Celebrity Hybrid Drivers
The combination of California and hybrid cars is a natural. California's ocean-side location, combined with the surrounding mountains mean that a lot of smog gets trapped over the California coast. For years, the state has been at the forefront of the push for lower emission standards and improved fuel economy. Sitting in LA traffic for only a short while will convince you that less smog is a good thing.
It should come as no surprise then, that celebrities are also at the forefront of the movement toward hybrid vehicles. The list of celebs who own and drive eco-friendly hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles is growing daily. Specialty manufacturers like Tesla and Fisker (and a host of other would-be auto giants have located on the West Coast for a reason, and Californians, including a growing list of celebs, are snapping up the latest in green auto technology.
Highly visible celebrities, including Cameron Diaz, were early adopters of hybrid vehicles. Diaz tools around town in her 2nd generation Toyota Prius and gushes about the vehicle whenever she gets the chance.
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis and filmmaker husband Christopher Guest have also jumped on the eco-bandwagon with both feet. Last summer, Curtis and Guest took delivery of only the second Honda Clarity FCX leased in the United States. As part of Honda's business model, the car is available only for lease and wanna-be drivers must live within a specific distance of a hydrogen refueling station. Curtis and Guest own other hybrid and AFVs as well.
Leonardo DiCaprio drives a hybrid vehicle and loved it so much he bought additional hybrids for his mother, father and step-mother. Bill Maher drove a Toyota Prius for several years before trading it in for his current ride, a Lexus RH 400h. David Duchovny, Rob Reiner, Brad Pitt, Salma Hayek, Prince Charles, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Arquette, Tom Hanks and Will Farrell have also made the switch to eco-friendlier hybrid vehicles.
So are hybrids for real, or do they represent just another celebrity fad? The likelihood that hybrids are a flash in the pan is small. The auto industry has been moving toward more fuel efficient, more ecologically friendly technology for years. The push to reduce carbon emissions is receiving renewed interest as a way to counteract the phenomenon of global warming. States have also recently won the right to impose fuel economy and emissions standards that are more restrictive than federal standards
In the short term, hybrids are being looked at as the most likely way to meet increasingly restrictive emissions and fuel economy standards, not only in the US but also in other parts of the world. While most automakers agree that the eventual fuel-of-choice will be hydrogen, the world is far from having adequate infrastructure to support a hydrogen-based economy.
The automakers must still overcome the production costs associated with hybrids, as well as certain design realities that make significantly increased hybrid fuel economy a major challenge. Hybrid vehicle battery packs are expensive, and the move toward lithium-ion cells means that added safety measures must be put into place. While lithium is a common element, it's not widely available in the quantities needed to make vehicle batteries. In addition, the availability of lithium is a politically charged question. Until questions regarding the availability of lithium are answered, hybrid vehicle batteries will remain expensive and will affect the price of both new vehicles and maintenance on existing hybrids.
The weight of the battery packs is substantial and cannot be overlooked in the design of the vehicle. Additional battery weight has a direct impact on the fuel economy of the vehicle. Reducing the weight of the battery pack currently means reducing its size. Smaller battery packs mean lower fuel economy because the vehicle will rely more heavily on its internal combustion engine. At the same time, increasing the size of the battery pack means that the passenger space is compromised. While the car will be more powerful, the additional battery weight still results in reduced fuel economy and increased cost.
Nonetheless, studies of consumer behavior show that there is a definite consumer mindset that is pre-disposed to purchasing hybrid vehicles. Most consumers say they would purchase a hybrid vehicle if money weren't an object, and this statement seems to be borne out by celebrity auto purchases. Unlike the average person however, most celebrities don't rely on a single vehicle, and may own a large number of conventional and alternative fuel cars. The purchase of a hybrid vehicle may be as much a political statement as it is a real demonstration about concern for the environment.
Concern for the environment is what drives most celebrity hybrid purchases. In contrast, most consumers purchase hybrid vehicles as a direct way to reduce gasoline consumption, and an indirect way to reduce the operating cost of a vehicle. Environmental benefits are only a secondary concern. That concern gives way when the additional cost of the hybrid vehicle is taken into consideration. When the "hybrid premium" is substantial (>$5,000) , only about one in five consumers say that their next new car purchase will be a hybrid regardless of its cost because due to their concern for the environment.
Reducing carbon emissions, improving fuel economy and reducing dependence on foreign oil are all public policy initiatives, and hybrid vehicles address these issues. Having a large cohort of celebrity hybrid drivers may or may not help these causes. What may bring more ordinary drivers into the hybrid vehicle fold, however, are vehicle designs that are inspired by something other than reducing the production costs of the vehicles.
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