In his famous Marshmallow Experiment, Walter Mischel illustrated the benefits of delayed gratification - children who were willing to wait got more marshmallows than those who rushed. But when it comes to cars, many of us tend to ignore that wise principle and go for the immediate payoff of speed, power and sex appeal.
And so to the Plug-In Prius, the ultimate delayed gratification vehicle. Power? Adequate at best. Sex appeal? Umm…. no. Driving it had all the thrill of operating a refrigerator. As automotive dates went, this one was lukewarm - the Plug-In was quiet, it took me where I wanted to go, and it didn't cause any trouble.
But the Plug-In saved its best trick for last. When I filled it up after a week of driving, I was stunned - I'd travelled 211 kilometres on 5.26 litres of fuel and 13.64 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Total cost - less than $8.00.
Now I loved the Plug-In. The power of delayed gratification had been demonstrated yet again. Like many great cars, the Plug-in Prius is a compromise - it isn't a pure electric, the vehicle that so many green evangelists have been pushing for. Instead, it's little more than a Prius hybrid with a bigger battery that you can recharge with an extension cord.
It can only go about 20 kilometres on its battery. But that was all I needed. I drove my wife to work every day without using the gas-powered engine once. And when I had to make a run north of the city, no problem - the gas engine kicked in when I needed it, and I was free to go anywhere I wanted.
A recent range-anxiety nightmare with a pure electric car had left me gun-shy. I came away from that experience convinced that the electric car is a limited-use vehicle that will fulfill the needs of only a handful of drivers, at least for now. What if you need to drive to a cottage? What if you have street parking with no place to plug in?
A Toyota engineer described the Plug-In Prius (which is expected to go on sale in 2012) as a "bridge technology." It has an old-fashioned internal combustion engine, but leverages cutting-edge electronic technology to go farther than you expect on a tank of gas. I loved watching the gauge that showed me how much battery and gasoline power I was using. For three days, I used no fossil fuel at all. I rolled past fuel stations like Gandhi passing houses of ill repute.
But how much electricity was I using? Each night, I plugged the Prius in to an outlet equipped with a Talking Plug, a device that showed exactly how many electrons were getting pumped into the Prius. Created by a company called Zerofootprint, the Talking Plug not only measured the power flowing into the Prius, but presented a real-time illustration on the Internet - wherever I was, I could log on and see a screen that showed how much electric power my car was consuming. The cost would depend on power rates, and when I charged the car (night time was cheapest) but I could tell right away that I was saving a lot of money - I drove my wife to work every day for about 30 cents.
Some day things may be different. We may find a way to generate electrical power without using fossil fuel to do it. Batteries may get smaller and more energy-packed, allowing us to drive as far as we do right now on a tank of gas. There may be a coast-to-coast network of charging points - or even stations where a robot arm plucks the dying battery from your electric car and inserts a fresh one. But none of that has happened yet. And it isn't green for one person to own two cars just because one of them can't go beyond the city limits. The electric car may be Mr. Right, but the plug-in hybrid is Mr. Right Now.
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/