Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the increased interest in hybrid vehicles.

As government searches for methods to reduce dependence on oil and clean up the environment, some big-name companies want to reward employees who drive a hybrid vehicle to work.

The federal government is offering tax breaks and rebates for individuals who buy hybrid vehicles, cars powered by a combination of gasoline and electric battery. Some states also allow exceptions for hybrid drivers to drive in high occupancy vehicle lanes.

Now, some companies in the private sector are trying to do their part, wooing workers by offering matching incentives to government offers to get their employees to purchase hybrids. Qualifying drivers can get thousands of dollars to buy fuel-efficient vehicles and are given other perks such as closer parking spots and easier commuting options.

“This came out of a good intention to do something that is environmentally-friendly,” said Courtney Hohne, a spokeswoman for Google Inc., the online search engine that is now giving $5,000 cash to purchase and $2,500 to lease fuel-efficient cars that get at least 45 miles per gallon. In an apparent win for everyone, the program began in March 2005 to reward employees and attract talent to the company, Hohne said. So far, more than 200 out of 6,800 Google employees participate in the program.

Bank of America is also offering rewards through a pilot program that targets 21,000 employees living within 90 miles of Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles. The company matches a $3,000 federal tax credit for purchasing a hybrid vehicle.

"Given the size of our commuting associate base, the hybrid program expands our commitment to the environment and helps our associates to participate in making a difference while cutting down on their commuting costs," said Anne Finucane, Bank of America Global Marketing & Corporate Affairs executive, in a statement. Bank of America officials say they plan to evaluate the pilot program to decide if it will expand to other cities.

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President Bush has expressed support for hybrid vehicles as part of his energy policies. Earlier this year, the Bush administration promoted alternative fuel sources in the Advanced Energy Initiative, a series of programs aimed to decrease Americans' reliance on oil.

The Internal Revenue Service offers a tax credit for qualifying hybrid vehicles under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The offer goes as high as $3,400 for the most fuel-efficient vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles and hybrid heavy trucks are part of the program.

States, too, have jumped on the hybrid bandwagon with incentives to promote fuel efficiency.

As part of his program to promote legislation to give a $2,000 state tax credit for fuel-efficient drivers, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney joined Bank of America at the introduction of its incentives proposal. State lawmakers are now negotiating Romney's proposal.

“The governor has a long-standing commitment to helping people diminish their reliance on foreign oil,” said Andrew Gottlieb, chief of the Massachusetts Office for Commonwealth Development.

Romney supports the Bank of America program as an example the private sector can undertake to help decrease Americans’ reliance on foreign sources of oil, Gottlieb said.

“We’re obviously happy to see the private sector picking up and taking advantage of their role to provide incentives to their employees,” he said.

Other states are helping promote hybrid vehicles and fuel-efficiency through discounted parking, the use of HOV lanes regardless of the number of passengers and tax credits.

Specifically, Virginia, Utah, Georgia and Florida allow drivers with hybrid vehicles to travel in HOV lanes with qualifying permits. Oregon and Colorado are offering tax credits for purchases.

Virginia's law, however, was recently changed for hybrid drivers in congested Northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. Hybrid drivers who did not have registration permits by July 1 will now face fines for driving in HOV lanes on Interstates 95 and 395, two of the most widely traveled highways in the region.

“Tougher fines take aim at those HOV violators who are breaking the law and reducing the effectiveness of our HOV system," Dennis Morrison, VDOT District Administrator in Northern Virginia, said in a statement. The exemption for hybrid drivers across the state will expire in June 2007 because state regulators say the widespread popularity of the program is making HOV lanes ineffective.

Georgia lawmakers passed a measure two years ago to allow fuel-efficient cars the use of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. But the state is awaiting a list of vehicles that qualify as hybrids under rules laid out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After the EPA rule is in force, Georgia drivers in hybrid vehicles with fewer than two passengers can use HOV lanes with proper registration and license plate or decal.

“We’re in the wait and see mode as far as the incentive goes,” said William Cook, engine and fuels unit manager at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Cook said they have received many inquiries about the incentive and some people have purchased hybrid vehicles in anticipation of using the HOV lanes and cutting down traffic time.

“We definitely think it’s a good thing. It reduces overall dependence on oil,” Cook said. “We’re trying to reduce the state’s dependence on outside sources of gasoline.”

In Colorado, residents driving alternative fuel vehicles can apply for an income tax credit, which varies according to the type of car. For example, drivers of a 2007 Ford Escape with four-wheel drive are eligible for a $1,972 tax credit. Drivers of a 2006 Honda Accord hybrid qualify for a $3,209 tax credit, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

In Maryland, drivers in Baltimore are eligible to get cheaper rates in city parking garages for hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid, according to the Baltimore Parking Authority. Other cities like New Haven, Conn., permit hybrid drivers to park their cars on city meters for free.

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