The hard-charged hybrid
Toyota started it off in the late nineties with the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. Running on a cleverly managed engine system using electricity and petrol, it pioneered twinning a battery-powered electrical motor for shorter journeys and a fairly conventional petrol engine that took over for longer trips. To the astonishment of the automotive giant, the Prius became a huge hit with environmentally minded, deep-pocketed customers who prided themselves on driving a low-emission vehicle despite its staid performance.
And although it’s taken more than a decade for rival manufacturers to follow suit, they’re catching up fast in the biggest revolution in the automotive industry since the invention of the internal combustion engine, according to automotive analysts.
Among many other models coming on the market, Ford is set to release its C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid selling in the US for nearly $30,000, less a $7,500 tax credit. Toyota ultimately plans to “hybridise” its entire range of models. And General Motors is hoping its Chevrolet Volt, a mid-sized saloon, will become a world favourite.
The rush of models is a far cry from the early nineties when nearly all major manufacturers gave up on electric power. After dismal sales for cars such as GM’s EV1, named by Time as one of the 50 worst automobiles ever made, they binned their battery technology and focused on smaller, petrol-sipping cars. Indeed GM bought up its fleet of EV1s and turned them to scrap metal.
The automotive industry was, however, forced back to work on cleaner fuel solutions by tougher environmental regulations and fears about the availability of oil in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Soon specialist energy companies were coming up with batteries that were sufficiently small, powerful and easily chargeable to give the industry hope.
The Volt is the result of much research from GM. Driven by an internal combustion engine married with an electric motor capable of 40 miles on a single charge, it’s starting to win over car buyers. Many commuting Volt-owners say that they rarely dip into the fuel tank.
“Gas-guzzler nothing,” responded one irate owner to a criticism of the car on an environmental blog. “I drive 34 miles to work and back, plug the car in, eat dinner, ready to go. We’ve only bought 30 gallons of gas [in six months].”
Although showroom prices for hybrids are generally higher than for petrol-powered vehicles, a Volt selling for nearly £35,000 [€44,300] in UK and Europe, compared with £17,500 [€22,160] for the battery-powered Renault Fluence, taking government subsidies into account, prices are expected to fall further. According to an analyst for TechNavio, a market intelligence company, hybrids will soon cost less than comparable petrol-powered vehicles. “This reduction in cost will fuel the growth of the global hybrid car market,” he said.
The big saving is in fuel. Depending on the model, hybrids use about a quarter less petrol than conventionally engined cars. For instance, the Ford C-Max Energi will cover 95 miles on a single gallon and 550 miles by employing both technologies.
And hybrids are more environmentally virtuous. Because most journeys can now be accomplished on the battery alone, exhaust emissions are way down on petrol-driven vehicles.
While electric cars undeniably suffer from an absence of glamour, seen as mainly small city cars for short commutes, the hybrid line-up can boast luxury executive saloons such as the Lexus CT200h and a handful of supercars such as Porsche’s 150mph Cayenne. More are coming round the corner like BMW’s Spyder i8 concept car, a rocket-quick car that will use the same amount of fuel as a small car.
The exemplary electric vehicle
It’s a big mistake to judge all electric cars by the clunkers of yesteryear, insist enthusiasts of battery-powered vehicles. Or, for that matter, by current sales. In July, for instance, the electric Smart ForTwo sold just six units in the whole of the US, while BMW’s Active E sold absolutely none.
Yet the tide is slowly turning. Until the past couple of years, the only electric vehicles in common use on the world’s roads were small trucks. The reason? The batteries weighed a tonne. In the absence of plug-in facilities elsewhere, cars had to be hooked into the household mains for a painfully slow charge that usually took all night. And even fully charged, they rarely ran for more than 20 miles.
But since giant energy companies started throwing billions of research dollars at battery technology, electrically powered cars are roaring onto the world’s roads. Of the automotive giants, the biggest adopter is France’s Renault, which is rolling out four electric cars, including the Fluence family saloon and the tough little Kangoo truck.
Although the price of battery-powered cars is usually higher than for conventionally powered vehicles, as it is for hybrids, the advantages are significant. Low-wearing electric motors require little maintenance and soon recoup the initial investment because of their long life. At two cents a mile or less, running costs are about six times less than those of ordinary petrol-powered cars.
Pollution is almost zero and, unlike earlier batteries, today’s lithium-ion ones are environmentally impeccable. They can be dismantled and fully recycled. Most convincingly, the batteries are now powerful enough to get city commuters to and from their destination, without a recharge. Recharging times are collapsing from whole days to mere hours, and supermarkets have started installing plug-in facilities in their car parks.
As electric cars proliferate, the economies of scale justify much heavier investment in technology that is making batteries ever lighter, more powerful and faster-charging by the year. China’s BYD group (Build Your Dreams) will soon launch its E6 model with a range of 200 to 250 miles. To boot, BYD says it will take roughly the time to drink a cup of coffee — about 10 minutes — to recharge to 50 percent capacity and 15 minutes to 80 percent. Mega-investor Warren Buffett is convinced — he’s a major financial backer of BYD.
With the help of design gems such as Pininfarina’s Bollore Blue Car, electric vehicles are shedding their earnest image. The chic four-seater derives its energy from a 50kw motor powered by a lithium polymer battery pack with a range of 150 miles. As an eco-bonus, the Blue Car also boasts roof-mounted solar panels. This has prompted Pininfarina to boost production to 60,000 units a year by 2015.
Like their hybrid cousins, electric supercars are throwing down the gauntlet to petrol heads. Tesla’s $109,000 Roadster is a blazing performer that can hit 60mph from a standing start in less than four seconds. A little-known virtue of battery power is that it delivers head-snapping, low-down torque.
BMW’s imminent Megacity is a low-slung coupe that will hurtle around the urban environment in total silence apart from the whoosh of its tyres. And for good measure, Swedish supercar manufacturer, Koenigsegg, is aiming to go to another level altogether. It is developing a solar-powered supercar.
Finally, another virtue of all-electric power is that it facilitates low-cost, low-volume production of highly individual forms of transport. And one of the best is the Aptera 2e, a head-turning, US-made three-wheeler with a fully-enclosed cabin resting on aircraft-type wheel struts. The single-seater Aptera will retail for about $27,000.