Why Hybrids are Hot

  • Share
  • Read Later
Are you ready for the tribrid? Or the mibrid? Or the hydrobrid? The hybrid engine has already changed the automobile industry with its accelerating popularity. And it has also set off an arms race among manufacturers as they try to get their hands on the most advanced hybrid engine technology—and the people who can design it.

The Tokyo Motor Show produced some fascinating variations on the hybrid theme, among them the Mercedes "Bluetec Hybrid" concept vehicle. This vehicle is a diesel-electric engine known as a "mild" hybrid, because it's a scaled-down version. The diesel engine stops when idle and the electric motor boosts acceleration, but unlike full hybrids (such as Toyota's Prius), this vehicle can't run on the electric motor alone. The mibrid is cheaper to make and has a small battery, which lightens the load. And diesel makes it more fuel efficient than a regular gasoline hybrid. Mercedes' parent company, DaimlerChrysler, says that its diesel hybrid is 10% to 15% more fuel efficient than a full gasoline hybrid. The company says it is "close to market" with the new vehicle. BMW is closer. The Bavarian company says it plans to introduce a type of mild hybrid system next year, and may extend it to the entire product line. Next up is General Motors, which plans to roll out a hybrid version of the Saturn Vue next summer and offer hybrid versions of lumbering sport-utility vehicles such as the Chevrolet Suburban by 2007. Volkswagen and Porsche also have announced plans to introduce hybrids before the end of the decade.

One of the niftiest new hybrids is from Mazda, the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid concept car. This "tribrid" has three energy sources--gasoline, electricity and hydrogen. The main combustion engine can burn either gasoline or hydrogen, which is fed to the engine from a tank in the trunk. The driver can change between the two by hitting a switch next to the steering wheel. Hydrogen as a fuel burns like gasoline, but it's about 10% more efficient, and emits only water. Throw in the hybrid function (an electric motor) and fuel efficiency rises again. Mazda hopes to have the car available in three years. In the meantime, Mazda plans to introduce a duel-fuel RX-8 sports car on a limited basis next spring.

The quest for the hybrid has also turned into a quest for hybrid builders. Ford, for example, is now competing with Toyota to hire engineers from the software and the aerospace industries to work on Ford's new vehicles even as the automaker eliminates jobs in other parts of the company. Ford's hybrid program now has 200 job vacancies for engineers and technicians with the critical skills in software development and battery integration needed to field the next generation of hybrids, says Ford spokesman Said Deep, who adds that the new recruits believe they are working on something truly important: "There is are real intensity—passion. The only thing I can compare it to is the team that worked on the Mustang."

At the same time, GM, DaimlerChrysler and BMW have teamed up to open a research and technical center in the Detroit suburbs that probably won't yield vehicles until 2010. So the carmakers are looking for incremental improvements in software, electronics, battery storage and even the internal combustion engine itself to make hybrids even more efficient. That latter includes high-compression combustion engines that run without spark plugs. Mike Gauthier, director of corporate technology for Siemens VDO, an auto electronics company in Auburn Hills, Michigan, says future hybrids also will use more sophisticated combustion engines as well as more complex electrical components. "The beauty of hybrids is they benefit from any improvement in the internal combustion engine or storage batteries," he says. The improvement in fuel economy, combined with higher fuel prices, also means the buyers of the hybrids recoup their investments faster, making the purchase of hybrids more economically feasible, Gauthier adds.

Companies such as Subaru and Mitsubishi are tinkering with hybrid systems that place the electric motors at the wheels to give the vehicles more power and traction when they switch to four-wheel drive. For now, these types of hybrids are specifically designed to appeal to drivers who like to go off-road. However, the same layout will also become more common as the hybrid evolves and electric motors at the wheels become the primary source of power, Gauthier predicts. "Over time, you move to a vehicle where the internal combustion engine isn't connected to the driveline," Gauthier says. Instead the internal combustion engine will be used to generate power for the car's electric motors. Over time, as the technology improves, the combustion engine will be replaced by fuel cells, ending fossil fuels' century-old grip on the automobile.— Reported by Joe Szczesny/Detroit and Michael Schuman/Tokyo