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Hybrid Cars: A Troubled Future?
3 Mar, 2008 02:54 pm
According to a recent study, hybrid vehicles that run on both internal combustion engine and electric batteries are no more than a temporary step until more sustainable technology is developed.
In this article, we suggest that the adoption of hybrid vehicles might slow down the development of more sustainable fuel-cell or high performance batteries powered electric vehicles. Our central question is whether the current acceptance of hybrid vehicle technology, particularly in the USA, is in any way environmentally and economically feasible.
The study has analyzed the current deployment of hybrid vehicles, including the non-financial drivers, for its adoption. They point out that most automobile manufacturers are rapidly integrating hybrid electric vehicles into their model portfolio despite the absence of significant profitability with the current volumes and the lack of a definite environmental advantage. It should be pointed out that so far, most so-called new sources of energy – hybrids, fuel cells, batteries and green fuels - for cars have no significant environmental and economic advantages over internal combustion engines
Our study argues that the media-led fashion for hybrid vehicles, especially in the USA, and increasingly in Japan and Europe and potentially in China, could represent a red light for more innovative technologies, such as viable fuel-cell cars that can use largely available sourced fuels, probably hydrogen. Most previous studies suggest that such revolutionary technology, i.e. hydrogen fuel cells, will not be marketable in high volumes before at least 2025. This could, however, be too late for some models of climate change and emissions reduction. We also point out that even fuel cell technology has its drawbacks, and much of the marketing surrounding its potential has emerged only from the hydrogen lobby itself.
At the moment, there is a general convergence of corporate strategies towards promoting hybrid vehicles as the mid-term solution to very low-emission and high-mileage vehicles. This is indeed largely due to Toyota’s strategy of developing and learning this technology while building up its own “quasi-standard”, thanks to its high-quality and reliability reputation and its high market share on the North American market.
We think that such a convergence is based more on customer perception triggered by very clever marketing and communication campaigns than on pure rationale scientific arguments. This may result in the need for any manufacturer operating in the USA to have a hybrid electric vehicle in its model range in order to keep an acceptable image and, in the long run, to survive.
Obviously, political pressures also play a significant part. The three American car manufacturers - GM, Ford, and Chrysler - recently urged President Bush to financially and politically support a national technological solution for hybrids, probably in order to avoid being dependent of the currently dominant solutions initiated by Toyota. There is probably no choice. The quest for low emission, clean, and high-mileage vehicles is currently required by the market and should be at the top of the vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers’ agenda. Is a hybrid strategy sustainable in the long run? This is the key question to be resolved. According to our study, the answer is no, because the complexity and high cost of the hybrid technology is also playing against itself, and because it is not proven than future technical development and increasing volumes will give it a real advantage.
This is a huge strategic dilemma for the key players of the automotive industry where a mistake in technology decision-making might turn even a big player into a take-over candidate. The next five years will provide industry observers with more accurate trends and success or failure factors. All vehicle manufacturers, as well as the general public, should base their decision on scientific evidence and true information rather than on fashion and emotion.
(*) Hybrid vehicles: a temporary step, by Chanaron and Teske in Int. J.
Automotive Technology and Management, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2007, pp 268-288.