The TH Interview: Bradley Berman, Editor of HybridCars.com

Turn on a television these days and you're bound to see at least one car commercial touting its subject's miles-per-gallon stats. Consider that just a few years ago such information was relegated to the jumble of miniscule type at the bottom of the screen and one gets the sense that a shift of some kind has occurred.

Talk about miles-per-gallon certainly helps to level the playing-field for hybrids, but even before the recent emphasis on fuel-efficiency hybrid sales were generally doubling every year. To learn more about the progress of hybrids from curiosity to coveted, TreeHugger interviewed Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com.

TreeHugger: Have rising fuel costs affected traffic to HybridCars.com? Have you found any other factors which increase interest in the site?

Bradley Berman: The public is amazingly fickle. When the price at the pumps goes up 10 or 20 cents, the traffic to HybridCars.com gets a bump. When gas prices drop by the same amount, the traffic dips. The truth is that these fluctuations have very little impact on consumers' overall spending, but somehow the extra couple of bucks forked over to the oil companies have a tremendous psychological effect.I would like to think that the money is not really the issue in people's minds. It's the fact that our entire way of life is tied to oil, and watching the price go up leaves people very uneasy about how little control they have over such an essential commodity. Buying a super fuel-efficient vehicle, like a hybrid, helps people regain a modicum of control.

Gas station marquees are very prominent fixtures on the American landscape. They act like fear meters. Nothing else that I've seen, even the threat of severe climate disruption, has as much of an effect.

TH: How would you rate the popularity of hybrid vehicles today, and what are the major drivers behind their popularity? Do you think they point to a fundamental shift in society's thinking, or is this all just a passing fad? More importantly, do you think the car companies are "getting" it?

BB: Make no mistake: hybrids are not a passing fad. Every survey that I've seen -- and there have been quite a few -- show that large percentages of Americans are considering a hybrid for their next car purchase.

People don't buy a car every day or even every year. And the auto industry's design and manufacturing cycle takes at least three or four years. So, both the public and the car companies are only beginning to catch up to the new realities of high gas prices, energy insecurity, and climate change. And even without these major political and economic factors, cars were already becoming more electric in their makeup. Acceptance and market penetration for hybrids, and for a host of other auto technologies and fuels, will continue to grow.

TH: Do you think we've reached a tipping point with regards to the public's awareness and acceptance of hybrids? If not, what will it take to get us there?

BB: We're there. At least, in terms of awareness. Now we're just waiting for the auto companies to catch up and produce more hybrids and other viable alternatives. There's still a lot more demand than supply. As soon automakers produce more hybrids, they will get gobbled up.

TH: Outside of the auto manufacturers themselves, who are the major players in hybrid technology, and what are some of the ways they could contribute to greater interest and uptake in hybrids? (For example, do government tax refunds really help? Has university research paid off?)

BB: Government incentives help, but perhaps the most important players right now are makers of hybrid batteries and other electronic components that go into hybrids.

First, it's a cost factor. Batteries and battery systems are the most expensive component in a hybrid car. If that cost can be cut in half, then hybrids might carry only a modest premium over conventional cars. Perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, rather than a couple of thousand.

The second factor is the capacity for those batteries to charge very quickly and carry a lot of energy. If there's a breakthrough in battery technology, then we'll see a big jump in a hybrid's fuel efficiency, and the door will open quickly to plugin hybrids that can break 100 miles to the gallon. The future of automotive technology is starting to look like a race between battery makers and proponents of hydrogen fuel cells.

TH: Thinking back to when the first hybrids were introduced and all the way up to the present, what do you think has contributed to the success of hybrids, and are there any lessons in their success which might be applied to other emerging technologies?

BB: From the beginning, the carmakers underestimated demand for hybrids. The biggest lesson, one learned by the auto industry, is that consumers do care about fuel efficiency. Consumers do care about the bigger questions of oil dependency and the environment. And they do want to drive cars that use breakthrough technologies.

The market is crying out for more choices, from hybrid minivans and hybrid convertibles, to plugin hybrids...all of it. The market wants a change, and will pay more for the latest greatest technology.

TH: Hybrids seem to be taking off in the US, but what about the rest of the world? Is this a global movement?

BB: Hybrids are not a global movement yet. By far, the biggest hybrid market is the United States, followed by Japan. But when economies of scale kick in, and the price comes down, and the technology advantages of hybrids become better known, the other global markets will follow.

Europe is a diesel market. That might harder to crack. But China is already the third largest car market in the world, and with 1.3 billion people, it's only a matter of time before it's number one. Considering China's challenge concerning the environment, hybrids and other alternatives will be critical.

TH: Looking at the larger issues of transportation and mobility, what changes do you see happening and what do you find most interesting or promising?

BB: The most interesting thing is the diversity of the approaches and projects. Each automaker is coming out with its own flavor of hybrid. Plugin hybrids are getting a lot attention. The world of alternative fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, is humming. Full electric cars are making a resurgence. Research into batteries and fuel cells is intensifying.

The 100-year reign of the gas-powered internal combustion engine is truly coming to a close. And it's being replaced by multitude of technologies and fuels, which will be hybridized, if you will, in a number of different ways.

TH: What originally sparked your interest in hybrid cars, and what do you hope to accomplish through HybridCars.com?

I bought a hybrid car in 2002. At that time, I was pretty upset and outraged by the government's push for another war in the Middle East. But once I started driving the car, I loved it simply because it was fun to drive. It made sense in so many ways.

I started HybridCars.com to share that enthusiasm, and to provide information and resources to car shoppers considering a hybrid. Not just the typical car talk, but information about the environment and oil dependency.

Over the years, we added a few resources to create online community to hybrid owners to share their views and concerns about all kinds of things. This fall, we're going to greatly expand the community and networking opportunities on the site. It's going to be big time.

Our goal is to do everything possible to advance the market for hybrids, new auto technologies, alternative fuels, and other smart choices that allow to get around in a sustainable way.

TH: Are the majority of people who visit HybridCars.com already sold on the idea of hybrids? How do you reach out to those people who aren't already convinced?

BB: Some visitors love hybrids and others think they make no sense. That's cool. The point is to present both sides of the arguments for any vehicle or technology or political issue related to cars.

We express our opinion. That's okay too. The idea is to be direct, honest, and open. There's not a lot of that in public debates or in the world of consumer information. We're lucky because we get a steady flow of traffic. We've been around longer than other hybrid sites, and have established a good reputation for our content and clear layout.

Car shoppers conduct their research online, and if they are even remotely interested in hybrids, they find us. But we're not trying to proselytize.

TH: If you had a magic wand, and could tap the planet and fix one problem, what would it be?

BB: Hopelessness. We all have the power to make our lives, our communities, and our world a little bit better everyday, but we cede that power. Sometimes we give that power to family members, to government leaders or corporations, or to some hit television show.

Many problems that seem insurmountable could be solved if we focused on the myriad of possible solutions, rather than the complexity and overwhelming size of the problem itself. I'm an idealist. I admit it.

Bradley Berman is the editor of HybridCars.com.

[Interview conducted by TreeHugger intern Dave Chiu]

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