Emory Report
June 26, 2006
Volume 58, Number 33


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June 26 , 2006
Of hybrids and hydrangeas

Mary loftus is associate editor of emory magazine, and lives in lilburn with her husband, two kids, a border collie mix, four cats and a cockatiel.

The President drives a hybrid, just like me.

No, not George W. Bush—James W. Wagner. I know this because people have seen him wheeling down N. Decatur in his spiffy silver Toyota Prius, parking in his reserved space at the Administration Building, and hopping back in to drive home to Lullwater.

Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Alexander also drives a Prius, although his is more of a champagne color, according to my sources.

I don’t have a reserved parking space, but I do have a hybrid—a metallic blue 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid that averages 30 miles to the gallon. Not bad for a car that can carry a whole Brownie troop.

Even better than its efficiency and utility is the fact that, for the first time in my motoring life (which historically has found me behind the wheel of a second-hand Toyota hatchback, a stripped-down Altima, and a couple of minivans), I am driving a cool car.

I know this because people point to it in parking lots. A co-worker asked to test-drive it over lunch. A parent at my daughter’s school genuflected in front of it and said, “I am not worthy.” And an alumna’s husband ventured to ask if he could look under its hood while I interviewed his wife.

Hybrid sport utility vehicles are the Lamborghinis of the suburban set, the station wagons of the sustainability brigade, the minivans of the Gaea millennium. I wish that, like VW bugs, they came with built-in bud vases where I could place fresh daisies and hydrangeas.

Hybrids are the way SUV-driving suburbanites say, “Yes, I’ve read all of those alarming articles on global warming, and I’ve seen that lonely polar bear on the one ice flue left in Antarctica, and I’ve thought longitudinally about the seventh-generation principle, and I have switched to energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs in my home just like Laurie (Mrs. Larry) David asked me to.”

And since my Highlander seats seven, counting the little pop-up row in the rear, I can look conscientious without actually sacrificing any convenience.

Extra seats and lower emissions to boot!

Gas-electric hybrids are all about compromise—they save gasoline because they have smaller engines that operate on both gas and electricity stored in a battery, but they don’t need to be plugged in because the motor doubles as a generator.

The superior environmental choice, of course, would be electric cars that operate solely on battery power. But they still need to be plugged in frequently because batteries pack a lot less power per pound than gas; it would take a thousand-pound battery to store as much energy as one gallon of gas.

Hybrids, like the perfect relationship partner, even anticipate their own needs—they draw energy from the battery to accelerate the car, or slow the car down and return energy to the battery. In effect, my hybrid recharges itself every time I brake or even take my foot off the gas.

The best part is that the Highlander Hybrid is rated as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, releasing 80 percent fewer smog-forming emissions into the environment than conventional SUVs.
And now for the ugly truth: Lower emissions are important because I commute nearly 40 miles roundtrip to work every day.

I’m not proud. I’ve seen the bumper stickers that say, “Commuters Go Home.” I’ve experienced Highway 78 during a rainstorm behind a three-car pileup. I’ve exceeded my free cell-phone minutes chatting during traffic jams.

It’s not that I don’t want my job and my home to be in close proximity to one another.

My ideal would be a quaint bungalow in Decatur where I could walk my Border Collie over lunch, hang out at the Brickstore Pub, and have urban backyard chickens, like my friend Allison Adams of the Academic Exchange—who bikes to work on most days.

The benefits of my hybrid, sadly, wilt in comparison.

But I have logistical problems, like a limited budget, a house in the ’burbs, two kids who love their public (read: free) schools, and a husband with an office near Perimeter Mall.

So long Brickstore, hello suburbia. The land of big lawns, finished basements, and Bush-Cheney campaign signs without slashes or sarcastic slogans. This is my current half-acre lot in life.

Car-pooling is out of the question with my flex-time schedule and deadline writing jags.

So, barring a bus (or better yet, a San Francisco-style trolley) that picks me up at my corner and delivers me to a MARTA station, or the early arrival of the Brain Train, I knew I was stuck driving myself to work for a while longer.

With gas hovering near $3 a gallon and my dilapidated minivan cruising past the 100,000-mile mark, I was highly motivated to find a ride to work that was easy on my conscience and my checking account.
I understand that driving is still a bad choice compared to walking, biking or mass transit, and look forward to a day when my regular routine allows for more of the latter, less of the former.
And, if I had momentarily forgotten that my eco-gesture is a relatively tiny one, there’s always my dad, the realist, to remind me.

“I got a hybrid!” I announced to him on the phone a few weeks ago.

“It won’t help,” he replied.

“Oh, come on, it’ll help a little,” I said.

“Nope. Too little, too late. Even if everyone you know got a hybrid. Even if the whole world got hybrids, and cut fossil fuel consumption by half. OK, well, that might help. But only if that happened.”
Still, I love my hybrid.

The way it turns off at stop signs and traffic lights then glides forward with that smooth electric golf cart sound. The nifty little diagram on my dash that shows when energy is flowing from the battery to the engine, or from the engine to the battery. The less frequent trips to the gas station, since I only have to fill up once a week instead of twice. The more frequent requests of, “Can we take your car?”

And I know that one day, when I cross paths with President Wagner on the Clifton Corridor or Vice President Alexander maneuvering out of a parking space by Everybody’s Pizza, we will nod in recognition, one hybrid driver to another.

Even if I am only leasing.