California's high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which emptied out last July as 85,000 hybrids lost their access, are about to start admitting more cars.

This week, Chevy dealers in California are receiving their first 2012 Chevrolet Volts fitted with the right emissions gear to give drivers access to HOV lanes.

And they're being joined by 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid models, which are starting to arrive at California Toyota dealers.

Both vehicles qualify for the coveted green stickers that give California drivers access to HOV lanes during rush hour with only a single occupant.

$1,500 rebate to owners

Yesterday, Toyota also announced that the Prius Plug-In Hybrid has also qualified for the California Clean Vehicle Rebate program, which sends a check for $1,500 to buyers of specific clean cars and those who lease them for three years or longer.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

The program has limited funds, however, and given the state's perilous finances, its future funding is not guaranteed.

That $1,500 rebate comes on top of a $2,500 Federal tax credit for purchase of a plug-in vehicle with a battery pack of about 4 kilowatt-hours.

The Prius Plug-In Hybrid will be available this year in 14 states: California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.

Toyota plans to roll out the plug-in Prius nationwide next year. The base model of 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid costs $32,000 (plus destination), while the high-end Advanced trim level is priced at $39,525.

Not all 2012 Volts the same

As for the Volt, Chevrolet announced last fall that it would build California-only 2012 Volts with more advanced emissions gear that would qualify them for the HOV-lane access. Not all 2012 Volts in California qualify, however. 

2012 Chevrolet Volt

2012 Chevrolet Volt

The company had been criticized before the Volt went on sale for not designing the range-extended electric car to meet the more stringent California standards for access to the lanes.

Toyota has avoided the confusion between qualifying and non-qualifying 2012 models by building all 2012 Prius Plug-Ins sold in California as qualifying vehicles.

Green stickers

The green stickers are issued by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to qualifying "enhanced advanced-technology partial-zero-emission vehicles," which have both a battery pack and a combustion engine.

Each of the two qualifying cars can run some distance on electricity--9 to 15 miles for the Prius Plug-In, 25 to 40 miles for the Volt--after which the combustion engine switches on.

The 2012 Fisker Karma range-extended hybrid, whose technology is similar to that of the Volt, does not qualify for a sticker.

All traffic slower

These green stickers are different from the white stickers denoting a zero-emission vehicle, issued to all-electric and fuel-cell vehicles, most notably the Nissan Leaf. The full list of qualifying vehicles can be found on the California Air Resources Board website.

One interesting, and unexpected, effect of the removal of those 85,000 hybrids: All traffic got slower, both in the HOV lane and in the regular lanes.

The culprit was the greater speed differential as drivers in the emptier HOV lanes could go faster--but had to slow down more to get back into regular lanes to exit.


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