Edmund King: Follow Arnie on the hybrid highway

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If we want a greener future, we'll need education and incentives. Fifty per cent of motorists have never heard of a hybrid car. Most people think of a hybrid as "an offspring of two animals or plants of different species" rather than a car with a combination of a petrol engine with an electric motor.



Most people probably still think hybrids have to be plugged in, as 70 per cent in a recent Honda survey admitted they didn't know how a hybrid worked. Many people don't realise that the driver doesn't have to switch between petrol and electric. Some people still think hybrids are only for tree huggers.

Yet in our RAC Foundation report, Motoring towards 2050, we argue that the hybrid car could be the stepping-stone to the zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Hybrid vehicles will have the effect of bringing forward key vehicle technologies to help the development of fuel-cell vehicles.

Advanced hybrids will deliver a carbon "well-to-wheel" footprint which a fuel-cell vehicle will not outclass, until renewable hydrogen is available. The hybrid will also accustom significant numbers of drivers to the concepts of energy management and electric traction.

By 2050, the hybrid power chain will have been supplanted by the fuel cell, although many believe manufacturers will retain the hybrid for longer. Because of the importance of this technology more should be done to encourage the take-up of hybrids. The foundation welcomed the reduced tax discs for cleaner vehicles announced in the Budget (£30 for the Honda and Toyota hybrids, for example) but still believes greater incentives are required.

Greater encouragement and incentives for the development and take-up of technological solutions such as hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles are required and these financial incentives should be linked to an education and communication programme to encourage eco-driving.

Up until March 2005 owners of new hybrids and other "green" cars could get a £1,000 government Powershift grant set against the purchase of their vehicle. This incentive helped, as sales of greener cars have plummeted since the grant was stopped. Last year in the US owners of new hybrids could get a $2,000 (£1,140) tax credit set against income tax. Next year they will be able to claim up to $3,400 in tax credits. As a result the US hybrid is taking off.

The exemption for hybrid cars from paying the London congestion charge is a real bonus that could save a driver £1,600 per year based on 220 visits. If we get national road pricing there could be differential rates based on vehicle emissions. Some local authorities offer free parking to electric vehicles and perhaps this could be widened to include other green vehicles.

The Government has announced plans for High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on the M62 and M1. All indications point to these lanes being under-used by car-sharers so why not open them up to hybrids, or make them low-carbon vehicle lanes? Highway authorities in California are looking at such exemptions for hybrids for their HOV lanes.

Incentives are important because more needs to be done to close motorists' "attitude-action gap". Motorists have a concern for the environment and the environmental impact of cars but this does not translate into behavioural change. One of the reasons for this is a lack of knowledge or understanding of some of the technological fixes such as hybrid vehicles and a lack of financial incentive to change.

We need clearer clean vehicle information and incentives, price signals, targeting of early-adopters and fleets, and lastly we need to improve the status of low-carbon cars as this helps behavioural change. Americans are now realising that hybrids are not just for "liberals" and even Governor Arnie Schwarzenegger is getting on the hybrid and hydrogen highway.

The writer is executive director of the RAC Foundation

motoring@independent.co.uk

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