How do you make sense out of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Hybrid Technology Symposium that took place Feb. 9 – 10, 2005, in Costa Mesa, Calif.? How do you summarize the two-day jam-packed sessions dealing with various hybrid configurations, energy storage approaches, fuel choices, legislative developments, and market forecasts? The answer: it’s been 100 years since car inventors debated over the right technology to power our mobility. Today, the choices are greater than ever before.
- We’re coming into a period of great variety regarding hybrid technologies. Few people are ready to pick a winning technology yet.
- Anthony Pratt of J. D. Power & Associates predicted that hybrid cars would account for only a meager 3 percent of new car sales (approximately 500,000 annually) five years from now. The symposium audience, which included several automakers that are investing heavily in hybrid technology, questioned the J. D. Power forecast.
- Dr. Menahem Anderman of Total Battery Consulting, who has spent eight years conducting assessments of battery technologies and energy-storage systems for advanced vehicles, said he could not predict which kind of battery would best serve the needs of hybrid engineers. The shortage of Nickel Metal Hydride batteries is temporary. [Soon after the symposium, Toshiba and Sanyo each announced they are heavily investing in boosting their production capacity.]
- Government regulations and incentives could also play an important role in encouraging the growth of hybrids.
The Engineers Are Bullish on Hybrids
In the symposium’s final session, panelists from Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen were invited to speculate about the future. Dr. Michael Tamor, manager of Ford’s Sustainable Mobility Technologies stated, "If you think about the 15- to 20-year timeframe, you could argue that all vehicles are going to be hybrids. It’s just a matter of which powerplant is used in the hybrid system." This forecast assumes a redefinition of a hybrid to include any vehicle that has a transmission with the ability to store energy [most likely through a battery of some kind].
Dr. Wolfgang Steiger, Volkswagen’s Group Research Director of Powertrains, added to the definition, explaining that a hybrid’s dominant feature is its ability to manage complexity. He explained, "A hybrid vehicle is a highly sophisticated engine management system." Steiger warned engineers not to forget about the needs of drivers. He said, "We have to make it easy and simple. There may be 100 computers in the car, but for the driver, it must be simple. If the vehicle is too complicated, consumers won’t understand it."
Producing vehicles that can store energy, and manage multiple powertrains and fuels, requires a long-term commitment from carmakers. "Hybrids are different than most technologies," said John German, manager of Environmental and Energy Analyses for American Honda, "If an OEM is sitting back on developing diesel engines, he won’t be in too much trouble. But with hybrids, it’s becoming more and more sophisticated. You just can’t turn it on. If you don’t make the system now, as Toyota continues to make hybrids much cheaper and in greater numbers, the others won’t be able to catch up."
German pondered that hybrids could reach 50 – 70 percent of the market in 10 years. He added, "I live in Detroit. I don’t want to see the Big 3 go out of business. But that’s a possibility."
Tamor, from Ford, agreed. "To freeze time and pretend that hybrids are not going to happen doesn’t make sense."