Five Years In, A Hybrid Owner Looks Back and Ahead

On April Fools’ Day 2003, I drove a shiny new blue 2003 Toyota Prius off the lot in Novato, California. I did note the irony of the ‘holiday,’ and hoped I would not be proven a fool for purchasing what was then fairly new technology, at least in the U.S. market. Five years later, I have not regretted the choice.

Despite my more than 20 years as a technology journalist (17 years writing about the high tech/Internet industry, 5 ½ years covering clean tech), I have never been much of an ‘early adopter’ of new technology. I still don’t have a PDA, for example, and have not yet yielded to the temptation of the iPhone. So it was a bit of a leap of faith to embrace a hybrid five years ago, when many advised me to wait until the carmakers had ‘worked out the bugs’ — and it was known that Toyota planned a completely-overhauled Prius for the next model year just a few months later. But the lease on my previous car was expiring, and a decision had to be made. Hybrid it was.

It wasn’t easy. I decided that the 15-minute test drive around the dealership area with the saleswoman wasn’t enough. So I headed down to San Francisco Airport and rented a Prius for a day from EV Rentals, the first company to offer hybrid rentals; now most of the major rental companies do, at some locations. My 24-hour test drive won me over. The car had plenty of oomph for getting-on-the-freeway acceleration and driving uphill, and I loved the great gas mileage and the all-electric mode at low speeds and cruising downhill.

I had also considered the Honda Civic hybrid, but didn’t like that it was visually identical to the regular Civic. Call it green vanity, but I actually wanted the one that was immediately recognizable as a hybrid. I wanted to start conversations and help spread the word that you could get 44 miles to a gallon and drastically lower your emissions without significant tradeoffs in comfort or convenience. I have to say, in the first couple of years, I was struck by the number of otherwise well-informed, intelligent friends and colleagues who asked me about the hassle of having to plug it in. No wonder Toyota loudly touted the “no plug-in” factor in its ads. Now, of course, I wish I could plug it in. But more on that below.

Five years later, I still love this car. In my case, Toyota’s reputation for quality has proven true; I’ve had virtually no maintenance problems. I’ve never lacked for power, even in the hilly Bay Area (it’s a tad loud when you have to gun it up a grade, but there’s always plenty of juice). I love driving solo in the carpool lane at rush hour; California is one of several states that allows hybrid drivers (though just those in the Prius, Civic and old Honda Insight) to do that. Cliched as it may sound, I am like those folks in the Prius ads who say they’d buy one again.

It was fun being an early adopter. Five years ago, there were less than 40,000 Priuses on the road in the U.S. (Toyota started selling them here in late 2000). Seeing a fellow Prius driver was an event, worth a wave or nod of acknowledgment. Now there are more than half a million here, and more than a million worldwide. Sure, there are more in eco-centers like San Francisco, but I spot them everywhere I travel around the U.S. In a true tipping point, Prius sales in the U.S. in 2007 exceeded those of the Ford Explorer, the top-selling SUV for more than a decade.

In addition to all the fellow Priuses that have appeared on the roads, so much has changed in the past five years. Lots of good news in the business of clean tech, with the wind, solar and biofuels industries roaring along, venture and other investment dollars pouring in, and mainstream media and politicians paying attention. Toyota, General Motors and others say they’re readying a plug-in hybrid — in my opinion, a real game-changer in clean transportation — for the mass market. There have been some great strides on the public-policy front at the state level, from California’s landmark AB32 greenhouse-gas reduction law to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast. But of course, it’s been woeful inaction and worse at the federal level, as I outlined in a recent column. In five years, we have indeed moved the needle forward on global awareness of the need for strong action toward a cleaner energy mix and a greener world. But many of those actions, like a global carbon cap, have not been realized.

On April Fools’ Day 2013, I’d love to be buying a shiny new blue 2013 plug-in hybrid — and writing about excellent progress toward a clean-tech future at all levels — state, federal, and global.

Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the business section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at wilder@cleanedge.com.

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