Winner for Best Gaseous Emissions

Hybrids aren't the only cars that deserve an Oscar category


Politicians really want you to buy a hybrid car. They'll give you tax breaks if you do; some cities will give you free parking, and the biggest fad is granting hybrids access to carpool lanes, even if there is only one person in the car. In fact, a new bill before Congress would allow any state to give this privilege to hybrid drivers. But all these public displays of hybrid affection are unnecessary—especially because Oscar night is nearly upon us.

Oscar night is also Leo's night, for, this time around, Leonardo DiCaprio is not just a club-hopping heartthrob milking the success of last decade's blockbuster. He is once again front and center, the top target for paparazzi, and a good bet to nab the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Aviator. He also happens to be the very proud owner of a hybrid car.

The sight of one hunky celebrity rolling up to the red carpet in a Toyota Prius is, no doubt, more powerful than a dozen Congressmen grinning for cameras at a bill signing ceremony. And even those who are unmoved by Leo's celebrity wallop will likely get weak kneed after they see other flashy hybrid owners like Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton. (Eavesdropping cameras recently "caught" Pitt and Norton comparing notes on hybrid gas mileage.)

As celebs look for new ways to display their caring side, the hybrid car might become our decade's version of the AIDS ribbon. And, of course, all these celebrity endorsements are hybrid manufacturers' equivalent of Oscar Gold. Come Monday, dealerships that sell hybrids should plan on opening early and staying late. Consumers should prepare themselves for shortages and waiting lists.

Actually, dealerships and consumers have already been beset by shortages and waiting lists. Over the past five years hybrid sales have shot up nearly 90 percent, and auto manufactures reacted swiftly, offering more and more hybrid models. Even without special carpool privileges, Americans love hybrids. And why not?

Hybrid owners save money at the pump. Thanks to recent improvements hybrid performance is on par with regular cars, and unlike the first generation of hybrids, many of today's models don't skimp on roominess. And then there are the intangibles.

Hybrid owners feed good about helping the environment, and unlike some anonymous act of enviro-consciousness, the hybrid owner's green credentials are always in pubic view. In fact, there will probably always be a market for hybrids that look like hybrids. Marketing consultant Art Spinella notes that hybrid buyers in focus groups fixate on the Prius "because of its unique design and will candidly admit that they expect to receive some acclaim from friends, relatives, co-workers for their concern about the environment and/or fuel efficiency."

So if Americans are already in love with hybrids, why the political push for special perks? It might be as simple as politicos not wanting to get left out of the hybrid love-a-thon. They love hybrids too, and they want voters to know that.

But when consumers turn hybrid love into action, sales go up. What happens when politicos act on their hybrid love? Could it actually make things worse? It did in Virginia.

Last year the state opened carpool lanes to single occupant hybrids, and recently a task force of transportation officials found that the influx of hybrids clogged the carpool lanes, leaving them nearly as congested as the regular lanes. As hybrids continue to grow in popularity, officials expect the problem to get even worse.

Here hybrids may have ironically hobbled environmental improvement. Cars stuck in traffic burn more fuel and emit more emissions than those driving in free flow conditions. And if the presence of hybrids is the tipping point that drags a lane into gridlock, their eco-friendliness is beside the point. As long as most of the cars on the road are gas burners, the result will be more pollution and more gas wasted.

A single law managed to compromise hybrids' environmental benefits, increase gridlock, and decrease the incentive to carpool. No wonder the task force urged lawmakers to undo the legislation.

Undaunted, states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, Georgia and California are anxious to follow Virginia's lead. In the Golden State, half of the carpool lanes are already at or near capacity, but leaders insist the plan won't increase congestion. If hybrids do end up clogging carpool lanes, just end the policy, right? That's easier said than done, for interest groups, once given a special privilege, tend to fight hard to hold onto it. When lowered vehicle occupancy requirements for carpool lanes (for example, from HOV3 to HOV2) bring gridlock, officials have a tough time bringing back the old standard because all those 2-person carpoolers rather like the new policy.

Simply crafting a more restrictive policy from the get-go invites different troubles. Unlike Virginia's more open-ended approach, California lawmakers would grant carpool access only to the most fuel-efficient hybrids—those that get at least 45 mpg.

Problem solved. Or is it?

Hybrids' actual mileage is often lower than advertised. Consider Honda's Civic hybrid. The EPA says it gets 48 mpg. But when Consumer Reports tested it in real world driving conditions it got only 36 mpg. Would the Civic hybrid make the cut?

More restrictions also mean more headaches for law enforcement. The more straightforward Virginia law would seem to be easier to enforce, yet even there cops have had to spend more time grabbing carpool violators—not exactly their most important duty. Frustrated officials even turned to the rather desperate move of sticking multiple offenders with $1,000 fines.

California officials hope slapping stickers on "authorized" hybrids will decrease enforcement hassles. But since the new wave of hybrids look identical to non-hybrids, those stickers had better be pretty big. Otherwise, there will be plenty of officers squinting their way through their patrols.

We should step back and reexamine our hybrid love. Hybrids are indeed lovable, but regular cars deserve love, too. It's like those who fixate on the Oscar-winning actor and forget about the other nominees whose performances, though perhaps not quite as great, were still good. Regular cars might not be environmental superstars like hybrids, but many have achieved regular, old stardom.

There is, for example, only about seven miles-per-gallon difference between the hybrid and the regular Civic. Today's cars are about 98 percent cleaner than those built during the 1960s, and dozens of popular car models have earned the PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) designation, which means that compared to most cars they emit at least 90 percent less hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. Joe Nordbeck, a U.C. Riverside environmental researcher, has tested PZEVs for years. He says their emission levels are "almost below detection level."

Spreading the love more evenly wouldn't just give credit where credit is due, it would also produce greater environmental progress. Most pollution comes not from new cars, most of which are already extremely clean, but from a small percentage of older, dirtier cars often called "gross" polluters.

The meatiest air quality improvements will come from targeting these gross polluters (perhaps with remote sensing technology), not from convincing new car drivers to become new hybrid car drivers. Even the natural process of fleet turnover, in which drivers trade old cars for new, will clean the air more thoroughly than lavishing hybrid owners with special perks.

And air quality was improving even before hybrids. The EPA notes that during recent decades—though vehicle miles traveled increased 155 percent—pollution has been cut nearly in half. And since we're just now beginning to feel the effects of more stringent air quality standards and better technology, the air we breathe in the future will be even cleaner.

Americans are right to love their hybrids. Let's just hope their political leaders can resist messing with a good thing. And if lawmakers simply cannot stop themselves from doing something to boost hybrid sales, they should consider more productive activities—like hosting an Oscar party.