To paraphrase Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of hybrid cars have been greatly exaggerated.
In the past few months, the reliability and safety of cars that use both a gas engine and an electric motor have been called into question. If you believe the headlines, you’d think that hybrids are running out of gas (and electrons). But a study of product plans from major car makers reveals that hybrids are just getting started.
The worst of the antihybrid press took place in March, when a San Diego, California, man claimed that his Toyota Prius sped up and couldn’t be stopped. After a harrowing 23 minutes—recounted in detail by major national media outlets—a highway patrolman coached the man to safety by having him simultaneously apply the parking brake and foot brake. Investigations by Toyota, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even NASA, failed to produce any explanations. No matter. The incident struck fear into the public’s hearts and, along with Toyota’s other safety publicity, undermined the once-spotless reputation of these hybrids as the most reliable and fuel-efficient cars on the road.
Hybrids have also come under attack from the other side of the gas-electric divide. At least one auto reviewer sees hybrids as dead in the water now that a new age of electric cars is upon us. In late April, Warren Brown of The Washington Post wrote, “Hybrids are merely a way-station until we get proper electric cars and infrastructure…. The Prius’s dominance seems to be almost over.” Indeed, fans of pure electric cars have a lot to be happy about these days with the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Coda Electric Sedan, Mitubishi i-MiEV, and other EVs scheduled to arrive this year (see “The EV Revolution,” this issue). But electric devotees eager to dance on the grave of any vehicle with an internal combustion engine might have to wait a bit longer.
Most forecasters believe that relatively affordable gas-powered engines—especially ones employing strategies like direct injection and turbocharging—will become increasing efficient and will be a long-term winner when it comes to the economics of saving fuel. Of course, these downsized gas engines can be combined with an electric motor and a battery pack to turn them into hybrids—and boost efficiency even more.
In fact, tougher fuel economy regulations requiring automakers to reach an average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 will practically legislate more hybrids. In the next five years, the number of hybrids—both the ones that can plug in and the ones that can’t—will grow from 25 to perhaps 60 or 70 models.
What should we expect?
Connect these dots to get a hybrid-rich picture of the road in 2013 or 2014: a 50-mpg Prius next to a 50-mpg Honda, next to a 50-mpg Hyundai, next to a 90-mpg Prius plug-in hybrid, next to the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt…