Global sales of micro-hybrid vehicles will top three million units this year and rise to an astounding 34 million units by mid-decade, according to a new report from Lux Research. Jacob Grose, senior Analyst at Lux Research and the report’s lead author, believes that sales of micro-hybrids will grow much faster than full hybrids or electric cars, and represent a more effective approach to carbon reductions and overall improved vehicle mileage.
In the report, titled “Micro-hybrids: On the Road to Hybrid Vehicle Dominance,” Lux forecasts that 37 percent of new passenger vehicles sold throughout the world will be micro-hybrids by the middle of this decade.
Micro-hybrids don’t use battery power to move the wheels. Instead, the technology—also called stop-start or idle-stop—uses stored energy to stop an engine from idling when it comes to a stop, and then restart the engine when you are ready to drive. The most affordable micro-hybrids can cost as little as $300 and provide a 2 – 5 percent improvement in fuel economy, while the most robust micro-hybrids can cost $1,000 to $1,500 while providing a 10 to 15 efficiency gain. The cars use affordable lead-acid batteries and ultracapacitors for energy storage, rather than the pricey nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries found in hybrids and EVs.
Boring But Better
Most hybrid and EV fans see micro-hybrid technology as a poor substitute for more robust electric drive vehicles. “Americans like to dream big. They don’t want the boring solution, when there’s an exotic exciting solution, certainly for environmentalists and those excited about electric vehicles,” Grose said, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “They see global warming as a serious problem and believe [micro-hybrids] are not addressing it fast enough.”
Yet, the impact of the nearly 3 million micro-hybrids already on European roads —if estimated to improve fuel economy by 10 percent—provide reductions in carbon emissions equal to hundreds of thousands of grid-connected vehicles, according to Grose.
He believes the high cost of lithium-ion batteries will continue to limit sales of grid-connected vehicles for some time. Lux forecast global sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids to reach 140,000 units by 2015.
Meanwhile, according to the Lux report, in Europe, sales of 2.8 million micro-hybrid cars projected for 2010 are on track to grow to 10.5 million by 2015, by which time micro-hybrids will comprise 64 percent of European auto sales. Lux sees a similar percentage of new cars using micro-hybrid technology in Japan, and nearly as much in China as well. The main driver of micro-hybrid adoption in these places is aggressive carbon regulations.
Why Not Here?
There are virtually zero micro-hybrids currently on U.S. roads, mostly because the technology is dismissed in favor of sexier alternatives, like electric cars, according to Grose. That sentiment translates into government policy. “The U.S. has invested a lot of money in subsidies originally for hybrid vehicles and now for grid-connected vehicles,” Grose said. “The Obama Administration has spent a lot of money subsidizing battery manufacturers, and bringing battery manufacturing to the U.S. I’m sure micro-hybrids seem like a threat.”
The reluctance to shift to micro-hybrids could turn around very quickly. The micro-hybrid technology is completely proven and ready to roll. It’s strictly a matter of automakers being held accountable for reaching high fuel efficiency and tough emissions standards—with scalable and affordable technology.
“I think all the automakers are going to start bringing micro-hybrids to the U.S. starting in a couple years, and ramp up after that. As carbon targets start getting closer, there’s going to be a lot of push on industry to get those cars out,” Grose said. “It’s something they know how to do. They just have to reconfigure it for the American market, with relatively minor tweaks.”
U.S. fuel efficiency standards are set to rise from 27.5 mpg today to 35.5 mpg by 2016.
Micro-hybrids could play a major role in reaching that target. According to Lux, sales of micro-hybrids in the U.S. will grow from zero today, to 4.6 million units by 2015. “The technology is around today. You see it in Europe.” Grose said. “You see the VW Polo Bluemotion getting 70-plus miles per gallon, and you say why isn’t this in the U.S.?”