Monday, April 15, 2013


As Berkeley goes, so--eventually--goes the nation. As frightening as this may sound to some, it’s a fact borne out by history. Opposing the Vietnam War, spearheading ecological concerns, mandating energy efficient buildings, banning smoking in public places, demanding equal access for the disabled--these causes were all dismissed as “Berkeley radical thinking” in their time. Today, they’ve all long since been integrated into mainstream America. While some might still quibble with one or another aspect of these ideals, in retrospect, most of us would now regard them as honorable and thoroughly American. 

Today there’s another revolution brewing in Berkeley, albeit a much quieter one. No matter where you look, the streets of this small university town are teeming with hybrid vehicles--most of them made by Toyota, with a lesser number from Honda (and very few, I’d point out, made by that blundering straggler, General Motors). 

If Berkeley proves as prescient in this “radical” trend as it has in prior ones, the environmental implications are vast. For one, it signals the beginning of the end for conventional internal-combustion powered vehicles--and many years sooner than auto industry analysts and other in-the-box thinkers would have us believe. Then again, these are the same folks who saw nothing shortsighted about GM cashing in on SUVs while leaving their advanced vehicles program to molder. 

What’s the big deal about hybrids, which, after all, still burn gasoline? It’s this: Conventional cars have huge engines sized to meet peak power demands which typical drivers use perhaps one percent of the time. Hybrids, on the other hand, use a small, high-efficiency gasoline engine to generate electricity onboard. This in turn powers an even more efficient electric motor that moves the car. The gasoline engine provides power for  average cruising, not for peak demand. When extra power is needed, as in climbing a grade or passing, it’s provided  by the batteries or by the gasoline engine, as appropriate. 

Hybrids also have a regenerative braking system that transforms braking energy into electricity instead of wasting it in heat as a normal car does.  The small size and steady running speed of the hybrid’s engine, the regenerative braking system, and other features let hybrids achieve about twice the mileage of conventional cars, while producing a fraction of the pollution. These advantages will only become more pronounced as the cars are refined over time. 

While hybrids have many of the same shortcomings as conventional cars--an inherently inefficient internal combustion engine that burns gasoline and spews pollution, and a relatively friction-laden drive train--they nevertheless represent a huge advance over the clumsy mechanical-drive cars most of us still own, providing an important stepping stone to true zero-emissions vehicles.   

The only bad news is that the American auto industry will likely be at the tail end of this revolution, watching foreign competitors write the conventional car’s epitaph. This is largely thanks to the monumental stupidity, shortsightedness and greed of General Motors executives who, prior to getting such a pasting by the Great Recession, preferred to wallow in the lucrative SUV trough while foreign competitors did their homework. Maybe those GM folks should’ve gotten out of their swanky boardrooms now and then, and taken a drive around Berkeley.

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