Among the central themes at this year’s Detroit auto show was the rise of the mainstream plug-in hybrid. My colleagues who attended the show point to another key theme: the resurgence of American automakers in their hometown, with Detroit brands making the biggest splash with mainstream models. Either way, call it an American sunrise.
Plug-in hybrids were first promoted by Dr. Andrew Frank, a professor in the engineering department at the University of California at Davis. Various universities were working with U.S. national labs and American automakers in the 1990s to develop mainstream, midsized sedans that would get more than 70 mpg and that consumers would want to buy. Driven by a federal program and funding, GM, Ford, and Chrysler developed proof-of-concept diesel-electric hybrids that debuted on this same auto show floor in 1998. But none of these futuristic green machines plugged in.
Several university teams, however, did build cars with bigger battery packs that had to be plugged in and got some of their power from recharging with an extension cord. One was a UC Davis entry in which I rode in the back seat from Detroit to Pittsburgh on a demonstration drive. Dr. Frank explained that by deriving most of the power from electricity, engineers could dramatically shrink the size of the engine and fuel tank and make up for most of the extra weight and cost of the batteries. Putting his money where his mouth was, the 1996 Ford Taurus (with nearly 2,000 pounds of extra batteries on board) that the team built and drove for more than 800 miles used a 650 cc Yamaha motorcycle engine.
The whole point, as Dr. Frank explained it to me, was to reap the efficiency benefits of electric cars without their range limitations.
GM put it another way when it introduced the Chevrolet Volt concept car here in 2003: Then Vice Chairman Robert Lutz cited federal statistics showing that 78 percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day. So if a plug-in hybrid could go 40 miles and recharge every night, those people might go all week, every week without burning a drop of foreign oil.
Last year, Chevrolet began producing its own plug-in hybrid, the Volt. If you charge the Volt frequently enough it gets the equivalent of 99 mpg overall as we found, or even more. For now though, the Volt is an expensive small car with relatively low sales volumes.
At the auto show this year, we saw production or near-production versions of two of America’s top-selling midsized sedans promising plug-in hybrid powertrains: the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, in addition to the upcoming plug-in version of the Toyota Prius.
Toyota showed how plug-in technology could evolve further and displayed their vision with the NS4 concept, a possible next generation Prius. Even Volvo showed an XC60 Plug-In Hybrid concept. And there was some speculation that the Lincoln MKZ concept, which is based on the Fusion, might share its plug-in hybrid system. (Ford has also announced the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid van, scheduled to debut next year.)
It’s been more than a decade since the government first prodded automakers to develop plug-in hybrids, and now they finally are making their way into the mainstream as viable cars.
To be sure, these plug-in models are all still expensive, and the cars that use them also offer other, more affordable drivetrains. So they won’t be volume powerplants for some time. But as volume builds, battery supplies will ramp up and prices will likely drop. A spike in gas prices could also spur the demand.
But I find it encouraging that they are now hitting the streets, and coming from several different automakers. If the goal is to cut oil consumption, put a lid on prices, and give consumers an option to hedge against potential future supply disruptions or price increases, there is no quicker, more effective technology that does not require building an entirely new fuel infrastructure or require major compromises in delivering what consumers demand from their cars. Considering consumer expectations, no other alternative fuel technology has the potential to actually reduce, not just slow the growth of, American petroleum use in the next 10 years.
That trend seems like a big win for the country on several levels.