It's Hybrid Time. Where's Detroit?

The U.S. needs to cut its dependence on Mideast oil. There is hybrid-engine technology that can help do just that. And there are consumers who want to buy cars powered by those engines. But the only carmakers willing to manufacture them are Japanese: Toyota (TM ) and Honda (HMC ). Ford (F ) has delayed the launch of its first hybrid-powered vehicle, the Escape SUV, until 2004, while Toyota is about to sell its next-generation hybrid, the new Prius sedan. It's time for Detroit to get on the stick.

The Big Three should stop spinning dreams of hydrogen-powered autos and embrace the hybrid gas-and-electric engine that can save fuel now. Detroit is correct in saying that hybrids don't yet make money: The technology adds about $3,000 to the price of every car. But greater volume will lower that cost, and there are clear signs that consumers want such cars. The Prius, which goes on sale in November, is already sold out at many dealerships. The sedan is the same size and price as a midsize Toyota Camry and gets about twice the mileage, 55 miles per gallon. J.D. Power & Associates Inc. believes demand could produce hybrid sales of 500,000 vehicles in five years.

Washington could compress that time line. To expand volume and drop the cost, the government could order hybrids for its own huge fleet of cars and trucks. The military could develop hybrids for its Humvees and armored vehicles. Washington already offers a $2,000 tax deduction to purchasers of hybrid cars. Turning that deduction into a tax credit would encourage corporate fleet owners to buy hybrids. Consumers would get a bigger tax break, too. Hybrid engines would allow Detroit to sell the big SUVs and vans that many Americans prefer while still increasing mileage. The proposed energy bill before Congress is mostly devoid of measures to conserve energy and raise mileage. By promoting hybrids, the legislation could do both.

Corrections and Clarifications Last week's editorial "It's hybrid time. Where's Detroit?" (Oct. 27) should have made clear that Ford Motor Co. delayed the launch of its hybrid-powered SUV by just one year. The 2005 model will be available in the summer of 2004.
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