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Hybrids Are Here To Stay

Skyrocketing Gas Prices And Environmental Concerns Have Consumers Taking A Closer Look At Gas-Electric Vehicles As Automakers Are Expanding These Hybrid Offerings.


November 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Hybrids on the road to acceptance

Local buyers are losing their initial fear of gas-electric technology in vehicles, and carmakers are planning to launch new hybrid models including sedans, pickups, and SUVs

With fuel prices at record-high levels, consumers in Puerto Rico are starting to turn from sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to more fuel-efficient cars. The tall, truck-like SUVs, extremely popular among local and stateside drivers, are known for being gas-guzzlers and for spewing much more pollution into the air than regular-sized vehicles.

In 2003, some 56,866 or 46% of the 122,794 new vehicles sold in Puerto Rico were SUVs, which include light trucks and minivans. But the arrival of passenger vehicles with gas-electric power-train systems, known as hybrids, is starting to affect sales of SUVs.

Last year, the second-generation Toyota Prius hybrid was launched to smashing success in the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico markets, signaling mainstream consumers’ growing acceptance of the hybrid technology. For the first time, the 100-yearold internal combustion engine has a serious competitor, one that could forever change people’s perceptions and choice of personal transportation.

Gas-electric hybrids basically use two sources of power to move a vehicle: an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. They have been developed to address the shortcomings of power trains based solely on internal combustion engines. Gasoline and diesel engines can run only with fossil fuel, producing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other emissions. These pollutants represent serious health and environmental hazards, contributing to respiratory disease, acid rain, global warming, and smog.

Hybrids promise to lower emissions and reduce dependence on fossil fuels until a more long-term solution, perhaps fuel cells, can be fully developed. Hybrid systems are more expensive than internal combustion engines because they essentially include two power trains. However, the benefits in fuel savings and lower emissions more than make up for the added cost.

Hybrids offer the best of both worlds

Hybrid vehicles are powered by a gasoline engine while in motion and by an electric motor while idle. A large battery stores energy for the electric motor. Some hybrids have a mode in which the gas engine and the electric motor run together to increase fuel efficiency and power. Hybrids don’t need to be plugged in to recharge their batteries; the electric motor and the energy released by the vehicle during braking take care of that. Sophisticated electronics keep the power management undetectable to the driver.

The greatest advantages hybrids have over gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles are in fuel economy and tailpipe emissions. Hybrids have estimated combined (city and highway) fuel-economy ratings, expressed in miles per gallon (mpg), from the high 40s to the low 70s and 90% fewer tailpipe emissions.

Unlike gasoline-powered cars, which attain their best fuel economy during highway driving, hybrids deliver the best fuel economy in stop-and-go city traffic because they operate on the electric motor and/or the battery.

Honda and Toyota, the trendsetters

In 1999, Honda became the first to offer a hybrid vehicle in the States and Puerto Rico with the two-seater Insight, which was followed by the Civic Hybrid in 2002. The Toyota Prius, however, was the first hybrid vehicle to be fully marketed on the island.

In 2003, some 62 units of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle were sold at island dealerships over a three-month period, during which only three Honda Insights were sold.

"Between January and April of this year, we were selling an average of 36 units of the Toyota Prius each month. In May, the number was 67, in June 88, and in July 52," said Toyota de Puerto Rico President Mario Davila. "Because of higher-than-expected demand on the U.S. mainland, which meant we couldn’t get more vehicles [in Puerto Rico], we were able to sell only four units between August and September."

Some 400 units of the Toyota Prius have been sold in Puerto Rico since the vehicle’s introduction in October 2003.

Demand for the Prius in the States has been so high that more than 20,000 customers are on a five-month waiting list. To meet the demand, Toyota added a second production line for the Prius in Japan. The Japanese automaker decided to ship 47,000 of its Prius hybrids to the U.S., up from the 36,000 it had originally planned for 2004.

Davila said it is no coincidence that sales of the Prius intensified here and in the States just as the price of gasoline started climbing. The Prius has an impressive fuel-economy rating of 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Gasoline currently sells for an average $1.80 per gallon in Puerto Rico.

Davila also credits the Prius’ sales gains to increasing awareness among consumers of hybrid technology and its benefits.

"People now know more about hybrids–how they work, their advantages–and have lost their fear of them," said Davila. "The increase in gas prices has been an important factor in consumers’ better-than-expected acceptance of the Prius, because the gas savings [it provides] are significant."

A major difference between the full-hybrid system Toyota uses, called Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD), and other hybrid systems on the market is the duration of electric-mode driving and the peak power delivered electrically, explained Davila. HSD has a 50% more powerful 50-kilowatt drive-motor operating at up to 500 volts, which provides a significant boost in acceleration. The acceleration level of the four-door Prius is comparable to that of the Toyota Camry LE four-cylinder, he said.

Lexus, Toyota’s luxury division, will unveil a hybrid version of its popular RX 330 SUV, the RX 400h, in March 2005. A hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander SUV will make its local debut in May; the Camry Hybrid won’t be available in local showrooms until 2006.

Davila said Toyota is very committed to the hybrid technology, to the point that the automaker’s long-term goal is to give consumers the choice of hybrid or gas engines in all of its models.

Honda expands hybrid lineup

"Honda was the first automaker to market a mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Insight," said Jose Martinez, distributor Bella International Corp.’s wholesale director for Honda and Acura. "It is the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market, with a combined fuel-economy rating of 63 miles per gallon."

He noted that the aluminum-bodied Insight was specifically designed as a hybrid. Unlike other hybrids, it isn’t a modified version of a gasoline-powered car.

The Civic Hybrid is much like the gasoline-powered Civic, which seats five, but with greater fuel economy and fewer emissions. It has a combined fuel-economy rating of 48 mpg.

"In a few weeks, we will be receiving the new Accord Hybrid, which is basically a 2005 Accord EX V6 with Honda’s advanced hybrid system and Variable Cylinder Management [VCM] technology," said Martinez.

As Martinez explained, VCM is a cylinder-deactivation feature that automatically switches between six-cylinder and three-cylinder combustion as driving conditions demand. This feature, he said, further improves the vehicle’s fuel economy and driving range.

"The Accord Hybrid is the world’s first V6-powered hybrid, as well as the first midsize sedan to offer the third generation of the automaker’s advanced Integrated Motor Assist full-hybrid system with VCM," said Martinez.

The Accord Hybrid achieves an estimated fuel-economy rating of 30 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. Compared with the current Accord V6, that is 43% higher during city driving and 23% higher during highway driving. In addition, the Accord Hybrid delivers 255 horsepower versus the regular Accord V6 sedan’s 240 horsepower.

Martinez said Bella isn’t being overly aggressive about marketing Honda’s hybrids because the Japanese automaker uses a more advanced hybrid system, which makes its models a little more expensive than competitors’. "Although we will have a competitive advantage in having the only hybrid V6 midsize sedan that seats five, we don’t plan to order it in huge quantities. We will keep it in inventory, however, because our hybrid vehicles have created a lot of interest and we hope the Accord Hybrid will be well accepted," he said.

Martinez believes consumers in Puerto Rico are more receptive to the hybrid technology in great part because the high gas prices aren’t likely to come down anytime soon. "The Civic Hybrid is a good option for those seeking a fuel-efficient compact, and the Accord Hybrid will be an even better option for those needing a midsize sedan," he said. Honda is considering a hybrid version of the Honda CR-V, Honda Pilot, or Acura MDX SUVs, although the Japanese automaker hasn’t made an official announcement, added Martinez. "SUVs are the least fuel-efficient vehicles on the market, and a hybrid version would offer a lot of advantages since it would save on gas and provide more torque by combining a gas engine with an electric motor. An SUV hybrid is definitely in Honda’s future," he said.

Besides Honda and Toyota, other automakers such as Ford, General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, Nissan, and Mitsubishi are slated to roll out hybrid vehicles. This could signal a new era in the history of automobiles and a shift in consumers’ vehicle preferences as hybrids become mainstream. Indeed, any automaker that doesn’t have hybrids in the pipeline is seen not only as environmentally unfriendly but also as a technological laggard.

Ford Escape Hybrid

The first hybrid SUV, the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, hit the California market in March. With its 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine and electric-traction motor, the Escape Hybrid is expected to achieve a fuel-economy rating of nearly 40 mpg and to qualify as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV). The PZEV rating is given to vehicles that generate no more pollution to recharge their batteries than a utility power plant does to generate electricity.

"The Escape Hybrid is out and is the world’s cleanest, most fuel-efficient SUV. It’s got a full-hybrid system, so it can run on gas, electricity, or both. It’s built in our Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant," said Steve Randall, Ford’s regional manager for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Ford plans to produce only 4,000 units of its hybrid SUV this year and about 20,000 a year thereafter. The Escape Hybrid is being sold first in western and northeastern states with zero-emissions requirements; it will be available at certified dealers elsewhere in the States beginning in 2005.

"There’s a lot of interest on our part and on the part of our dealers to bring the vehicle to Puerto Rico," said Randall. "I’m also getting a lot of inquiries from Central America and from other Caribbean islands."

Randall said that because the Escape Hybrid is currently available only in limited quantities, it won’t be available outside the U.S. mainland until 2006, though Ford is working on an export plan. Additionally, he explained, Ford must sell the Escape Hybrid first on the mainland to meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements of the federal government.

Enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1975, CAFE is the sales-weighted average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon, of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks that have a gross vehicle weight rating of 8,500 pounds or less and are manufactured for sale in the U.S. during any given model year.

"The CAFE requirements necessitate that we produce as many Escape Hybrids as we can for the U.S. mainland now," said Randall. "Once we get out some of our new products that have better fuel economy, such as the Freestyle SUV and the Five Hundred sedan, we hope our CAFE improves in such a way as to give us the opportunity to export the Escape Hybrid."

Earlier this year, Randall and other Ford officials performed an extreme-driving test of the Escape Hybrid in Manhattan traffic. "The Escape went 576 miles on a single tank of gas. That’s 38 miles per gallon in an SUV in difficult traffic, which rivals what local drivers face each morning going from Dorado to San Juan," said Randall. "We have a real winner in the Escape Hybrid. It’s going to be a matter of getting everything in line to try to bring it to the local market while meeting our requirements on the U.S. mainland."

Ford plans to produce at least two more hybrids within the next three years. One will be the Ford Fusion, which will be the automaker’s first hybrid passenger car. The other will be the Mercury Mariner SUV, which is based on the Escape platform.

"Hybrids are definitely a part of Ford’s product strategy," said Randall. "It really goes with our corporate philosophy of trying to bring the cleanest vehicles we can to truly improve the world environment."

General Motors thinks big

The world’s largest automaker, General Motors (GM), already produces hybrid full-size pickups and mass-transit vehicles for fleet use.

Hybrid technology is available as an option on GM’s 2005 Chevy Silverado and 2005 GMC Sierra full-size pickups. GM uses a milder hybrid technology, where the V8 engine powers the battery to run the wheels in low-demand situations, improving fuel economy by 10% without compromising performance. Sadly, however, GM currently has no plans to offer its hybrid pickups in Puerto Rico.

"General Motors is producing its hybrid pickup trucks in very limited quantities, and these are sold only in select markets. Currently, we have no plans to bring them to the island, although that doesn’t mean we can’t bring them in the near future," said Ricardo La Costa, GM’s zone manager for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and South Florida.

GM will build only 2,500 gasoline-electric hybrid units of the 2005 Chevy Silverado and 2005 GMC Sierra. These will be available only in Florida, California, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. The U.S. automaker will build a second batch of 2,500 hybrid trucks next year, with the intention to roll them out nationwide by 2008.

"The biggest difference between a hybrid pickup and a conventional one is in the fuel savings during stop-and-go traffic. When the pickup is idle, the gasoline engine shuts off. That’s where the economy really is," said La Costa.

Recently, he noted, Florida’s Miami-Dade County bought quite a few of GM’s hybrid pickups, and these have proved successful. In addition, some 235 of GM’s Magic Buses were recently delivered in the Seattle area. These buses are up to 60% more fuel efficient than diesel buses, which could mean savings of up to 750,000 gallons of diesel annually. The next stops are Philadelphia, Houston, and Orange County, Calif.

GM’s Magic Buses use Allison Transmission’s E System of clean parallel technology, in which the engine powers the battery to run the wheels. A filter reduces particulate, hydrocarbon, and carbon-monoxide emissions by up to 90% and nitrous-oxide emissions by half.

If the 13,000 mass-transit buses in service in the nine largest U.S. cities were replaced with buses incorporating GM’s hybrid technology, the U.S. would use nearly 40 million fewer gallons of diesel each year. That’s the equivalent fuel savings from 584,000 small hybrid cars.

The U.S. automaker will offer a hybrid version of the Saturn Vue SUV in 2006, but GM doesn’t sell the Saturn brand in Puerto Rico. GM also plans to offer hybrid versions of the GMC Yukon, Chevy Tahoe, Chevy Equinox, and Chevy Malibu by 2007 or 2008.

Other manufacturers planning to offer hybrids

Japanese automaker Nissan is slated to have a hybrid version of its Altima sedan available in 2006 as a 2007-year model. Toyota will supply parts for the hybrid system while Nissan will develop the engine.

Mitsubishi displayed its Eclipse Concept-E at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show. The vehicle uses a high-performance hybrid propulsion system that purportedly delivers breathtaking acceleration while returning low fuel consumption and low emission levels. Mitsubishi hasn’t announced plans to mass-produce the Eclipse Concept-E for sale in the U.S.

Eduardo Mayoral, president & CEO of local Mitsubishi distributor Mitsubishi Motor Sales of Caribbean, said the automaker is also conducting research & development on vehicles powered by electricity and fuel cells. A fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity in the process and water vapor as the only byproduct. Like other auto manufacturers, Mitsubishi currently sells natural-gas-fueled light commercial trucks and cars in several markets.

Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. announced it will begin selling a small hybrid to U.S. mainland fleet buyers by the end of 2004 or in early 2005. The vehicle will be sold in small volumes only to the commercial and government markets, not to retail customers.

Hyundai’s hybrid will be derived from the Getz, a super-mini vehicle sold in South Korea and several European markets. The Getz’s regular power plant is a four-cylinder engine ranging in displacement from 1.1 liters to 1.6 liters. Hyundai expects to begin selling the hybrid Getz in South Korea in 2005 and to launch its first hybrid-drive car for retail customers in the U.S. after 2007.

Local Suzuki distributor Suzuki del Caribe presented the Japanese automaker’s Landbreeze SUV concept vehicle during the recent Puerto Rico International Auto Show at Plaza Las Americas. The four-seater seeks to maximize environmental-friendliness through the use of hybrid technology and recyclable materials such as aluminum and tires made of 100% nonpetroleum sources. Suzuki hasn’t said whether it plans to mass-produce the Landbreeze.

Timothy Velez, Suzuki del Caribe’s sales & marketing manager, said the Japanese automaker has developed other concept vehicles like the Landbreeze through which it will continue exploring alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles in the compact and SUV segments. Mazda Motor Corp. plans to launch a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its Tribute sport utility vehicle in 2006 or 2007. The Tribute is based on the Ford Escape platform.

Not all manufacturers jumping on the hybrid bandwagon

Some automakers view hybrid technology merely as a steppingstone to fuel cells and so are taking a more cautious approach. Such is the case with DaimlerChrysler, which will build only 100 diesel-electric 2005 Dodge Ram pickups for fleet customers such as utility companies. It also plans to offer hybrid versions of the Dodge Durango SUV and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan soon.

In other models, however, the U.S.-German automaker has opted to make available diesel engines, such as in the Mercedes E320 and the Jeep Liberty. Diesel has long been known to provide greater fuel economy and to be cheaper than gasoline. In the 1980s, however, diesel vehicles’ soot-laden exhaust, sluggish performance, and loud clattering turned off millions of U.S. drivers.

Recent technological advances, however, such as Bosch’s Common Rail System and particulate trap, have made the new diesels quicker, cleaner, and less noisy. Still, the limited availability of diesel pumps in the U.S. and diesel’s high sulfur content make diesel vehicles unattractive to most U.S. consumers. New federal laws aimed at substantially reducing the sulfur content in diesel won’t go into effect until 2006. Though some automakers may be cautious about hybrid technology, every major automaker has a fuel-cell program. In fact, Honda, Toyota, and others are already operating a few fuel-cell vehicles on public U.S. roads. Experts say, however, that fuel-cell vehicles won’t be widely available until the end of this decade or perhaps the next.

Some automakers focusing more on diesels

According to DaimlerChrysler, hybrids (powered by gasoline and electricity) will always burn more fuel than conventional diesel-powered vehicles in highway traffic. The automaker’s research has also shown diesel engines are simpler, more efficient, and less expensive to build than hybrids.

Hybrids do cut fuel use by up to 20% in stop-and-go urban traffic by switching off the combustion engine at traffic lights, using electric power to supplement acceleration from a stop, and recovering energy when braking and going downhill.

DaimlerChrysler researchers contend, however, that diesel engines are the best way to cut fuel consumption and reduce harmful carbon monoxide emissions. They say that on longer interurban or motorway journeys, a hybrid actually consumes more fuel than a standard Mercedes-Benz diesel vehicle.

Diesels have long been known to provide significantly greater fuel economy and torque than conventional gasoline engines. In the 1980s, however, diesel vehicles’ soot-laden exhaust, sluggish performance, and loud clattering turned off millions of U.S. drivers.

Technological advances currently in use in Europe, such as turbo chargers, low-sulfur diesel, Bosch’s Common Rail high-pressure fuel-injection system, and the diesel particulate trap, have made the new diesel engines quicker, cleaner, less noisy, and nearly as refined as a gasoline engine. In addition, new federal laws aimed at substantially reducing the sulfur content of diesel sold in the U.S. will go into effect in 2006.

These advances might make U.S. consumers give diesels another look, especially if the price of gasoline remains high. In many European countries, where gasoline often costs as much as $5 a gallon, diesels account for more than 40% of new-car sales, compared with less than 1% in the U.S.

On the U.S. mainland, Volkswagen currently offers diesel engines its New Beetle, Jetta, Golf, Passat, and Touareg sport utility vehicle (SUV). DaimlerChrysler has diesel versions of the 2005 Mercedes E320 and the 2005 Jeep Liberty.

The U.S.-German automaker intends to build 100 diesel-electric 2005 Dodge Ram hybrid pickups this year for fleet customers such as utility companies. It isn’t ignoring hybrid technology, however. DaimlerChrysler also plans to offer hybrid versions of the Dodge Durango SUV and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.

Hybrids offer the best of both worlds

Hybrid vehicles combine gasoline engines and electric motors and can be configured to attain different objectives, such as improved fuel economy, increased power, and additional auxiliary power for electronic devices and power tools.

Hybrid power systems have been developed to address the shortcomings of power trains based solely on internal combustion or electricity. For instance, gasoline and diesel engines can’t run without fossil fuels, whose combustion produces emissions. Vehicles powered solely by electricity are expensive, have very limited range, and must rely on heavy batteries for power storage.

Hybrids serve as a bridge to reduce emissions and ease dependence on fossil fuels until more long-term technologies such as fuel cells can be developed. Hybrid systems are more expensive than internal combustion engines because they essentially carry two power trains. Following are some of the advanced technologies typically used in hybrids:

Regenerative braking: The electric motor applies resistance to the drivetrain, causing the wheels to slow down. In return, the energy from the wheels turns the motor, which functions as a generator, converting energy normally wasted during coasting and braking into electricity, which is stored in a battery until needed by the electric motor.

Electric motor drive/assist: The electric motor provides additional power to assist the engine in accelerating, passing, or climbing. This allows a smaller, more efficient engine to be used. In some vehicles, the motor alone provides power during low-speed driving, when internal combustion engines are least efficient.

Automatic start/shutoff: The engine automatically shuts off when the vehicle comes to a stop and restarts when the accelerator is pressed. This prevents wasted energy from idling.

Hybrid Vehicles Available in Puerto Rico

Make: Model / Available Since

Honda: Insight / 2000

Honda: Civic / 2002

Toyota: Prius / 2003

Hybrid Vehicles in the Pipeline

Make: Model / Model Year

DaimlerChrysler: Dodge Ram / 2005

DaimlerChrysler: Dodge Durango / 2007

Ford: Escape / 2005

Ford: Fusion / 2007

Ford: Mercury Mariner / 2007

General Motors: Saturn VUE / 2006

General Motors: Chevy Malibu / 2007

General Motors: Chevy Equinox / 2007

General Motors: Chevy Tahoe / 2007

General Motors: GMC Yukon / 2007

General Motors: Full-size pickups / 2008

Honda: Accord / 2005

Hyundai: To be announced / 2008

Lexus: RX 400h / 2005

Mazda: Tribute / 2006

Toyota: Highlander / 2005

Toyota: Camry / 2007

Note: Some models may not be available in Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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