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Friday, March 21, 2008

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford would have loved the new hybrid cars

By the luck of the Irish from the Russell clan on my dearly departed grandmother’s side, Hertz issued me a Toyota Prius last weekend for my Spring break in Florida (commencing on the three-day Saint Paddy’s Day weekend). This innovative hybrid vehicle drove like a dream from Miami to our lodging in Fort Myers Beach – averaging over 50 miles per gallon of gasoline. At low speeds it evidently runs on battery, because it made so little noise that we could hear the Little Blue Herons cackling along the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge drive on nearby Sanibel Island.

In Fort Myers, my wife and I visited the Edison Winter Estate where, with funding from Ford and Harvey Firestone, the elderly inventor Thomas Edison developed a substitute for rubber made from Goldenrod after abandoning the Banyon tree as a source of latex. (The one pictured with the statue of the great inventor has grown to enormous proportions.) As noted on this timeline history of electric cars, Edison originally had greater aspirations for automobile technology, but he never could achieve the level of battery technology needed to make electric cars economically feasible.

The idea of combining battery and engine power is a stroke of genius, in my opinion, and the niftiest touch may be the regenerative braking that recoups power during stopping. However, I wonder about the durability of hybrid cars, especially their battery. I hope they last longer than the ones in laptop computers, cell phones and other portable electrical devices. Furthermore, I have had many a car battery die in the dead of a Minnesota winter when temperatures fall far below zero F. So, although I’ve enjoyed tooling around Florida in my rented Prius, I remain skeptical (but hopeful!) about its long-term viability.


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