James Surowiecki on the Prius phenomenon

James Surowiecki on the Prius phenomenon

James is a New Yorker staff writer and author of The Wisdom of Crowds. He’s just written an interesting article on the Toyota Prius (the Naughton family conveyance). Surowiecki begins by noting that environmental purists are a bit sniffy about hybrids, which they see as a stop-gap pending the really radical development — the fuel-cell powered car. But…

“By keeping our eyes locked on the future, we’re missing the truly radical nature of the present. The hybrid is the most important development in automobile technology since the introduction of the automatic transmission in 1938, or perhaps even the invention of the self-starting motor in 1911. It’s the first successful alternative to the internal combustion engine since the early 20th century, when both steamers and electric cars were popular. And in technological terms, the hybrid represents a qualitative, and not just a quantitative, transformation in the way vehicles work. That’s why Toyota, at least, calls the hybrid a “core” rather than a “bridge” technology. The synergy that propels the Prius will also likely be at the heart of fuel cell cars – if they ever materialize.

What’s especially remarkable about the success of hybrids is that it’s happened from the bottom up. Economists sometimes say there are two routes to innovation: technology push and market pull. In the first case, a cool technology is created and people have to be convinced they want it. In the second, a market exists for a solution to a problem, and it effectively pulls the technology out of the lab and into the real world. Before the recent hybrid boom, many would have said that the cars were a classic example of technology push, with Toyota and Honda trying to force vehicles on an uninterested public. But what has become clear is that the market for “environmentally sensitive” products is large and growing, and that people are willing to pay a premium for these products, as long as they don’t have to compromise on quality.”

He’s right — or at any rate, he has described accurately the thinking that went into my decision to go hybrid.

Thanks to Dave Hill for the link.