Plugging in to green driving
Motoring Correspondent Eddie Cunningham roadtests the revolutionary new Toyota Prius
Published 03/08/2010 | 05:00
Imagine yourself stretched out on the couch for hours, blissfully alone with uninterrupted viewing of your favourite programmes.
Then a repeat of Oireachtas Report clunks on to the screen and you realise the remote control isn't working any more and there's no one around to physically change channels for you.
Somehow, the volume seems to increase by the minute. But you are so cosy, so comfy that the effort of leaving the nest is appalling. So you try to ignore the noise, snuggle down and cover your head with a cushion.
In effect you are balancing comfort/laziness against discomfort/activity for the rewards of change and choice. How long can you hang on?
I've been put on a similar spot with a new hi-tech car.
It is a new sort of Toyota Prius. I drove it as part of a global customer feedback sweep before they swing into full production for 2012.
Effectively you can charge it from your home socket -- if you'd only get up off the couch -- to get 20kms of 'pure' electric-vehicle driving.
By nature and nurture I think most of us are 'passive green' motorists.
But this has provided a glimpse of 'active green' driving.
And I'm here to tell you that I . . . . well, let's leave that for a minute.
Passive is so easy. Like lying on the couch.
It is one of the reasons film stars such as Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio pour into and out of the Prius. It is a sort of emblem of their commitment to the so-called green dream.
But will they get up and plug in to the new active era?
As you know, the 'standard' Prius has a petrol engine, an electric motor, and a bank of batteries. They are all orchestrated by a central control unit which decides when the different components work solely or in combination.
It means you get 55mpg-plus quite easily (Toyota claim 10mpg or so more) because the petrol engine is not in use all the time.
The critical thing -- for me -- is that I don't have to do anything, except gloat about my fuel consumption figures. Incidentally, I do the same with diesels who rival such frugality.
But now this variation of the Prius will sift the committed from the passive, the couch green potatoes from the channel changers.
It's called a Prius Plug-in Hybrid. The plug-in bit is where you hook up to a socket in your home -- or anywhere -- for a maximum 90-minute charge that will cover 20kms for you.
It only takes a few seconds. Are you up for it?
That's the challenge I faced.
It is the same as the current Prius in every way -- looks, room, engine, equipment, hybrid drive the lot. Only it has a special connection point (neatly stowed away under a flap on the left front flank) and a seven-metre cable (in a bag in the boot) that allows you to charge it from an ordinary socket.
Ideally you cover the first 20kms on the strength of that electric charge. By my reckoning, that means my 40c or so worth of electricity covers each kilometre for 2c.
Then it is supposed to revert to its on-off petrol/electric motor hybrid routine.
About 13 kilometres after I took over, the engine kicked in -- fair enough, considering the way I was driving.
After a while, I got the seven-metre connection out of the boot and yoked it up. It was simple. I charged it at the house for an hour and a half (that gets you maximum boost in the lithium-ion batteries).
Technically I should not have used an extension cable; just straight to the plug. I think they might need to lengthen their cable.
Off I went again. I had around eight kilometres' worth consumed (there's a little metre to show you what's left) by the time I got to a friend's house (for tea and Twix bar). That involved ascending a fairly steep hill and the engine never kicked in once. This time we threaded the supplied cable through the side window of the house, had our tea, chatted, reminisced for 30 minutes and off I went with about 15kms' worth 'in the tank'. That got me around a lot. I thought I covered more than 15kms, probably because I was driving slowly and more evenly. Then the engine kicked in for a while, and then the electric motor took over and I was back in good old passive, green, hybrid driving mode as the sun set.
And then, frankly, I reverted to type. I didn't plug it in any more. I had more excuses than a politician on Oireachtas Report. It was raining. I was tired. I had my good clothes on. I'd do it later. None was true and the cable was spotless but I just hadn't got my head around 'active'.
Truth is, I am a lazy so-and-so who has become spoilt by technology doing everything for me. Even getting out the calculator to show how much money I could have saved didn't spring me from my doldrums.
I mean that 40c electric charge could save €500 a year, a €1,000, more? Think of what that's worth before tax. All for a few seconds every day.
And yet there I was not just wasting money but spurning a real technological advance.
All because I could not switch on to the thought of taking the connecting cable out of the boot and plugging it in morning and night.
Which is why I asked: If you do not have a car port or garage and it is raining, freezing or you have a bad tummy, are you going to religiously plug in?
By the same token, if you can get to and from work for 40c or even 80c (assuming a round trip of 40kms), are you not mad to do so, considering it only takes a few seconds?
Would I do it for 40km of a charge instead of 20km? I don't know.
Maybe I was 'lazy' because I knew I had all that reassuring back-up from the petrol hybrid. In contrast with pure electric vehicles, I had no range anxiety. I wasn't worrying about having enough electric charge left to get me home.
And simply put, that's where the Plug-In wins. You can skimp and save with your night-time lower rate electric charge; and you can take the family to Kerry next weekend because you have petrol-tank coverage -- the best of many worlds.
When I checked back on the car's computer (including a couple of short drives preceding mine) the following stats, in miles and mpg, popped up: 100mpg over nine miles, 100mpg over seven miles, 55mpg over 172 miles, 100mpg over seven miles and 75mpg over 674 miles.
It goes to show what a little bit of active green driving can do.
But you need to get up off that couch and switch to the Green channel.