Review of the Hybrid Flexcar

I experimented with two new technologies Thursday afternoon, one social and

one automotive. First, the automotive: specifically the Honda Hybrid. The

term “hybrid” for a car means, as of 2003, a gasoline-powered car with a

battery and electric transmission tacked on top. All of the energy comes,

ultimately, from gasoline; you never plug the car in. Instead, the battery

system acts as a buffer. By adding juice when accelerating or going up

hills, the battery allows the gasoline engine to remain at a lower speed,

and thus to stay more efficient and less polluting. When you hit the

brakes, the electric motors turn into generators, siphoning power from your

forward momentum back into electricity. And when the car stops, the engine

tops up the battery if needed and then shuts down.

How does it work? The Honda was less peppy than my old Toyota MR2, which

you could take perfectly level through a 90 degree turn onto a cross street

at 25 mph if you knew how to heel-and-toe, but it was substantially more

peppy than, say, a Saturn. Taking off from a stoplight, even with the

engine off, was entirely unstressful and never felt, as it often does in,

say, a Saturn, futile. Overall, more than adequate for pleasurable city

driving, and it had no trouble on the freeway either. The interior quality

was midway between the insubstantiality of a Hyundai Spoope and the modern

Yuppie solidness of a 30K sedan. The front seats were comfortable; though

it has four doors, I glanced at the back seats and they seemed to be closing

in on me so I didn’t look a second time. Most importantly, for people like me with a compulsive need to be both different and better than the average, driving the Hybrid fulfills that need precisely.

And that's because, while still maintaining a fun drive, you know you're moving yourself out of the problem column and closer to the solution.

Automobiles have four main problems: they require petroleum, they destroy the environment, they kill a lot of people, and they promote alienating (sub)urban landscapes. The hybrid solves one and a half of these problems. While it still runs solely on gasoline, it burns that magical fluid so cleanly that it's basically not polluting. And by putting electric technology into a non-masochistic package (unlike the EV1 or earlier Honda Insight) that will actually sell tens of thousands of units, familiarizing consumers and generating real-world trial experience, it's a medium-sized technological step towards true renewable-resource cars. And its quietness arguably leads to a better kind of lethality, a culling of the unobservant who step onto the street without looking both ways. But it still burns plenty of gas - my mileage for 20 miles of freeway/city was 36.3 mpg - and it's still a car, part of that system of individual transport modules whose infrastructure consumes 40 percent of our urban land and leaves you feeling all alone even when surrounded by thousands of other humans.

That last problem can't be addressed with better batteries. So let's talk about a social innovation - the Flexcar. Flexcar does business in four cities, and there are similar companies in other places. Flexcar owns about fifty cars scattered throughout Seattle and the greater metropolitan area, concentrated heavily in Capitol Hill (where I live). Some, not all, are hybrids, and there's a pickup truck and a Miata that cost a little extra. The business model is theoretically win-win: by using cars for more hours of the day, and by consolidating all the gas/repair/insurance/etc overhead, we drivers can use resources much more efficiently and still leave a profit for the company.

The deal is this: you pay $25 to join. When you want a car, you call and reserve one. You walk over to the parking place, use your smart card and PIN to get in, and drive off. Later, you put it back where you found it. You pay $8/hr to do so. You don't pay for insurance, gas, repairs, or anything else. If it gets dirty or runs low on gas, you wash it or fill it with the fleet card, and they pay you a few dollars for your time. If it isn't there when your reservation starts, you take a cab and the guilty party reimburses you (through the company, so you don't have to hassle them yourself.)

So Thursday, I bicycled to work in the morning, called to reserve the car in the adjacent parking lot, walked over at 12:30, and drove off to my martial arts class across the lake. I returned the car at 2:30, just when I said I would. Compared to the bicycle/bus combination, it cost me $12 more and saved me about an hour. Will I do it twice a week? No, too pricey, especially for a two-hour class where I pay $8 for it to sit in a parking lot. But as an extra option - for last-minute errands, for when it's raining and I don't feel soaking in spandex, or for when I want to know that I'm burning slightly less gasoline than anybody else with a measurable 0-to-60 - and burning negative gasoline for the 60-to-0 part - I think it may work out well.