Environment

The Hazy Future of Hybrid Cars

The auto industry is at a crossroads in the increasing popularity of hybrids: Is it time to keep increasing fuel effiency or sacrifice gas for more power?
Environmental activists face a difficult question today: How do you react when car companies that have been ignoring you for years finally start doing something you want?

After recovering from shock, those agitating for cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars will probably keep up what they've been doing: Out of more than 17 million cars sold every year, only about 311,000 hybrids have been sold since they were introduced eight years ago.

But hybrids are gaining traction, picking up "mindshare" where they've yet to gain much market share in the industry -- between skyrocketing demand by car buyers and increased production from auto makers, hybrids are quickly becoming the future of the automobile. Nonetheless, while hybrid production increases are a step in the right direction, the big question is whether automakers will use the efficiency gains to save gas, or to add performance. Although the answer seems obvious -- the vast majority of hybrid owners bought the vehicles to conserve gas -- the next few years may see a big shift in how hybrids function.

Signs of the Shift

The initial signs are positive. Hybrid holdout GM is waking up, recently adding BMW to its month-old "catch up with Toyota and Honda" hybrid development alliance. Then last week Ford announced plans to make half its models more fuel efficient within 5 years and ramping up hybrid production (while one of its executives criticized Toyota for supposedly being "predatory" and for hoarding certain key hybrid components).

Laughing in the face of this new competition, hybrid heavyweight Toyota responded by doubling 2006 hybrid sales targets and planning eventually to roll out hybrid engines across all models.

Automakers haven't suddenly become altruistic about preserving the environment, as nice as that would be. Between spiking gas prices and maturing hybrid technology, it has become good business to make efficient cars. According to hybridcars.com editor Bradley Berman, we're on the precipiece of a tipping point about why people are interested in hybrids.

In a phone interview, he said that "the shift is from purchasing a hybrid based on ideology, whether it's foreign oil dependency, global warming or because you're a technology innovator. Nothing is having as big an impact as $3-a-gallon gasoline." Nevertheless, he added, "we're in a time of great change, and nobody knows [what's going to happen] until they put hybrids out into the marketplace."

You can see this uncertainty in the schizophrenic design decisions being made throughout the hybrid market. Covering all its bases, Honda has the ultra-efficient Insight, the "50/50" (city/highway mileage) Civic hybrid, and the new Accord hybrid, which has sacrificed increased fuel efficiency for the sake of more power.

Again, Toyota stands out. The company's CEO eventually wants to sell 1 million hybrids globally a year by early next decade, but how Toyota does this will be important. Following up on the unexpected success of the gas-sipping Prius, Lexus recently released the RX 400h luxury SUV hybrid, touting it online as possessing "exceptional power -- not just for a hybrid vehicle, but for an SUV as well." Lexus is not marketing its fuel efficiency, even though the estimated 31 mpg in the city is a big improvement over the estimated 17 mpg of its gas-only twin, the RX 330. The downside is that on the highway it barely bests the 330 by a meager 1-2 mpg.

Representing Toyota at the Sierra Club's 2005 Sierra Summit in early September, Dave Hermance, executive engineer for advanced fuel vehicles at the Toyota Technical Center, recognized that they could have put more emphasis on fuel efficiency, but said that for marketing reasons they chose power.

When you design a hybrid, he explained, "in the overall scheme of things you can reduce [the gas] engine size, you can improve the engine efficiency, or you can leave everything alone [like for the Lexus], and those each have three different impacts on performance and fuel economy. It's kind of like, what do you want for the image of the vehicle? They're basic engineering tradeoffs."

Changing the Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom in the auto industry says that Americans don't care about fuel efficiency, and that a hybrid must meet or beat the performance of existing vehicles. But with increased gas prices, hurricane damage to American refining capacity, and instability in the Middle East, consumers seem to be increasingly willing to make some sacrifices.

Berman, for one, is convinced that automakers are just being slow to react to new market conditions. "The emphasis on power over fuel economy," he said, "is a momentary phase in the evolution of hybrids in the marketplace. It is a vestige of research that was from 2-3 years ago. We should rip that research up!"

Ford, of all companies, may be the first to move beyond those old studies. With the Mercury (owned by Ford) Mariner hybrid, Ford even got the Sierra Club promoting its fuel efficiency gains at the Sierra Summit.

According to Neil Golightly, Ford's director of sustainable business strategies, "We have said very, very clearly, we have no plans to convert fuel efficiency that we're achieving through hybrid technology into performance," he said. Those are brave words, but only time will tell. Given the evolution of Toyota's hybrid offerings, it doesn't take a cynic to wonder whether Ford will really stay away from performance boosting.

Nevertheless, Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program director, explained why the Club would deign to have an SUV at its convention: "We wanted to feature the most efficient vehicles, that are the biggest improvements over their non-hybrid twins. And this Mercury Mariner is about a 50 percent improvement over the regular Mercury Mariner."

Praising the Sierra Club's willingness to work with Ford when it does something right, Golightly said that this support "has a profound impact in terms of reinforcing our ability to build a business case around doing more of this." Obviously, environmental idealism just doesn't go very far in accounting and marketing departments.

But car companies' talk of catering to consumer preferences for high-performance cars is exasperating for anyone interested in conservation and environmental ideals. Despite impressive efficiency gains, hybrids could do even better if consumers would simply give up their treasured ideal of performance.

Old habits die hard, though, and the auto industry is only now getting over the stigma of the dismal performance of early electric and hybrid vehicles. Plus, Berman pointed out that even if consumers are clamoring for hybrids now, automakers can't respond that quickly. In terms of major design changes, "2009 is tomorrow for them."

Making Every Car a Hybrid

The question remains whether having immediate, spectacular improvements in every hybrid vehicle is even as important as mainstreaming hybrid technology and fuel efficiency concerns. After all, a 25 percent improvement in gas-guzzling SUVs saves more gas than a 60 percent improvement in sedans that are already relatively efficient.* Gritting your teeth and learning to love hybrid SUVs isn't a bad idea, because unless something happens to truly wean Americans off buying enormous cars, they will continue to be big sellers.

This is actually GM's strategy for catching up to Toyota and Honda, one Berman described as "interesting." But by the time the relatively easy efficiency gains in SUVs and large cars bear fruit, he said "Toyota will be selling 1 million hybrids a year globally, and they're going to be in all those segments." And one can hold out hope that as drivers appreciate the benefits of higher mileage and lower gas bills, the SUV fad will quickly die off.

Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, an organization that promotes plug-in hybrid technology, described his ambivalence about mainstreaming hybrids by choosing performance over efficiency: "On the one hand, I like [performance], because people are realizing a hybrid doesn't mean sacrifice. On the other hand, it turns it into one more technology since the 1970s being used to bring unneeded power and acceleration to cars."

In any case, in the longer view, hybrids "are just efficient gasoline cars. So the whole issue really comes down to fuel substitution." Unfortunately, every automaker except GM seems to think mass production of hydrogen fuel cell cars is 10 to 20 years out, while diesel is just too dirty for the time being. Hybrid technology, on the other hand, can be used to improve fuel economy now and anytime in the future.

The Big Effects of a Simple Solution

This concept of every car as a hybrid represents a sort of "Eureka" moment. Ford's fuel cell car is a hybrid. So is Toyota's. Why not create a clean diesel hybrid, or a plug-in hybrid, or a hybrid using any other alternative fuel? It doesn't matter right now that every car isn't a hybrid, because eventually they will be.

After all, electronic fuel injection wasn't always standard either. Why shouldn't a car be able to capture energy from braking? And why do any cars still idle at stoplights and in stop and go traffic? These all represent wasted energy, and now that hybrids show you can harness it, it's only a matter of time before this technology becomes commonplace in the auto industry.

Fact is, despite the understandable reservations of environmentalists, if costs come down and hybrid systems improve (and assuming the efficiency isn't diverted into performance, again), this could easily become a standard feature that would kick average fuel efficiency up to 40 mpg. Plus, switching to an alternative fuel is cheaper and more practical if car makers can phase it in, instead of creating an entirely new engine for a new fuel. Look at the long timeline for creating fuel-cell vehicles compared to the quick adoption of gas-electric hybrids of all shapes and sizes.

For example, in Felix Kramer's scenario, plug-in hybrids are the "platform for future development of all cars," storing electricity for local driving and using gas, or any alternative fuel, to extend range.

Standing at the Sierra Summit in front of a row of the best Detroit and Japan have to offer, Kramer and Hermance discussed the regulatory hurdles and battery limitations that are holding back a brave new world of more-energy-efficient transportation. This is the future. None of this does anything about sprawl, idiotic energy policies, public transit, car culture or our national obsession with "bigger is better," but whenever we actually start to run out of oil, you can bet we'll be happy to have these kinds of technologies worked out.

After all, peak oil and global warming are much bigger problems than McMansions and suburbs. Hybrid cars are here today, and people are getting excited about them.

As Sierra Club's Dan Becker argued, "The biggest single step we can take to curb global warming, cut our oil dependence, and save consumers money at the pump, is to make vehicles go further on a gallon of gas. And that's what we're trying to educate people about."

[*Keep in mind that this is a very basic scenario that assumes that driving and vehicle purchase habits won't change drastically in the near term.

Driving 100 miles, a 14-m.p.g. SUV uses 7.14 gallons of gas. If it's 25 percent more efficient (17.5 m.p.g.), it will use 5.71 gallons, a savings of 1.43 gallons.

A sedan that gets 30 m.p.g. uses 3.33 gallons of gas, while a 50 m.p.g. hybrid uses 2 gallons, saving 1.33 gallons.]
Robin Kraft is AlterNet's copyeditor, editorial assistant, and jack-of-all-trades.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World