Tipping point for hybrids?

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      Citizens are finally demanding electricity-powered cars—many years after David Suzuki bought Toyota’s first hybrid.

      As Vancouver's "roving veterinarian", Susan Krakauer sometimes does a lot of driving while making house calls for pets in distress. But Krakauer, who lives in East Vancouver, also happens to be a Buddhist with a keen concern about global warming. She knows that driving contributes to the problem, but she sometimes has no alternative, particularly if she's taking equipment with her to do surgical procedures.

      "It just seems completely factual to me that we are destroying our planet, and we all need to take some personal responsibility about it, so I do my best," Krakauer told the Georgia Straight in an interview at her home.

      To try to do her part for the environment, Krakauer bought a 2006 Honda Insight hybrid car about five months ago. It runs on gasoline and on electricity, travelling 100 kilometres on four litres of gasoline.

      "I wanted to drive something that was more environmentally responsible," Krakauer said. "It's great on gas."

      She recognizes that the car probably cost $4,000 to $5,000 more than a regular vehicle but figures this will eventually be offset by fuel savings. Krakauer is one of a growing number of hybrid drivers in Canada and the United States. Three of this region's most famous residents–singer Sarah McLachlan, Premier Gordon Campbell, and environmentalist David Suzuki–all drive hybrid cars.

      According to company statistics, in the first seven months of 2007, Toyota and Lexus sold 5,651 hybrid vehicles in Canada–more than 30 percent of all Toyota hybrids sold in Canada since the Japanese auto giant introduced the Prius in 2000. J.D. Power and Associates, a California-based consumer-research firm that tracks car-buying habits, issued a news release on August 2 pointing out that hybrid-vehicle sales in the U.S. will increase by 35 percent this year over 2006. The company forecast that hybrid sales will go from 2.3 percent of the light-vehicle market in 2007 to 4.6 percent by 2010.

      But what if J.D. Power and Associates has underestimated the medium-term demand for hybrid cars, which are moving out of showrooms in this region at an impressive pace? Is it possible that hybrid vehicles are on the verge of reaching the tipping point and becoming, in the words of author Malcolm Gladwell, the next "social epidemic" to transform our society?

      In 2002's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown), Gladwell cited three rules that can lead to massive changes in society. One, "the Law of the Few", says that the efforts of just a few influential people have the potential to exert a monumental impact on large numbers of people. Certainly, McLachlan, Campbell, and Suzuki rank as three of Vancouver's most influential citizens. Suzuki, who bought the first hybrid car in Canada in 2000, and Campbell are also promoting these vehicles, upping the likelihood that their admirers might purchase them.

      Clearly, Gladwell's rules (also, that an epidemic be "sticky" in people's minds, and that it provide a larger context) seem to be relevant to the popular rush to hybrid vehicles. South of the border, Toyota Prius sales rose 86.5 percent in the first seven months of 2007 over the same period in 2006.

      Four of the six best-selling cars in North America–Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Nissan Altima–are now available in hybrid models. (For more information, see sidebar.) Bryon Stremler, manager of advanced technology and powertrain with Toyota Canada, told the Straight in a phone interview that almost 40 percent of Toyota Camry buyers in Canada have chosen the hybrid option this year.

      David Suzuki was a trendsetter when he bought the first Toyota Prius in Canada in 2000, but now these cars are commonly used as taxicabs.

      "This is the best-selling car in North America," he said. "To say we were going to give a hybrid option on that model was significant because we knew this was no longer going to be a hybrid-specific crowd we were going after. This is the mainstream."

      Stremler noted that the term hybrid refers to two separate power systems that come together: a gasoline-powered engine and an electrical system with motors and a high-voltage battery. Toyota also has a regenerative braking system in its hybrids, which captures kinetic energy and uses it to recharge the battery. "Some manufacturers are carrying out what's called a mild hybrid, which basically can be as simple as an idle-off feature, which shuts down the engine at a stoplight," Stremler said. "It doesn't have the intricacy of being able to recoup energy through the braking system."

      It's not uncommon to hop into a hybrid taxi in Greater Vancouver. Government fleets and courier companies, led by Novex Couriers in Vancouver, have also switched to hybrid vehicles. The B.C. government offers a $2,000 sales-tax break on hybrid vehicles. Last March, the federal government announced rebates of up to $2,000 for anyone who buys a new car that requires no more than 6.5 litres of gasoline to travel 100 kilometres or a new light truck that betters 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres.

      Stremler acknowledged that high gas prices and government incentives are significant factors driving the increase in sales. But he also said that environmental issues are important to consumers. Hybrids generally achieve better fuel efficiency than most vehicles, and they are significantly lower in greenhouse-gas emissions.

      "Certainly, climate change is top of mind for Canadians, and they take this into account when making life decisions, including decisions about buying a car," he said.

      Vancouver park commissioner Al De Genova told the Straight that he has bought two Lexus hybrid cars–one for him and one for his wife. He said that when his car is powered by electricity, it's so quiet that he has to honk the horn to warn pedestrians whenever he leaves an underground parkade.

      De Genova supported the park board's promotion of energy-efficient vehicles. He said that this month, General Motors contributed $10,000 to the Vancouver park board in return for promoting its new Concept Chevy Volt electric-powered car at Kitsilano Beach. It's powered by lithium-ion batteries charged through a common household plug. A gasoline-powered engine creates additional electricity to extend its range beyond 64 kilometres.

      "They had a world-renowned sand sculptor come out," De Genova said. "They carved the Volt car out of sand. I didn't mind the commercialization that much."

      He added that he has been approached by Jim Pattison Lexus Northshore to appear in a promotion of its luxury hybrid car in a Toyota Canada magazine. "I want to be the first commissioner to say you don't have to sacrifice quality for the environment," De Genova said.

      In 2004, B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, reported that air pollution in B.C. caused between 140 and 400 premature deaths, 700 to 2,100 hospital visits, and between 900 and 2,750 trips to emergency rooms every year. According to an August 2006 David Suzuki Foundation report, more than 2.7 million Canadians have asthma, including one in eight children. The report suggested that reducing exposure to outdoor air pollution would limit the health impacts of asthma.

      There still aren't nearly enough hybrid cars on the road to make a significant difference in the region's air quality. In fact, if people drove 30 percent less, that would have a far greater impact on air pollution than all the hybrids put together. But it's also clear that the hybrid revolution has begun in earnest in Greater Vancouver. And if this is the tipping point for all of North America, it could eventually lead to dramatic changes in air quality, which would mean a lot fewer kids and seniors would go to the hospital suffering respiratory problems.