The road to a zero-emission, energy-efficient car is littered with ideas that never caught on. Few vehicles run on natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas (two lower-emission alternatives to petroleum), and the number of all-electric cars is even smaller.
Yet after years of halfhearted attempts and misfires, auto makers may finally have found an alternative-energy hit: the electric hybrid. The half-gas, half-electric-powered cars still don't come close to approaching sales of standard car models, SUVs, or pickup trucks. Still, hybrid car sales are expected to triple over the next two years, to more than 235,000 in 2007 in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. U.S. unit sales of top-selling hybrids like the Toyota Prius were 72,849 from January to July of this year, up from 31,406 during the same period a year ago.
CROWDED SHOWROOM. It's understandable why drivers are suddenly taking an interest: Gas prices are soaring. And hybrids, which can earn upwards of 60 miles per gallon of gas depending on the model, can provide big savings. To capitalize, carmakers this year are implementing hybrid technology in more new models than ever before.
Toyota (TM), so far the leading seller of the technology, added two new models in addition to the Prius -- Lexus and Highlander SUVs. Next year, it plans to debut a hybrid version of its Camry sedan. Ford (F) debuted its own hybrid SUV, the Escape, in September, 2004, and just added another SUV this September, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. In calendar-year 2008, Ford says it's adding three more: the Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan, two midsize sedans, and the Mazda Tribute, another SUV.
And Honda Motor (HMC), which offers hybrid versions of the Civic and Accord, plus a hybrid-only Insight, has said it will announce a fourth model, but it hasn't divulged what or when.
Even companies that originally sniffed at the technology are getting into gear. General Motors (GM), sensing a need to catch up with the Asian leaders, announced on Sept. 9 that it would partner with DaimlerChrysler (DCX) and BMW to develop a hybrid engine that all three companies will use in future cars. While GM has two truck models that use hybrid technology to improve torque, the new line will focus on fuel efficiency, with a Saturn VUE Green line in 2006 and a hybrid Chevrolet Malibu in 2007. Chrysler says it plans to launch its first commercial hybrid, a Dodge Durango, in 2008.
CHECK THE MILEAGE. Not all of the new hybrids necessarily focus on fuel economy, however. Many larger hybrids devote the added power from the electric motor to help with performance. Because an electric motor can start up much faster than a combustion engine, it provides a helpful boost at low speeds and gives the cars better acceleration and torque.
"Up until...this year, hybrids were pretty much used for fuel savings," says Walter McManus, the director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. Many performance hybrids have energy savings of less than 10% of the standard cars' mileage. "With cars like the [Honda] Accord Hybrid, and the Lexus, those vehicles have six-cylinder engines" and guzzle a good share of gas, he says, adding, "the electric motor is pretty much just for a power boost."
Auto makers respond that they're just giving consumers a choice, and as hybrid technology continues to advance, they'll be able to improve metrics of performance, efficiency, and cost all at once. "The battery in the current year's [Toyota] Prius is 30% lighter in weight and yet can hold 30% more in terms of energy storage," says Mary Nickerson, national marketing manager of advanced-technology vehicles at Toyota. "And we're continuing to improve the [battery] system."
IF BRAD HAS ONE... Hybrids generally cost significantly more than their standard counterparts although it's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison since most of the savings occur long after the inital purchase. A four-wheel drive Toyota Highlander Hybrid, for example, retails for $34,430, vs. $27,400 for a four-wheel-drive Highlander with a standard V6 engine.
The hybrids' cool factor has also increased since they first debuted. The dorky, quasi-futuristic look of the hybrids from 2000 and 2001 has been toned down, and they've become the wheels of choice for many celebrities, ranging from Larry David to Brad Pitt.
Yet hybrids are still just one stop on the road in alternative-energy technology, say most auto makers. They point to hydrogen fuel cells, which emit only water vapor, as the end goal. Huge hurdles remain for that technology -- ranging from developing an efficient infrastructure to distribute hydrogen fuel in the U.S. to figuring out efficient, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly ways to synthesize hydrogen, which now is often created by burning coal. In the meantime, however, hybrids will help make a successful transition.
By Burt Helm in New York