Hybrid buzz

In a moment rife with symbolism, the profligate past and potential future took center stage when the North America International Auto Show opened to the media on Sunday.

For an industry in the throes of what many see as revolutionary change, the schizophrenia displayed in selecting the car and truck of the year couldn’t have been more perfect. There was the Chrysler 300C, selected North American Car of the Year by a panel of auto writers. A muscled-up sedan that’s powered by a V-8 Hemi, the car provides the sort of performance gearheads salivate over. And with a mileage rating of about 17 miles per gallon in the city, it and the other gas-guzzlers on display at the Cobo Center show represent a mind-set that fails to recognize economic and ecologic reality.

The United States has only 3 percent of the world’s population, but consumes more than 25 percent of the energy created each year. Until now, we’ve been the hog at the trough. Now Asia, with China and India in the forefront, is gearing up to chow down in a big way.

“Energy demand in the developing world is expected to increase by 91 percent between 2001 and 2025, with emerging economies of Asia driving demand growth,” according to a 2004 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And then there’s the issue of global warming, which the CIA predicts will “challenge the international community as indications of a warming climate — such as meltbacks of polar ice, sea level rise, and increasing frequency of major storms — occur.”

At this point, change is becoming a matter of necessity, not choice.

“With pressure coming from a number of sources,” says David Friedman, a transportation specialist for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “we have to be on the cusp of major change.”

Which brings us to the Truck of the Year: Ford Motor Company’s Escape hybrid sports utility vehicle.

This is the immediate future. Or, along with highly efficient diesel engines being developed, at least one promising aspect of it. Ford says the hybrid Escape — the first SUV to combine an electric motor with an internal combustion engine — will get 35 to 40 miles per gallon. That compares to the 20 miles per gallon a 2005 Escape with a conventional V-6 gets.

Hybrids aren’t new. The Honda Insight hit the U.S. market in 1999, with the Prius, which Toyota began selling in Japan in 1997, becoming available in this country in 2000. American manufacturers are still behind the curve.

“It’s difficult playing catch-up at this point, but it’s not as though the situation is beyond repair,” says Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The public, too, needs to get up to speed. Peter M. DeLorenzo, founder and publisher of Autoextremist.com, a Web site that tracks and critiques developments in the auto industry, says a recent survey conducted by his company found that, were they given letter grades on their understanding of what hybrids are, more than half the consumers polled would receive a D or F.

But there’s reason for confusion. First of all, not that many are on the road yet. Of the 17 million vehicles sold in the United States last year, only 79,000 were hybrids, according to Eron Shosteck of the industry trade group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Moreover, not all hybrids work the same. Honda’s Insight and Civic are considered “mild hybrids,” meaning that the electric motor is only large enough to supplement a gas or diesel engine. These can improve fuel efficiency over equivalent gas-only models by as much as 25 percent or more.

The Prius and Escape, on the other hand, are full hybrids, meaning that the electric motor is powerful enough to propel the vehicle by itself, but is used in concert with an internal combustion engine to increase fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance. The Prius, for example, nearly doubles the fuel efficiency of its conventional counterpart, the Camry.

And then there’s GM’s Silverado pickup, which only uses the electric motor when the vehicle is idling. It’s the most basic application of hybrid technology, increasing fuel economy by only about 10 percent. There’s some debate as to whether such a vehicle is truly a hybrid.

“The start/stop system is a good use of conventional technology,” UCS’s Friedman says, “but to push it off as a hybrid is misleading.”

Not surprisingly, GM officials disagree with that assessment. However, GM is also pushing ahead with full hybrid technology developed for use in buses. To that end, it has partnered with DaimlerChrysler.

The array of hybrids available is about to blossom. As many as 35 different hybrid models are expected to be available in the United States by the year 2008. Availability, however, doesn’t mean dominance. In a report released last year, the U.S. Department of Energy predicted that hybrid market share in the U.S. could be as high as 15 percent by 2012.

But there are obstacles to overcome. One is uncertainty about the resale value of hybrids, DeLorenzo says. Who’s going to be willing to pony up top-dollar for an eight-year-old car that carries with it the likelihood of replacing a battery with a price tag of $2,000 or $3,000?

The good news, Friedman says, is that as production ramps up, prices will inevitably come down. A wild card in the deck is gasoline prices. Sales of hybrids spiked when gas topped $2 a gallon, Shosteck says. The higher gas prices go, the more demand for these vehicles will increase.

Most experts see hybrids as “transitional” technology, a step along the way to hydrogen fuel cells, which use a chemical reaction to produce electricity, with water vapor the only emission coming from the tailpipe. But implementing that technology poses challenges much more daunting than hybrids. Making them affordable is only one issue. Creating an infrastructure — converting gas stations to hydrogen fueling stations in a nationwide network — will be enormously expensive. Also, finding a way to produce hydrogen without burning as much fossil fuel as cars currently consume remains elusive.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the United States cannot afford to continue sucking up gas as if there’s no tomorrow.

“The energy issues we face as a nation are beginning to come into play,” DeLorenzo says. “I think people are ready to embrace vehicles that have much better fuel economy. We’ve overeaten at the banquet table with big SUVs. I think the pendulum is now starting to swing the other way.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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