Playing Nice Together

GM and DaimlerChrysler, reformed hybrid naysayers, signed a memorandum of understanding last December to develop hybrid gasoline-electric engines together. Financial details have not yet been disclosed. Since GM owns most of the patents for the hybrid system the two companies are set to work on, it’s unclear exactly what DaimlerChrysler will bring to the deal—beyond the cachet of an executive named Dieter (pronounced "Deet-ahh," not "Diet-er") and the Mercedes brand.

Apparently, the idea occurred to company honchos at an industry conference in October; however, this is not the first time they’ve worked together on developing new technologies, nor will it be the last.

The Dieter Speaks

President and CEO of the Chrysler Group Dieter Zetsche, in an interview with’s Brad Berman at the 2005 New York International Auto Show, admitted that the car business is "about selling dreams, aspirations, and emotion."

Urged by Berman to explain how "the razzle-dazzle that’s going to appeal to the mass market" relates to the dreams of those who hope to solve environmental and geopolitical problems related to fuel efficiency, The Dieter hedged. He tried to sell Berman a Chrysler 300, a vehicle that Automobile Magazine called, "a throwback to the time when big was better, bigger was best, and no one had heard of Toyota."

It has "the hemi engine, the most powerful out there," The Dieter said of the 300C, which gets 17/25 mpg, according to the EPA. "With cylinder deactivation, so when you don’t need it, you go on four cylinders. When you push the gas…you get the eight cylinders." Inclining his head toward a couple nearby models, he added, "You can have both." It is rumored that, despite this persuasive speech, Berman left the show without actually purchasing a Chrysler 300.

The Dieter aside, DaimlerChrysler’s most likely contribution to the hybrid project will consist of a hefty transfusion of cash to anemic GM. But at the announcement of the joint development venture, both companies’ representatives were careful to emphasize that it does not mean DaimlerChrysler will be purchasing licenses to GM technology.

Grandmother, What Big Vehicles You Have!

The first hybrids to come of the joint venture will certainly be sizable. GM will pop hybrid drive trains based on the two-mode technology already used in GM hybrid buses into its Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs. For its part, DaimlerChrysler will offer a Dodge Durango SUV hybrid option. Both companies plan to begin selling their hybrid SUVs by 2007.

With possible fuel-economy savings up to 25%, this means that the Durango, with its current EPA-estimated 14/18 mpg, will improve as a hybrid to a whopping 17.5 city, 22.5 highway. The GM SUVs already wring one or two more miles out of a gallon than the Durango, but you can see where this is going. EPA estimates are notoriously high, even for hybrids. It seems that these two corporate cronies are just coasting, rather than making a real effort to change their direction. Covering their bets, just in case hybrids do take off to become 15% of auto sales over the next 10 years.

Wolf: At the Door, or Already in Bed?

Cars are like shoes, or riding hoods—transportation necessities first, fashion statements second. Or is it the other way around? The trick for automakers is to find a vehicle in which the driver feels properly dressed, whether butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Feeling a little green? Don’t worry, the Chrysler 300C’s got cylinder deactivation, and you can have the GMC Yukon with Displacement on Demand. That’s what the automakers want us to believe, especially when it comes to hybridizing the big boys.

But how many consumers will be fooled into paying $4000 extra for a vehicle whose fuel consumption and emissions are still far worse than most regular cars? The Dieter and his GM buddies must hope that the Simple Simons and Little Red Riding Hoods of the world have access to a decent trust fund (or a good credit counselor), while remaining blissfully ignorant of those thorny geopolitical and environmental problems that bother some people.

BMW, also way behind in, if not entirely absent from, the hybrid race, joined the GM-DCX alliance in Fall 2005.