Honda and Nissan Consider Plug-in Hybrids

Honda and Nissan have been banking on fuel cells and electric cars as the long-term strategy for sustainable mobility. Company executives are now warming up to plug-in hybrids.

Since their introduction in the US in late 1999, hybrid cars have been repeatedly dismissed as a “bridge technology”—a euphemism for a short-lived second-rate technology that briefly serves a purpose until it can be replaced with something better and longer lasting. But in recent statements coming within days of one another, executives from Honda and Nissan are reconsidering the role that hybrids will play in the coming decades.

For both companies, the plug-in hybrid is seen as the next stage of hybrids and as the key to the technology’s longevity. Honda was banking on a transition to fuel cell cars, while Nissan was primarily moving toward the pure battery-electric vehicle.

Honda began leasing a limited number of its FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell cars last year, and still sees hydrogen as the long-term alternative to gasoline. But Honda President Takeo Fukui believes that the cost of fuel will need to increase before hydrogen-powered cars are ready for significant growth. In an interview published by Bloomberg, he said, “Oil prices are going to go up. When that time comes, fuel cells, solar panels, hydrogen, those will be the key words. We will have packages that will be very competitive at that time.” In the meantime, he said the company is “thinking about plug-in hybrids.” He added, “We aren’t thinking about commercializing one right away.” Honda will need to modify its current mild hybrid system—or develop a new approach—in order to produce plug-in hybrids.

The Bridge Gets Much Longer

Honda’s views on plug-in hybrids are also motivated by new consumer tax credits—as much as $7,500 for a robust plug-in hybrid. Fukui said, “We understand the situation, in terms of government and incentives. Naturally, we’re going to have to accommodate that too.”

Nissan also sees a future jump in oil prices as the key to its long-term efficient technology: the electric car. “When GDP growth comes back on a worldwide basis, there will be again attention on the oil market, which will trigger an oil price increase,” said Carlos Tavares, Nissan executive vice president. “We will be in the right tempo to face that environment.”

Mark Perry, Nissan product planner, told, “Zero emission vehicles are clearly our focus and we believe it’s the future state of transportation. Some segments of the market in the near term may best be served by high efficiency internal combustion engines, diesels, hybrids or extended range electric vehicles [also known as plug-in hybrids].” He added that these technologies are “all bridge technologies to the time when battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles can cover every market segment.”

The Key Question: When?

The key question for both companies is how long it will take until electric cars and fuel cell vehicles can reach levels approaching the current hybrid market. After 10 years on the market, hybrids represent less than 3 percent of the new car market.

Speaking at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ 2009 World Congress last week, Minoru Shinohara, Nissan corporate senior vice president, said that plug-in hybrids will be an important transition solution to the pure electric vehicle because they don’t need an extensive public charging infrastructure. The cost of building the public charging infrastructure will cost many billions of dollars; therefore, most analysts believe that it could take decades to construct.

Hybrids will not necessarily disappear even after an electric-recharging or hydrogen-refueling infrastructure is built. Kenji Nakano, senior chief engineer, Honda R&D, also appearing at the World Congress, said, “Hybrid technology is also applied to fuel cell vehicles, range-extender vehicles, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Thus, instead of being a bridge technology, hybrids are expected to remain in the mainstream for quite some time.”

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  • Tom Me

    Anything 10+ years in the future is really speculation. Hydrogen will take so much infrastructure to make it convenient that it’s 10+ years out there. With that said, I’ll play devil’s advocate on the solution I’d love.. the all electric car. For the next 10 years, the cost and inconvenience of charging electric cars will be an issue holding them back.

    So.. the thing I feel we can productively talk about is the next 10 years. All electrics like the Teslas, or the limited range (<100 miles) vehicles a la Nissan or the Ford utility van, are practical in the next 10 years, just find the niche buyers for them. Hydrogen will continue to be researched, how to get the fuel cell improved, etc.

    Plug ins make so much sense. they can be offered “soon”, allow the driving range and fueling convenience of ICEs, and will run all electric, when charging is practical. The good thing plug in’s offer for all camps (hydrogen, all electric people) is that the car manufacturers will get much better at making an electric propelled vehicle… how to make motors dealing with the dirt.. writing the control software.. making the driving experience excellent. Even getting better at batteries will benefit the hydrogen crowd, since having a battery in combination with a fuel cell makes for a smaller fuel cell to handle hard accelerations.

  • Samie

    Here’s what they are talking about The Chevy Volt!!! Even if GM is not around a Volt type mass produced car will happen in the next 3-5yrs.

    I would disagree somewhat of what was said in the article. The key in the short-term is energy/environmental legislation. Prices for gasoline will go up naturally but I feel the politics behind say EU, U.S or even China will determine how fast this market grows along with selling Volt types to the luxury car buyers first. A note on energy prices its scary to think how all the hedging drove up the price of oil (not all explained by the demand for oil) and was quickly taken out of the futures market, why don’t people sit on futures if they know its going to go up in the near future? Scary to think of how irresponsible we can be if chasing high interest rate returns in the short-run…. Maybe that’s a good enough reason to move to grid-free ways to power our transportation needs?

    Wonder if Honda and Nissan are anticipating the Volt or even say a Plug in Prius?????

  • hybridgreg

    I feel this article is fairly informative about the future state of car propulsion. The Honda hybrid system is not a “mild hybrid” as the article suggests. It is a true hybrid. A Mild hybrid would be the ’04 -’07 Chevy Sierra that does not power the vehicle,but only adds a little electric motor (and a 42 volt lead acid motor) to help the gas engine get a bit better fuel economy.

    Honda does need to modify its hybrid configuration to make it more efficient. Whether adding a hydraulic propulsion system or additonal electic motors. Its present configuration restricts the ability for the car to run on all electric due to the location of the single motor/generator in the place that normally occupies the flywheel. Enhancments have allowed for the engine to be off at stops. Make no mistake, though, Hondas are a full hybrid system that is very efficient and reliable.

    Nissan, on the other hand is using the Toyota hybrid system. I can appreciate their thought that they want to “keep their powder dry” for an all electric car or fuel cell (like Honda), but even they realize that hybrids are here to stay for at least a couple of decades as the dominate propulsion for cars.

    Fuel cell cars have been touted as the best solution for over ten years, now. Ten years ago the engineers said it would be “ten years” before they are practical. 5 years ago these same engineers said it would be another “ten years” away. This year, they said again, it would take another “ten years” before we see them as an option. The truth is, although we will see them some day, the problems that need to be solved are many and stubborn. To name just a few:
    1) The membrane that separates the electrons from the hydrogen atoms to form hydrogen ions is very thin and vulnarable to the slightest grain of dirt. This causes holes in the membrane which quickly renders the membrane ineffective. At the present time, this membrane lasts only about 35,000 miles. The membrane (also known as the stack) costs several thousand dollars to replace.
    2) There had been a large quest to replace the anode (part used to collect the free electrons) with something other than platinum. A platinum replacement may be found but nothing has been found to date. If all the vehicles in the world were converted to fuel cell technology, it would require all the platinum mined since the beginning of tme, then, after three years, another supply of this platinum would be needed to replace the spent anode.
    3) The cost of a fuel cell car today is around 1.25 million dollars.
    4) The practicality of the fuel cell is totally dependent on new discoveries that would lower the cost of production.

    Now, that being said. I do believe these problems will be solved. The question is “will it take another ten years”?

    Finally, plug-in hybrids are a great new evolution to the hybrid car. As I have stated before, plug-in hybrids will be a bridge technology to selling all-electric vehicles. The consumer (and the government) will make the all electric vehicle be successful. At the present time, since no all-electric vehicle has ever sold more than 17,000+ units, the consumer is going to have to slowly be introduced to the technology in order to detach the stigma of a “battery powered anything will fail at the most unconvenient times” (think cell phones, i-pods, lap tops, shavers etc) These same consumers have all experienced the frustration of trying to start a car with a dead battery. The plug-in hybrid will help the public to have confidence in plug-in battery powered cars in the future. The 64000 dollar question is when will that public perception change? I feel the plug-in hybrid technology is the key to that bridge.

  • james raj

    First there needs to be efficient “gasoline plugins” by 2010. Then the gasoline engine will be replaced with fuel cellls to yield “fuel cell plugins” by 2015. This is the road ahead.

  • xchngcoef

    There is a lot of intelligent debate on batteries and fuel cells, but few address the background issue of making the quantities needed in the time frame wanted and then handling disposal/recycling of the used equipment. This is going to be a very big market. Disposing of the billions of batteries now used is a concern, add to that the number required for each vehicle times the number of vehicles plus replacements and a new infrastructure element will be needed to handle the load. That needs to be discussed in the early stages of this transition. The term fuel cells can be substituted for batteries in this dicussion and the same considerations apply, only there is no primitive process in place at this time to handle their disposal.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Xchngcoef, I think you have a good point about the idea of recycling. I think the articles dealing with “cash for clunkers” is one possible idea for getting older cars and the materials in them recycled.

    hybridgreg, although you are correct in saying that the Honda hybrid system is a true hybrid, it still is considered a mild hybrid. Even Honda states that their hybrid system is a gas engine system with an electric motor assist. In vehicles like the Toyota Prius, the electric motor HP output is almost the same as the gas engine (2009 Prius: 76 gas HP, 67 electric HP, 110 total HP; 2010 Prius: 98 gas HP, 80 electric HP, 134 total HP). The electric motors can accelerate the Prius on their own. In the Honda hybrid system the electric motor is only a small percentage of the HP (Civic: 93 gas HP, 20 electric HP, 110 total HP; Insight: 88 gas HP, 13 electric HP, 98 total HP). It is because of the smaller percentage of hybridization that the Honda’s are titled mild hybrids.

  • crookmatt

    I disagree that the electric infrastructure is a major barrier to electric cars. I think developing an economical, high-capacity, durable, light-weight batter is the much, much, much bigger issue. Since it costs roughly 1/6th as much per mile to power a car on electricity, if a viable battery is first developed there will be plenty of incentive from not only conventional gas stations, but grocery stores, restaurants, and so on to put little plug-in electric outlets at each of their parking spots with little credit card machines built in. Your car charges while you shop, eat or whatever–and even with a premium price so the business makes some money you’re still paying far less per mile than using a gasoline driven car.

    I really think the battery issue needs to be addressed, the rest is just peanuts. (Having that said-that is how hybrids and plug-in hybrids ARE bridging the gap to EV’s since they force big businesses to develop better batteries which will someday be adiquate for pure EVs)

  • J-Bob

    I’ve heard the argument that tapping the grid to fuel your car only goes toward replacing gasoline with coal, but that methodology is flawed in a number of ways since most of the power produced is not used anyway and therefore lost during the night cycle.

    As for battery tech, I’ve got to agree with Matthew. While Lithium based batteries are a HUGE increase in storage capacity vs Ni-Cad or Lead Acid, it still needs a significant increase in capacity and weight reduction to make it truly a full gasoline replacement (hence plug-ins).

    If one tries to compare apples and oranges, a large battery pack in such cars as the Volt or Tesla represents nearly 1/4 to 1/2 of the cars overall weight, yet can only store roughly the same amount of energy found in 1 to 3 gallons of gas.

    Improve energy density by a factor of 4 or 5, with a weight reduction of a corresponding amount and that is when the internal combustion engine will be supplanted by electric cars.

    Base that on what history has shown us, and we’re looking at a minimum of 15-20 years before we see that happening.

    Plug-ins will help fill in the gap.

  • John K.

    “The cost of building the public charging infrastructure will cost many billions of dollars; therefore, most analysts believe that it could take decades to construct.”

    If that is true for expanding the grid to charge EVs, I can’t imagine the cost in time and money for creating from the ground up a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

    An aside: we’re almost 1/3rd the way thru 2009 and still no EEStor! 🙁

  • Collin Burnell

    I drive a Nissan Altima Hybrid… a Great Car! But I am convinced that Nissan is worse off that anyone when it comes to Hybrids and they are now finally realizing the value, duh! I don’t get why so many top executives (not all) throughout the last 15 years didn’t get it when it comes to Hybrids. Sure, there is a certain degree of R&D required, so, do it!!! Innovation, in the Auto Industry is critical!!!

    Hybrids may be a ‘bridge technology’… Golden Gate Bridge technology, that is… many lanes wide and very long!

    Hybrids just make good sense… Fantastic (unpresidented) improvements in efficiency… utilizes existing infrastructure… in a platform with many further (possible) area’s of improvement… perfect!

  • Hal Howell

    I’m surprised no one else is taking Chevy’s approach. The Volt IS the solution. An electric car that has limited range (40 miles) and an onboard ICE for recharging the the batteries for about 400 miles of range extension.
    I like my Prius but would drop it in a heartbeat for the Volt, assuming I could afford it. This is a clear case of over-thinking/engineering a problem. It takes energy to produce hydrogen and the costs to use hydrogen are still extremely expensive. Especially since there is no infrastructure for dispensing the hydrogen.
    The gas-electric hybrid or range extended electric car IS the solution to affordable transportation. At least for the for the next several decades. There is nothing wrong with using gasoline. The Prius currently is one of the least polluting cars on the market. I expect the Volt will change that when it comes out. On average, most people could drive a volt to and from work during the week and never use a drop of gasoline. I know I could.

  • Tippers

    @hybridreg: The accepted definitions of hybrid vehicles are:

    Micro Hybrid: Adds automatice engine stop/start (and maybe regen braking) to a standard car
    Mild Hybrid: The electric motor adds to the powertrain, but cannot drive the vehicle on its own. It also has stop/start and regen braking
    Full Hybrid: As a mild hybrid, but can also drive the vehicle on its own.

    Given these accepted definitions, the Honda is a MILD hybrid, not full — it can’t drive the vehicle without the engine.

  • Toots McGillicutty

    I keep hearing all of you American Car apologists saying…”when the Volt come out….”

    Folks…we don’t even know the future of GM, let alone a launch date of a pie in the sky public relations stunt that the Volt represents. As cars become more of a utilitarian possession and not the status symbol they once were, then the Volt and it’s luxury price tag will never get off the ground.

    China and India will transform the American Car purchasing behavior. A car purchase will be as emotional as buying a refrigerator or washer/dryer.

    Our emotional and status building luxury items will segue from transportation into more short term financed technology and entertainment based purchases.

    Increased taxes will eat up our paychecks and take home pay will determine our debt to income ratios for anything we need to finance….therefore… the days of long term financing of anything else other than a home will be gone…

    Toyota, Nissan and Honda will be the new Big Three…but only if they realize the transformation to utility cars…otherwise they will make the same mistakes Detroit suffered through this year and lose enormous market share to Indian and Chinese carmakers.

  • Toots McGillicutty

    Oh…By the Way…Welcome to the New Global Economy!!!

  • DVanditmars

    You need to look at how we are now purchasing things now. Electricity to most homes is common place now, (it was not >100 years ago). Telephones came next, then cableTV, then finally we have the internet coming to your home with wires connecting us to the service providers. The internet then allowed us to purchase documents, then music and recently movies. These are all delivered to us through some wires into our home. What falls out of this are printed paper, CDs and DVDs. To me the next thing is to have most of our transportation energy delivered to our home as well, (through the exisitng wires we already have). Then say goodbye to gasoline, (along with CDs, DVDs, and Dodo birds) Plug-ins are not only the future, but also the near future…

  • ex-EV1 driver

    You are almost right that “a large battery pack in such cars as the Volt or Tesla represents nearly 1/4 to 1/2 of the cars overall weight, yet can only store roughly the same amount of energy found in 1 to 3 gallons of gas.”
    However, don’t forget that the efficiency of an electric motor is about 4x more efficient than a gasoline ICE (a modern brushless AC induction motor is greater than 90% while a gasoline ICE is less than 20%).
    The only real limitations to Electric cars today are:
    1) no one is making them except Tesla
    2) because of the low volume manufacturing, the batteries are still quite expensive.
    Fortunately, Tesla seems to be solving problem #2. Hopefully, others will step up and work on #1. Otherwise, we could be worse off if Tesla makes all of the cars in the US. The Tesla Roadster is the most fun, the hottest, and the greenest car on the road. I hope they keep growing into more varied and affordable models.

  • DJB

    The beautiful thing about plug-in hybrids is that they offer the benefits of an electric car for short trips without the need for any new infrastructure: the pollution is displaced to the power plant, and if the electricity comes from a source like solar or wind, there’s no pollution at all. This is a critical link in the fight against climate change and smog. Drivers would have a choice of two fuels instead of being forced to buy gasoline exclusively.

    Plug-in hybrids also serve as a catalyst to build some new electric charging infrastructure at the places people park, which could pave they way for more all-electric cars.

    The technology has already been applied successfully in after-market conversions of Toyota Priuses at a total cost (car + conversion) of under $35,000. With economies of scale in production, this cost could be brought much lower.

    It’s time for car makers to stop talking about plug-in hybrids and start rolling them out.

  • sean t

    DJB, you’re 100% correct.

  • sean t

    Don’t have to repeat that GM was wrong saying hybrid cars are just a PR stunt from T. What they should have done is organizing their design and production in 2 streams:
    1) Producing flashy, powerful, inefficient cars which only the so called car-enthusiasts buy. About 1-2% of drivers will buy them and as a consequence, a loss. Don’t panic, they wll be subsidized by stream 2.
    2) Producing frugal, fuel-efficient (hybrid or not) cars that make sense for 98-99% of the population. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, they’re not ugly, bland, whatever. This stream will make profit and subsidize stream 1 and the whole company can survive.

    It’s my 2 cents in hindsight.

  • hybridgreg

    Tippers said that the Honda is considered a mild hybrid because the engine runs at all times. Yes, the engine does run at all times, however, it does not run the wheels at all times. The electric motor does power the the vehicle, at times 100%. The IMA engine is designed to run on only one cylinder to provide generator power dunring specific drve cycle conditions. This means that, unlike the mild hybrid that the older Sierra trucks were, (which was my point), Honda hybrids run exclusively on the electric motor without the assist of the ICE for propulsion. This is not a small distinction. Honda keeps the ICE engine running,, but it does have periods where it solely powers the generator; something quite different from the a true “mild” Hybrid whre the ICE powers the wheels at all times.

    Hal Howard, although the volt could be “the solution” I am skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, if the ICE is there only to recharge the battery system and not to propel the car, then the ICE is not being utilized to its full potential, even though it adds to the weight of the vehicle. Hydrogen stations are readily available everywhere, as we speak. It is just not recognised, as such. The gas line in your home IS a hydrogen source. In fact, you can buy a hydrogen pump unit that will build the pressure from a normally 15 PSI line in your home to 3600 psi which is needed to fill a hydrogen tank in your car. The cost is about $4000.00, but many are installed and already in use. Anyone with a hydrogen gas Civic can use this to fill their tank up at home. Now consider this. If Honda will couple this engine with the hybrid Civic, they will have a car with adequate range that does not use gasoline and is not dependent on the grid; unless they add an extra battery and plug in, which would make the car a super hybrid. It would use no gasoline, have a range well in excess of their present hydrogen car (by virtue of the electric motor), capable of filling up at home without the need for a gas station at a cost of about $8.00 per tank full. If everyone converted to this system, we would end our dependence on foriegn oil and use the enormous domestic supplies of natural gas to power us well into the next century. All of this without waiting for new technology. This would be an exciting proposition. However, the only part that is questionable is the fact that Honda loses money on every hydrgen unit it sells. That is why you never hear an advertisement for their hydrogen cars. Hopefully, enconomy of scale will solve that.

  • DDT

    One problem with hydrogen at the moment is that its production is not from a renewable source. So even if you do have a car that runs on hydrogen it may be more polluting than using petrol, as there is energy loss at each level.

    Fossil fuel extracted, and refined then brought to the plant or power taken from powerstation
    Water is brought or pumped to the plant.
    Hydrogen extracted from water then compressed
    Hydrogen pumped to stations/houses
    Then burnt in ic engine or fuel cell

    What you see here is how energy is lost in each level, the fact that fossil fuels have to be burnt to produce another fuel is one loss of energy through heat noise etc which then is burnt or used in a fuel cell, also loss through heat etc. So that is 3 losses in energy extraction refinment of fossil fuels then being burnt to create electricity to produce hydrogen then used in car.

    Petrol is refined taken to station and burnt in your ic engine. Two loss of energy where it is burnt in the engine and when it is extracted, refined.

    What is needed is a renewable method of hydrogen production then it would work.

    Im not sure about the US but in all of the EU the gas line is natural gas which can also be used in ic cars with a conversion kit and is known as LPG

  • hybridgreg

    Liquid Propane Gas (LPG) is not the gas that is used in US homes that are on the pipeline. In the US, we use compressed natural gas CNG, which is a less dense form of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) CNG and LNG are processed from naturally occurring supplies found in North America. So, although Europe may used Propane gas, in the US we have the world’s largest supply of Natural gas. The major difference being that Propane is a heavier than air gas and Natural Gas is a lighter than air gas. This property actually makes natural gas (hybdrogen gas) safer to use in vehicle applications by virture of its property to immediately rise if there is a leak. Propane, being heavier than air will accumulate in pockets within the vehicle creating a greater risk for explosion. Natural gas is/can be the key for US energy independence. Also, as I said above, the infrastructure is already in place in the USA. Urban homes use natural gas for heating and cooking (rural areas and home heating oil areas excepted).

  • rickw

    A couple of comments:
    1. Right now there are issues with our electrical grid. That’s why there’s all this talk about Smart Grid. Additionally (as someone else mentioned) using electric cars in some ways trades coal for petroleum. So we have a supply problem to solve (along with the storage/battery problem).

    2. Another part of the problem that no one seems to want to admit is Consumer Preference. People seem to want to drive huge, hulking vehicles that can accelerate to 60 in < 5 seconds. Remember that "F = m * a" stuff from high-school physics? Hybrids or electrics are working on the "F" part. What about reducing (instead of increasing) the mass? That's going to have to be part of the solution.

  • SergeiRostov

    Ford made a 150-mile range all-electric car way back in 1994. Maybe it’s time it started up again.

  • Macy Fischer

    what does it run on?? i need this answer for a ppt im doing for school..anyone know???

  • Truck End

    this would be best looking electric car from Honda, & also hope to have some more mile run like ford car. sure this will make good & active car for coming times

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  • richard atamian

    very interesting commentary but wish it could be brought up to date now that the Chevrolet Volt is in production. Like one of the authors I too drive a Toyota Prius but am seriously considering purchasing fhe Chevrolet .