May 13, 2007
Original column (online subscription required)
The morning of the day I traded in my 2001 Toyota Camry, I filled the gas tank. It cost $47. I didn't intend to buy a hybrid car that cold November day, but I test drove a Toyota Prius and fell instantly in love.
I used to fill the tank of my Camry every two weeks. This got me everywhere I needed to go, unless I took a long trip. The Prius gas tank is smaller than the Camry's tank, but the most I have ever paid for a full tank of gas is $21. It lasts me two weeks.
I did not intend to become a Prius preacher, but here I am. Other car companies make hybrids, too, and everyone I know who drives a hybrid has joined my chorus. The $3-and-rising gas prices last week seemed like a futuristic joke. We old-timers reminisced about our teen years when gas cost 25 cents a gallon and station owners threw in free water glasses.
My editorial board colleague Gary Crooks attended a future-of-energy summit in Redmond, Wash., last week. He learned that the technology to manufacture hybrid cars, as well as cars that use alternative fuels, has evolved well enough to hit the mainstream. Yet this hasn't happened. One of the reasons? These "futuristic" cars have a negative image with too many people.
Some future-thinking advertising types need to do a public service campaign touting the benefits of hybrids and alternative fuel cars. Please feel free to steal any of my ideas for the campaign, including:
The Cool Car Campaign: Find a James Bond type. Put him in a Cary Grant suit and sunglasses and place him behind the wheel of a hybrid. Place a Brazilian model in the passenger seat.
People make assumptions about those of us who drive hybrids. When I casually mentioned that everyone in Seattle seems to drive a Prius, an acquaintance sniffed: "Of course." We aren't all unshaven-armpit, Birkenstock-wearing, organic-food- eating environmental activists (not that there's anything wrong with those who are).
The War Connection Campaign: Show a U.S. Army tank rumbling down the streets of Iraq. Show a Hummer rumbling down the streets of Spokane. A voiceover says: "Separated at birth."
As Crooks reported last week, the oil we Americans depend on is mostly found in "volatile areas of the world." We are in Iraq because of oil. We stay hand-holding friendly with the Saudis because of oil. When those areas rich in oil go nuclear, we're doomed in more than just the energy department.
Weaning ourselves from foreign oil, one vehicle at a time, drives us all into a better future. (This could also be renamed the Guilt Campaign.)
The Hybrid-for-Dummies Campaign: Show animated cartoon characters — Disney's Goofy and Homer from the Simpsons — climbing into a hybrid vehicle and looking befuddled. But after a few easy driving lessons, they roar off in the hybrid.
One of my fears about the Prius was its technology. The key doesn't look like a key. You push a button to start it. The gear shift looks like controls on a Nintendo game. It was intimidating at first, but after a few lessons, I had it wired.
Driving a hybrid feels different, especially at first. It falls eerily silent at stoplights, for instance, because it's on battery power. But you don't have to manually switch between battery power and gasoline, as is commonly thought, and you don't have to plug it in, either.
My Prius has been in the shop for a few days, because a nice man (with insurance) accidentally changed lanes into me. My rental car is a PT Cruiser, a car I always thought was cute and looked fun to drive. We haven't bonded.
The car is cute, but it feels old-fashioned and not because the inside is designed to look that way. When I drive it, I conjure images from documentaries that show black-and-white footage of the first computers. They were as tall as filing cabinets.
For me now, the difference between an all-gasoline engine and a hybrid is the difference between those filing-cabinet computers and a laptop. There's no going back.
End of sermon. I've got to run and pick up my Prius at the repair shop. I'll fill its gas tank, too. I have a $20 bill in my purse. That should just about cover it.