I'm a Hybrid, You're Not a Hybrid

When GM recently unveiled its latest whiz-bang concept vehicle, the Chevy Volt, the company called it everything but a hybrid. GM executives assured the media throng that the Volt is not a hybrid, but rather an “electric car with a gas engine range extender.” Score zero for the spin doctors. The press consistently referred to the Volt as a “plug-in series hybrid,” or just—ah, simplicity—a “hybrid.”

Three short years ago, just three vehicles comprised the hybrid market. At that time, the term “hybrid car” could be described without much trouble: a vehicle that uses gas and electricity to get exceptional mileage. The quadrupling of the hybrid market—11 vehicles are sold today; 10 more are set for release this year—has brought, unfortunately, a similarly savage market in the area of hybrid lexicon. I’m a hybrid; you’re not a hybrid. Wouldn’t you like to be a hybrid too?

GM executives say that the Chevy Volt is not a hybrid, but rather an "electric car with a gas engine range extender." The current hybrid spin battle is just a prelude for the gigantic brawl to come, as automakers try every possible combination of engine, motor, battery, and fuel—and other hybridizations to come—with the goal of making internal combustion engine cars that only burn petroleum a thing of the past.

Consider: Toyota hybrid drivers call their Priuses “full hybrids” and wag their fingers at Honda’s offerings as “mild.” Honda insists that its latest generation Civic Hybrid is actually full, and scoff at the Saturn Vue Green Line as the only mild hybrid. The Union of Concerned Scientists won’t even put the Saturn in the hybrid solar system, instead dismissing it with the term “hollow hybrid.” Environmentalists decry the high-performance Lexus hybrids, and the Honda Accord Hybrid as “muscle hybrids.” And later this year, the most muscular of hybrids, the gas-electric versions of the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, will introduce the world to GM’s “two-mode” hybrid system.

Confused yet? Just wait until the launch in two or three years of the Citroen 4, which will combine power from a diesel engine and electric batteries. Or how about when Saab’s E85 biofuel hybrid hits the streets? Or when the Honda’s FCX, a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell lithium battery vehicle, becomes available?

And we haven’t even considered the plug-in hybrid, which would charge overnight through an outlet in the garage and be ready in the morning to zoom down the highway without using gasoline for a number of miles before calling upon the internal combustion engine. Automakers somehow managed to agree at least on the nomenclature for plug-in hybrids, which will be labeled according to their all-electric range: HEV-5 for 5 miles of gas-free driving, HEV-10 for 10 miles exclusively on batteries, and so on. Oy.

Just remember that the spin battle is just a prelude for the gigantic brawl to come, as automakers try every possible combination of engine, motor, battery, and fuel—and other hybridizations to come—with the goal of making internal combustion engine cars that only burn petroleum a thing of the past. At that point, all cars will be hybrids, and we’ll know them by one name: cars.

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  • Tom


    This is what happens when the MBAs and fancy New York advertising agencies get hold of some new technology that the public loves.

    It does have the trappings of a soap opera with drama. A new technology that hints at hope, and is a good bit of mystery for most people. Power brokering execs who want to advance their empires, etc.

    In the interest of full discloser.. A) I’m an engineer, B) I’m rational.

    Why don’t we do what matters at the end of the day.. what’s your MPG??

  • Alex

    All of this politcaly correct gobledegook is making think of something. There are alot of ways to have a better MPG and efficiency. Eventually it will all come down to the same format in 50 to 70 years. All-electric vehicles powered by some combination of battery and supercapcitor. Of course this power will come from a combination of wind, solar, hydro, algae biomass and nuclear fusion. The ITER project is nearing completion. Same end, so many paths on reaching that. It all comes down to which paths are the best. Whatever “best” means.

  • kballs

    MPG is going to become more and more misleading. For one, plug-in hybrids get infinite MPG for the first few miles, so if you’re always doing short trips you don’t burn any liquid fuel. For another, diesel vs. gas MPG isn’t directly proportional because diesel fuel contains more BTUs than gasoline.

    No matter what technology is used, what’s more important than MPG of liquid fuel is miles per kg of C02 emissions. This means that plug-in hybrids still have C02 emissions for electric-only mode (highly dependent on what was used to generate the local electricity or if any carbon emissions were sequestered). Also emissions per mile goes up in stop and go traffic, but hybrids and EVs have a huge advantage over idling ICEs.

    Because of all these variables you could have a big biodiesel SUV that gets higher miles/kg-C02 than a plug-in hybrid Prius powered by an old non-sequestering coal power plant… but the hybrid lovers and haters, SUV lovers and haters, politicians, and marketing department will love to tell you whatever they want you to believe to get your $ on their side.

  • Jerry

    interesting kballs- ideally they would focud on that but that but may not be were their money is.
    Althought the hybrids may get around 30% more fuel economy their co signature is much lower since they are not idling when they are at their worst. Although Bush may not care about that since he would rather have idling and burning ethanol in Ford than in silent mode in a Toyota

  • Dan

    What we need are hybrids that offer high performance, fuel efficiency, and all wheel drive. Auto makers should offer an engine for the front wheels, and direct battery power for the rear wheels. The rear wheels with motors by the wheels, not needing a transmission.
    This will save more fuel, as current all wheel drive vehicles are poor in their MPGs. If such vehicles are produced, offering similar interior space as an SUV but in crossover mode, then we would have a bunch of SUV drivers happily converting to a similar but superior vehicle.

  • James J.

    I want a 4wd hybrid mid size pickup. Or a plug in version. But a truck nonetheless. I’ve been aiting a long time for a truck with good MPG and emissions… My 94 Toyota XCab V6 w/ 5 spd (4wd) got an avg of about 21 mpg combined with as much as 24 or so on the highway. Plenty of power on a 3 liter engine but I can only imagine how well it would do if it were scaled down and married with electric components. I miss that truck, but look forward to the day when Toyota pops out a hybrid version. Anyone hear of ANY hybrid trucks (GMC aside)?

  • Carlo Tucci

    We hear a lot of talk from our Government in Canada and the other parties, as an election looms in the near future. The claim that each is more GREEN than the other.

    I want them to put their money where their mouths are and show some real support for Hybrid Technology. Any vehicle that cuts down on pollutants that harm people and the ozone layer should be TOTALLY TAX exempt. This would certainly help make Hybrids more affordable for the average owner.

    Come on Prime Minister Harper … Cut out the GST and PST and any other tax on new or used Hybrid automobiles.

  • milette

    I would not want a tax exempt program from goverments for buying hybrids. Manufacturers would increase and make more money. Instead, goverments should tax bad behavior. Let’s increase the costs (with a tax)of pollution and people will think with there wallets. Invest the money from taxes in R&D….

  • Gizmo

    :upset 🙁 :cry :grin
    Everyone is missing the point:
    It is not what we want, but rather what we have to do to turn around the present trend of global warming. The reason the world is so threatened at the moment is because everyone is trying to get what they want, not what is best for the ecological state of the world. The fuel we are burning is heating the atmosphere, and unless the population of the world reacts and does something about it, each as an individual, it is only going to get worse. Hybrids are the first step someone can take in making a commitment to the heritage of the future, until some new technology has been developped that will take one further step towards making this planet habitable by our children. So, stop talking, and start doing something!!!

  • a student…:P

    :grin :zzz 🙂 thank you for the info…i have completed my project!! :p keep it up!i will visit this site always…

  • blh

    we in the auto industry consider mild hybrids those who can do an engine stop/start and have some type of regenerative braking system. Most are low voltage and cannot run in electric mode exclusively

    Medium hybrids like the accord have high voltage regen braking and a considerable integrated motor/starter to stop/start the engine. They still can’t run on e-mode.

    Full hybrids have all medium hybrids do, but can also run on e-mode only. The only full hybrids are Ford’s and Toyota’s.

    So what if you use a Hybrid hydraulic system on a shuttle bus (Eaton Corps system uses hydraulic accumulators to store rotational energy in the form of compressed gas) HHV?

  • poochie

    Why can’t they say just plain hybrid???? 😕 😕

  • Titus

    50 mpg on a ’97 Passat tdi as I couldn’t get the hydrogen fueled BMW.