits the hybrid will be a tough sell, but he says Volvo has other goals for the car. First, to get some real world experience with semi-electric cars as it prepares to meet the tough California requirements for totally electric vehicles; and secondly, Volvo hopes to convince the state of California that hybrids would be actually better for the environment than totally electric cars.

AUSTIN: You can make a pretty strong case that a hybrid car can actually even generate its electricity cleaner than many of the coal and oil fired electricity generating plants that we have today. So if you look at the net environmental load, it could be lower with a hybrid car than it could be with a pure battery-operated car.

BINDER: Business analysts are mixed in their assessments of the Volvo hybrid. Conrad McKerren is the Research Director for Progressive Asset Management, a socially-responsible investment company in Oakland. He calls the hybrid car a fascinating idea that should play well with Volvo's wealthy, environmentally-conscious customer base. He says it should also play well with policy makers, because it doesn't depend on any technological breakthroughs or new fuel infrastructures.

McKERREN: It's going to be almost immediately accepted because you're not bucking the institutions that now produce fuel, and you're also promoting, in a way, the utility market, which is going to be the major beneficiary of the electric vehicle. So it's - if successful, I would think it would be warmly received.

BINDER: David Garrity, an auto industry analyst for Smith, Barney Inc. in New York, is more skeptical. He says because of its higher cost and lower performance, the Volvo hybrid won't be a big seller unless the government provides subsidies.

GARRITY: Some kind of financial incentive, whether it's in the California government or whether it's from other, from some other regulatory body perhaps, may very well be necessary. Otherwise, the California regulators are going to have ended up mandating that the manufacturers build products that can't be sold.

(Cash register at a supermarket. Women's voice: "One oh one sixty eight, please.")

BINDER: I'm now standing in the lobby of Whole Foods, a huge, natural foods supermarket here in Berkeley with lots of Volvos in the parking lot. Let's see if I can find someone here who'd buy a Volvo hybrid car for 40-thousand bucks.

BINDER: Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a question? Would you buy a car from Volvo in 1998 that will run on either gasoline or electricity? It'll have zero emissions running on electricity, low emissions running on gas. But it'll cost $10,000 more than a normal Volvo?

MAN #1: Actually I drive a Volvo, and I've been waiting and hoping that it'll hold out until somebody comes up with an electric car that I can buy. So - would I be willing to pay more? If I had the money I probably would be.

MAN #2: I happen to like Volvo; it's a great car. I definitely would do it. But the Americans should have done it about 15, 20 years ago. They had the technology to do it.

BINDER: So you think there's a lot of people that would buy such a car?

MAN #2: No, I don't. I think there are a lot of people in Berkeley who would buy such a car, but I would say if you went 10 miles in any direction that virtually no one would buy such a car.

WOMAN #1: No. Not yet, not until they came down in price.

BINDER: Do you think that anyone would buy it?

WOMAN #1: Oh yeah, I'm sure people would buy it.

MAN #3: I created Spirulina in the United States. That was a product and a technology I personally founded.

BINDER: I've tried Spirulina, and if you can sell Spirulina to the American people I would think you'd be the perfect one to give Volvo some advice on how to sell their hybrid car for an extra $10,000.

MAN #3: My advice to them would be straightforward, you know. Magnify the excitement and the imagination of what this product is a symbol of. A different world in which there's sane ecological resolution and many of the threats that depress us today are vanished. They're gone; it's a world of new possibilities.

BINDER: Volvo plans to start selling its hybrid car in California in 1998. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in Berkeley.



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