Automakers Remain Bullish on Hybrid Electric Vehicles

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

Mention “hybrid” vehicle to most people and the Toyota Prius comes to mind. That’s expected as the Prius family is by far the most dominant hybrid electric vehicles on the market. Furthermore, Toyota is the chief manufacturer, building twice as many hybrids as the industry combined.

Despite all the attention given to hybrids, these vehicles account for just under 3 percent of all cars on the road today. That’s not an especially tenable market for a vehicle segment touting all things sustainable. And with gas prices currently averaging $2 per gallon, the market for gas-electric hybrids remains especially weak.

Car manufacturers aren’t giving up on the segment and for good reason: automakers must reach progressively higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) or fleet averages each model year. By 2025, that average rises to 54.5 mpg, a number that will only be accomplished through much greater adoption of alternative fuel vehicles, including hybrids, pure electric cars, and fuel cell vehicles.

2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid.

2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Hybrid adoption isn’t without its challenges, however. The following are valid concerns expressed by potential consumers and adopters alike:

First, such models are usually more expensive than conventional vehicles, costing consumers 10 to 20 percent more than equivalent models. A greater payout up front can inhibit sales. Further, recouping the added cost becomes especially difficult when gas prices are low.

Second, fuel economy doesn’t always match real world numbers. Achieving 50 mpg with some hybrids is possible, such as with the Honda Accord Hybrid, but that’s only when weather conditions are favorable. In extreme conditions, such as during the winter, fuel economy numbers will drop. Hybrids are most efficient during mild weather, but not when it is hot.

Third, battery degradation is a big concern. Whether you’re looking at purchasing a hybrid or an electric vehicle, the battery packs that supply power to the electric motors gradually degrades notes Manufacturers help allay such fears by providing extended warranties for the pack and related components, starting at eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. If the battery fails after the warranty expires, a replacement will run in the thousands of dollars. That’s not a cost many consumers are willing to absorb.

Ford Fusion Energi

Ford Fusion Energi — a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

Fortunately, manufacturers have been devising ways to make hybrid vehicles not just more efficient, but longer lasting. Extending vehicle range, critical for electric vehicles, will have a positive spillover effect on hybrid vehicles which utilize smaller battery packs. Manufacturers are achieving greater efficiencies as follows:

One, by going with efficient lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries instead of traditional nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Li-ion batteries provide longer range and offer a faster recharge for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Two, new capacitors are under development. Making battery packs denser and better able to distribute the electrical flow are among the breakthroughs scientists are working on. MIT is testing such batteries and the research is encouraging. Researchers may develop not just a more efficient battery, but one with recharge times paralleling the refuel time of conventional vehicles. Other organizations and universities working diligently to find solutions include the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Michigan Technical University, and Stanford University.

Cadillac ELR

The Cadillac ELR is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Car Manufacturers and Hybrids

Manufacturers are working on a number of ways to make hybrids more palpable to consumers, typically by placing them in high-end models, but mostly as a power boost, and not so much for fuel savings.

Indeed, the Porsche 918 Spyder was one such model, powered by a 4.6-liter, V-8 engine along with a pair of synchronous electric motors mounted on each axle. This hyper gas-electric hybrid makes a combined 875 horsepower and 944 foot-pounds of torque, for a vehicle that can be operated in front, rear, or all-wheel drive modes.

Another super car, the Acura NSX, is also a hybrid. This all-wheel-drive model is powered by a mid-mounted twin turbo V-6 gasoline engine and comes with a 9-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and three electric motors. Combined, the NSX makes 573 horsepower with an output of more than 500 foot-pounds of torque.

Of course, most consumers do not have the discretionary income to afford either model. With a price tag starting at $156,000 and eclipsing $200,000 with every option taken, the NSX amplifies high price and scarcity.

Toyota Prius

The best-selling hybrid in the world is the Toyota Prius.

Making Hybrids Affordable

Coming closer to earth — that would be “purchase attainability” for the rest of us — hybrid adoption will remain low as long as prices are high. Lincoln is currently the only brand selling its base gasoline and hybrid models for the same price ($35,190), effectively absorbing the added cost of the electrified powertrain. That effort has led to more than one in five MKZ models selling as hybrids, well above the take rate for models offering gasoline and hybrid choices.

The Ford Motor Company may be more willing to absorb the cost of a hybrid in a higher profit model, such as the Lincoln MKZ, but like other manufacturers offering a no-cost option in mainstream models may not be a viable solution. Still, to further consumer adoption, lowering the cost of hybrid systems is critical to helping manufacturers reach their goals.

Fall short and steep penalties from the federal government will ensue. Thus, finding a way to cut costs while spreading hybrid usage across more model lines is a must. Technological advancements may ultimately close the gap, building a solid case for hybridization across the industry.

See Also —  Buick Sets Sales Record Again

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