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Sierra magazine
Innovate | Vehicles that Tread Lightly

By Reed McManus

By 2016, all cars and light trucks sold in the United States must achieve an average of 35.5 miles per gallon, up from today's low-bar requirement of 25.3 mpg. That goal doesn't impress drivers of Toyota's latest hybrid Prius (50 mpg city-highway combined) or engineers designing plug-in hybrid vehicles that hit 100 mpg. Getting to triple digits--or to 35.5 mpg, for that matter--just takes a commitment to maximizing an automobile's efficiency at every step.

Plenty of people comment on the sticker boasting "100+ mpg Plug-in Hybrid" on the bumper of former CIA director James Woolsey's converted Toyota Prius. But even more are drawn to the one that reads "Bin Laden Hates This Car."

Like any Prius driver worth his regenerative brakes, Woolsey (above) is conversant in climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions. But his main concern is how energy use affects national security. He is a founding member of Set America Free (setamericafree.org), a Washington, D.C.-based coalition devoted to reducing oil dependence. ("Because so much of the oil we import comes from countries that hate us, we're actually helping to bankroll terrorists that hunt us," its Web site proclaims. No cheery "Every Day Is Earth Day!" icon here, sorry.)

Woolsey's geopolitics don't get in the way of techno-geek obsession. He's eager to show off the battery pack that fits in the space once reserved for the Prius's spare tire. An electrical cord snakes over to a metered outlet on the wall of his condo building's garage. Woolsey shows me his electric bill for the previous day: $2.19.

The goal with a plug-in hybrid is to maximize the miles you get using the plug-in battery before the vehicle must switch to its original battery, minimizing your use of the terrorist-dependent gas engine. Woolsey tracks his consumption in a small red notebook, fueling at the same pump to ensure accuracy. During our ride, he "fills up" with eight-tenths of a gallon, and he's not pleased--he drove only 34 miles that day. The middling result was caused by heavy-footed on-ramp acceleration, he suspects. His son once managed 53 miles before depleting the plug-in battery.

Infographic: Infographic: Funnel Inc., Photo: VantagePoint Venture Partners; used with permission.

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