November 2007 Looking Ahead

With little sign of a new hybrid that will significantly alter the market in the next year, the recent hybrid buzz is all about plug-in hybrids. Despite the fact that so-called clean diesels will soon begin shipping, and reporting actual sales, the desire for that next big breakthrough has put plug-in hybrids in the headlines. Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) also dominate the program of industry conferences like the recent EVS23 international electric vehicle symposium in Anaheim, California.

It’s anybody’s guess as to when a major carmaker might offer up a plug-in hybrid at local neighborhood dealership. For all appearances, General Motors is moving full speed ahead on its Chevy Volt, which was targeted for production of tens of thousands of units by 2010 or 2011. GM has a lot of work ahead of them to bring the Volt to market, so this date may gradually migrate into the future.

The Ford Motor Company presented an Escape plug-in hybrid SUV to the utility company, Southern California Edison, at EVS23. The delivery was the first of 20 such vehicles that mark a partnership between the two companies to “advance the commercialization of PHEVs.” Ford’s Sue Cischke, senior vice president, sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said “Cost, durability and reliability issues all need to be addressed before these vehicles can make a significant impact on the global issues of climate change and energy security.”

Plug-in hybrid demonstration projects from Ford and others, and GM’s promotion of the Volt, have put pressure on Toyota to talk more about its own plans to produce a plug-in version of the Toyota Prius. The next generation Prius, planned for release early in 2009, almost certainly will not offer plug-in capability, but the company allowed journalists at EVS23 to test drive a plug-in prototype equipped with extra nickel-metal hydride batteries granting 7-mile all-electric range.

Plug-in hybrids may eventually produce revolutionary changes to the automotive market—but not in this decade. For those concerned with short-term numbers, the growth of the U.S. hybrid market from approximately 350,000 in 2007 to a half-million or more in the next few years will be evolutionary—and built on hybrids sans plug like full-size SUV hybrids from Detroit, the 2009 Toyota Prius and Honda’s new dedicated global hybrid also expected in 2009.