Modern electric hybrid vehicles have been sold in the United States for more than a decade.
Honda's two-door Insight hit the U.S. market in 1999, and Toyota marketed its first hybrid four-door sedan, the Prius, in 2000. Many other models soon followed, including hybrid trucks and sport utility vehicles.
All the hybrids deliver superior mileage, especially in city driving. Hence they appeal to those drivers eager to save money on gasoline, leave a smaller ecological footprint or demonstrate personal commitment to a greener lifestyle. But are hybrids the best choice for consumers?
These vehicles certainly have some limitations. Many drivers, for example, complain that their performance lags that of conventional vehicles, especially in acceleration. Others suspect that hybrids will not save them much money, even with high gasoline prices, and they are right.
Two examples. A 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid Sedan starts at $27,200; the regular Fusion at $21,900. A 2013 Camry Hybrid Sedan is priced at $26,140 compared with the gasoline version of the base Camry LE at $22,235. Fully electric vehicles are more costly, even counting their federal and state tax credits.
Is paying extra for hybrids or electric cars worth it? At current gas prices, most buyers would not come out ahead. The payback period is about eight years for the Fusion hybrid and 10 years for the Camry - longer than most people keep their vehicles.
But such calculations are misleading. They fail to put any price on the hybrids' significant contribution to improved air quality and their reduction in greenhouse gases through burning less gasoline. Counting these very real and important costs makes the hybrids a better buy.
But the overall environmental impact of hybrids depends on how we produce electricity; this varies across the nation.
For example, the Pacific Northwest relies heavily on clean hydroelectric power whereas the Midwest currently relies on dirty coal-fired power plants. Over time, increased use of renewable energy sources can cut the environmental footprint of hybrids.
For now, each potential buyer ought to consider the place-specific and personal costs and benefits of hybrid or electric vehicles.
There are also larger public-policy issues for governments to consider. The nation's continued reliance on fossil fuels to power vehicles makes it hard to improve urban air quality or combat climate change. Thus, over time, the United States and other nations must develop alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles.
A well-designed national energy policy could be enormously beneficial over the next decade and even more so in the future. Sharp partisan differences are likely to block congressional action in the near term, but the states and the administration can do much independently to diversify our energy sources and improve energy efficiency.
Yes: Ecologically, if not financially
Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.
Michael E. Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org