No HybridsThe 'Green' Vehicle Craze Leaves European Manufacturers Scratching Their HeadsAs an engineer, working for european car is a pretty good gig. I get to talk to other engineers at some of the world's best car companies about topics like seven-speed automatic transmissions, variable valve timing, electronic stability control and engine management systems, sure in the knowledge that I am speaking with the true experts in their respective fields. There are reasons why you and I like European cars so much, and their superior engineering and use of the highest levels of automotive technology are near the top of that list.
Having established that our favorite cars are designed and built by some of the best and brightest in the world, how could Europe's engineering elite have missed the boat so completely on hybrid-powered vehicles? Stories about these new 'green machines' are grabbing all the headlines as politicians, celebrities and the ever-present lunatic fringe have endowed them the coveted status of being both environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Honda, Ford (through Mazda), General Motors, Lexus and Toyota are among the companies that currently offer hybrids in the United States.
A hybrid, more properly called a gasoline-electric hybrid, uses two separate powerplants to provide driving force for the vehicle. An electric motor with a limited supply of battery power can move the car at low speeds with almost zero pollution. Under normal operation, an efficient gasoline engine provides power to the wheels, but can also power a generator to recharge the batteries. Under hard acceleration, both the electric motor and the gasoline engine can combine their power, making the vehicle accelerate more quickly. This way, a smaller gasoline engine can give big-engine performance when it's needed, while reducing harmful exhaust emissions and improving fuel economy. If this sounds like the best of both worlds, you've just discovered why hybrids are in the news so much.
There is, of course, a downside: cost. Placing two complete drive systems into a single vehicle adds significantly to the manufacturer's overhead. Typically, manufacturers sell hybrids at a premium of between $6,000 and $10,000, and you can expect a hybrid to return 6 to 10 mpg improvement over a comparable gasoline-powered model. This means that if you drive the average number of miles each year, it will take more than 15 years for the savings in gasoline to make up the premium. Some hybrid fans are quick to point out that it's not fuel savings but lower exhaust emission levels that make a hybrid environmentally friendly. They have a point, as even a full-sized ultra-luxury sedan like the new Lexus LS600hL hybrid qualifies for a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) rating.
The fact that there aren't any European manufacturers represented in the American-market hybrid stampede is somewhat ironic. In 1899, Ferdinand Porsche experimented with hub-mounted electric motors and a gasoline-powered generator in a car built by Lohner. More than 300 Lohner-Porsches were sold with the system, and Porsche himself raced a car with such a system installed.
By 1905, a patent was issued detailing use of an electric motor to add to the performance of the regular gasoline engine to improve performance, and gasoline-electric hybrids continued their development through the early 1920s. In the '60s and '70s the concept was reborn with projects from GM and Volkswagen and the first European hybrid of the modern era was the 1997 Audi A4 Duo that used a 1.9-liter TDI diesel paired with an electric motor.
With such a big lead and a heritage of hybrid technology, why are today's hybrids coming from Japan and the United States, and not from Stuttgart, Munich or Wolfsburg?
The answer is diesel. European manufacturers spent most of the 1990s perfecting turbocharged direct injection diesel technology so that it can produce incredible fuel economy while dramatically reducing emissions. Further research has brought the latest urea-injection technology, pioneered on European heavy trucks to the passenger segment, making these engines nearly as clean as the cleanest gasoline offerings.
Why should European manufacturers place two drive systems in a vehicle to attain 30 or 40 mpg when they can get the same results using a single modern direct injection diesel engine? European engineers simply scratch their heads when you ask them why they aren't building a hybrid.
The crux of the problem is the North American market. Because of the poor performance, clouds of soot and general disrepute of early diesel cars from the '70s and '80s, Americans just won't accept the idea that a modern diesel engine can be both clean and powerful. Although Audi's formidable victories at Sebring and LeMans and Volkswagen's excellent TDI powerplants have turned enthusiasts' heads, most of the driving public considers diesels as smelly, smoky and slow, and look at hybrids as clean, efficient and hip. Until now, Europe's manufacturers have steadfastly held their positions that a new modern diesel is a better solution than a hybrid.
There are chinks in Europe's armor, however. Public image and federal tax incentives mean that hybrids are hot, and even if you believe that diesels are the best solution, if you're a car maker and don't have a hybrid to sell, you're most likely losing money to a company that does.
That's why the Volvo C30 Hybrid will be offered in 2008 and Volkswagen will offer a Touareg Hybrid in 2009. Diesels, meanwhile, remain stuck with their smelly past despite new low-sulfur fuels and technologies that can make them just as clean and green. Eventually the oil-burner's image will change, but don't look for Hollywood's image-conscious elite to be pried from their hybrids any time soon.