Oil Prices Speed Push For Hybrid And Other Technologies
, Milwaukee Sentinel
Published on 9/23/2006 in Wheels
» Wheels National
by Jim MoneState lawmakers unveiled the first plug-in hybrid-electric (PHEV) vehicle to hit Minnesota streets during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 at the Minnesota Capitol Building in St. Paul, Minn. A PHEV vehicle is made by transforming a regular hybrid car into an almost entirely electric car via a battery that can be recharged at any regular outlet and is said to get better than 100 miles per gallon. In the background are Rep. Frank Hornstein, left, and Sen. Scott Dibble. The car shown is a Toyota Prius. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Traverse City, Mich.
What a difference two years, $1 per gallon and $30 a barrel have made.
In August 2004, other carmakers were openly skeptical of the sales surge seen by hybrid-electric vehicle pioneers Toyota and Honda. Meeting then at an auto industry conference here, they touted the merits of competing technologies.
At that time, GM was pinning its hopes on development of fuel-cell cars, while DaimlerChrysler hoped to gain greater fuel efficiency through expansion of cleaner burning diesel engines.
At this year's conference, auto executives showed that they have awakened to the new reality that customers want better fuel efficiency. Such concerns were underscored by the recent failure of the BP Alaska pipeline and worries that a prolonged shutdown would send gas prices even higher.
After allowing Toyota and Honda to take the lead in the hybrid vehicle sales, a trio of car manufacturers declared plans to build a best-in-class hybrid, one that will debut late next year in General Motors sport utility vehicles.
Two years ago, when the average price of regular unleaded was still below $2 a gallon, fuel efficiency ranked 19th among 34 attributes customers favored when buying a new car, according to Toyota. Today, with the national average above $3 a gallon, fuel economy ranks as a top-three concern, along with safety and quality, said Tom Watson, Ford's manager of hybrid propulsion systems.
Two years ago, Ford was unveiling its first hybrid SUV. Today, with crude oil trading at $74 a barrel instead of $44 like it cost two years ago, Ford has sold more than 32,000 of them, Watson said.
In addition to a new focus on hybrids, automakers are moving quickly to embrace greater use of ethanol to help reduce oil consumption and are exploring other technologies, from hydrogen and fuel cells to plug-in hybrid vehicles.
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, sponsor of the annual Management Briefing Seminars conference, said the quest to improve fuel efficiency and use less oil has spread from just talk of alternative powertrains to a broader look at alternative fuels.
There are so many forces of change, he said. We see that every day, whether there's a problem in a pipeline somewhere, the threat of terrorism, new technologies being developed and the policies of where we should drill and where we should not drill (for oil).
Here are some developments:
Teaming up to catch up: General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and BMW are collaborating at a hybrid development center in Troy, Mich., that houses 500 engineers from all three corporations working to develop a two-mode hybrid system that the companies believe will be superior in performance to those on the road today.
The two-mode system differs from hybrids on the road today in that it has two electric motors and more clutches, rather than one large, heavy electric motor.
GM is offering a simpler hybrid system on the Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid sport utility vehicle that goes on sale soon. Costing $2,000 more than a typical Saturn Vue, the hybrid version gets 27 miles to the gallon on the highway, 32 in the city.
The first SUV to harness the two-mode hybrid system being joint-developed by the three car manufacturers will come in the largest sport utility vehicles sold by General Motors. The SUVs are expected to debut in late 2007 on the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Tahoe.
They'll boast a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over the models on sale today, said Larry Nitz, executive director of powertrain engineering at General Motors. That gain in fuel economy comes in part from the SUV's active fuel-management system, which enables half of the truck's eight cylinders to be deactivated. The two-mode system enables the truck to operate more efficiently at highway speeds than existing hybrid versions, Nitz said.
It's still unclear how much more customers will have to pay for the new two-mode hybrid system, but it will certainly be higher than the $2,000 premium now charged for the more basic hybrid system, such as that being used on the Saturn Vue, Nitz said.
DaimlerChrysler will sell its Dodge Durango with the jointly developed hybrid system in 2008, said Andreas Truckenbrodt, executive director of hybrid programs. BMW, meanwhile, hasn't decided which of its three brands BMW, Rolls Royce and Mini will get hybrid technology first, said Rainer Rump, general manager of cooperation management for BMW Group.
Still the leader:
Toyota has the market leadership in hybrids, accounting for 350,000 of the 500,000 hybrid vehicles that have been sold in the United States since the technology debuted at the turn of the century.
Toyota plans to sell 1 million hybrids per year by early in the next decade, said Dave Hermance, Toyota executive engineer for advanced technology vehicles. That would translate to about 600,000 per year in the United States.
Toyota views hybrid technology as compatible with cars that run on ethanol, with cars that use diesel for fuel rather than gasoline, even with hydrogen and fuel-cell technology.
There are always trade-offs between performance and better fuel consumption, but the key for Toyota is to find a combination that enables a large sales volume, Hermance said.
It doesn't matter if we develop the world's best technology, he said. If you can't sell it and sell it in volume at a profit it doesn't matter, because either you're going to go out of business or it just doesn't help the environment.
Better batteries sought: Challenges remain in bringing down the extra cost associated with hybrid technology, and a major company hopes it can help provide that solution.
The most important change needed to bring down the cost difference will be less expensive batteries that are durable and last the life of the vehicle, Truckenbrodt said.
At its battery technology center in Glendale, Wis., Johnson Controls Inc. last fall opened a hybrid battery development laboratory where research is taking place to develop a lithium-ion battery the kind of battery used in cell phones and laptop computers for hybrid-electric vehicles.
Johnson Controls' alliance with battery-maker Saft for battery technologies certainly will be a player, but it's too early to say how the Johnson-Saft technology will fare, as durability tests take time, Truckenbrodt said.
The first vehicles with lithium-ion batteries may be on the road in as little as two or three years, Hermance said, and lithium-ion is expected eventually to replace the current type of hybrid battery nickel metal hydride he said.
The automotive industry is stepping up its commitment to building flexible-fuel vehicles, those that can run on either gasoline or E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol with gasoline.
DaimlerChrysler said last week that it plans to participate in the Live Green, Go Yellow marketing campaign that General Motors launched this year. The campaign features yellow gas tank caps on equipped vehicles. A challenge remains the small number of filling stations able to pump E85. There are now 700, up 100 from a year ago, but that represents just 0.4 percent of all gasoline stations across the country, Ford's Watson said. For its part, Ford plans to sell 250,000 flexible-fuel vehicles per year and is actively researching a flexible-fuel ethanol vehicle, Watson said. It unveiled a concept vehicle of an ethanol hybrid Escape earlier this year.