Hybrids and Why We Need Two Cars


Fleet Street Group last week. Nice to be back at Rules. It’s agreeable entertaining fellow Europeans in an establishment set up when Napoleon was opening his campaign in Egypt. The oldest restaurant in London has moved on a bit from porter pies and oysters but you can’t disregard its history. A separate entrance enabled the Prince of Wales (Edward, not Charles) to come and go discreetly on his assignations with Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry. Rules was a favourite of literary greats including Dickens, Thackeray, Galsworthy and HG Wells. Not many literary giants in the Fleet Street Group of motoring correspondents and not all of us write much for what used to be Fleet Street newspapers. Still it’s composed of leading lights in the business and I’ve retained my membership for 25 years I suppose from my Sunday Times days. Guest this time was Dr Thomas Weber, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG since January 2003, and responsible for Group Research & Mercedes-Benz cars’ development.

Alas the days are gone when the head of research at what we used to know as Daimler-Benz could report progress on how it was aiming to make the best passenger cars in the world. Daimler is spending €4.4 billion annually guessing what wheeze the politicians will decide on for dealing with climate change or safety or whatever cause celebre lobbyists come up with. Catchy headlines are crucial.

Stuttgart’s technicians are never self-effacing and Dr Weber was not being modest when he parried a couple of searching questions with a plain, “We don’t know.” He could not predict how fuel cells will develop, or whether petrol or diesel will provide the best answer for hybrid car power units because it all depends on things he can’t control, legislation, infrastructure, energy prices. He must have plan A for some circumstances, plan B for others, and a whole alphabet of plans for when Brussels changes its mind.

Some things he can be sure of. Electric cars will be fine for towns (they always were) but not for dashing down the autobahn (nothing new there) and ic engines will shrink (well they’ve been getting smaller and more efficient for years).

What seems certain is that Dr Weber’s €4.4 billion is being cleverly disposed on having some solution ready whatever happens. There is lots of jostling over infrastructure (refuelling with electricity, hydrogen) and who is going to pay for it. There are co-operative projects on battery technology that will extend beyond the motor industry. What seems perfectly clear is that one general-purpose car of the sort we have now won’t do. A zero-emission green car for towns will not do the Autobahns. It is all very well Dr Weber saying we need to reinvent the car, reduce battery charging time and set up hydrogen stations, but none of the solutions on offer provides a single sort of family car that will do everything. Not for a generation. We shall need two cars for every one we have now. Let us wait to see how a world, already agog at two or three-car families, will cope with fleets of electric bubblecars topping up batteries on parking meters, while whizzo cruisers proliferate town-to-town.

Scotland on Sunday Motoring, Eric Dymock 2 February 2002
New Technology

The next big thing in cars is how to make them go when the oil runs out. Futurologists can’t make up their mind whether to back fuel cells chemically manufacturing their own electricity, or hydrogen working the sort of engines we have now. America seems to think fuel cells, Europe hydrogen and existing engines. A hundred years ago inventors were struggling with steam, electricity, and petrol, against optimistic “systems of levers” and “gravity”.

Wilder flights of fancy fell by the wayside and the contest to win credibility by the main protagonists was taken up in earnest.

Half a century of railway engineering meant steam was well understood. Stanley steam cars remained in production until 1927. Steam lorries were still working twenty years later. Dobles, Locomobiles, Serpollets and Whites, although slow starters, once under way were swift and silent but people wanted cars that started on a button. Flash boilers and condensers were of no avail, and even though Fred Marriott’s Stanley set a world speed record in 1906 at 127.66mph (204.93kph) steam did not prosper.

Electric cars seemed more promising. In April 1899 Camille Jenatzy exceeded 100kph (62.3mph) in La Jamais Contente, built by the Compagnie Internationale des Transports Automobiles Électriques, with a cigar-shaped body of partinium. It weighed 1450kg (3196.67lb), of which 305kg (672.4lb) was batteries, but they only had sufficient energy for the kilometre course.

Pure electric cars are as far away now as they were in Jenatzy’s day. Practical batteries that go beyond milk-float capacity are not imminent. However hybrid electric gets a boost this month through exemption from London’s congestion charge. Honda and Toyota have cars on sale that could save a London commuter £1,250 a year, as well as qualifying for a £1000 bonus from the Energy Saving Trust.

Hybrids have small engines to charge up the batteries, the Toyota Prius is smooth, quiet, tractable, and economical. A computer rings the changes seamlessly between petrol and electric. The Prius has been on sale in Japan since 1997, and qualifies for reduced Vehicle Excise Duty, with carbon dioxide emissions less than 120g/km.

Its performance is leisurely, so in two years’ time Toyota plans a Lexus RX 4x4 with Hybrid Synergy drive. It will be sold in North America, where SUV gas guzzlers have been attracting some opprobrium. It will have a V6 instead of a V8, yet still produce the kind of performance SUV drivers want, with the economy and emissions of a small car.

Operating at twice the voltage of existing hybrids its front and rear electric motors will drive all four wheels.

Honda’s hybrid programme is well advanced. The £17,000 Insight’s batteries took up a lot of space, it was only a two-seater but the new Civic IMA is a full four-seater, it will do 58mpg, 100mph (160kph), and its CO2 emissions are 116g/km bringing it within the 11 percent tax band. The Civic qualifies for exemption to the London congestion charge and, when it is introduced in May, will cost £15,000 against the Toyota Prius’s £16,440.

Hybrids are not new. Audi had one in 1989, with a 2.2 litre 5-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels, and a 9.3kW DC electric those at the back. The petrol engine charged up nickel cadmium batteries, at 181kg (398lb) two thirds the weight of Jenatzy’s, but they gave a range of only 30km (19miles) and took three quarters of an hour’s running to re-charge.

A separate electric motor worked the power steering, brake servo, and ABS, and a petrol-fed heater when the electric motor was working. It was not a success.

The hybrid represents a half way house towards cars that use no fossil fuels and Honda is ahead with fuel cells. Last July its FCX was first to gain certification from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity chemically. The only exhaust material is water vapour, but the cost of a fuel cell engine is £450 per kW, against about £12 for a petrol engine, and hydrogen generation remains problematical. It can be extracted from petrol, methanol, or natural gas on board the car.

Huge hydrogen-production plants are decades away, yet all the major manufacturers are researching fuel cells. Ford and Daimler/Chrysler have increased their stake in Canadian Ballard Power systems, the fuel cell developer, and General Motors has shown its Hy-Wire, taking the concept forward to a vehicle with no steering wheel, no pedals, and dramatic appearance.

But even Hy-Wire manages only 94kW (126bhp), about the same as a 1.8litre Vauxhall Vectra, and VW and BMW are among the Europeans who feel that if you are going to have hydrogen available, it is best used in internal combustion engines with the power and flexibility we already have. I have driven a hydrogen BMW and it works much like any other BMW. Fuel storage is no problem; it is in a pressure tank like LPG. A fleet of hydrogen-powered BMWs clocked up 125,000 miles in 2001 and would give us the prospect of motoring much as we do now, well into the century.

Scotland on Sunday Motoring, Eric Dymock 8 February 2003
Toyota Prius road test

The significance of the Toyota Prius lies not so much in the car itself as the technology that drives it. Toyota has hundreds of patents on a mechanism that General Motors, Ford or DaimlerChrysler could use to make their own Hybrid Synergy Drive models under licence since, on the face of it, the Prius represents a technical revolution.

However it is as well to remember that the last breakthrough of this magnitude, the Wankel rotary piston engine of the 1960s, proved an industrial cul de sac. It went into production with NSU, and licences were obtained by Curtiss-Wright, Daimler-Benz, Deutz, Rolls-Royce, MAN, Krupp, Fichtel & Sachs, and BMC among others. Citroën planned the GS of 1970 with a Wankel engine, small, light, minimalist it spun like a tiny turbine but Wankels had two drawbacks. Problematical rotor seals made them unreliable, and it had fuel consumption like the bath running out, especially going fast. I drove a splendidly aerodynamic NSU Ro80 down the then-new Autoroutes to a Monaco Grand Prix, and had to send for money to pay for the petrol.

The Toyota’s hybrid Synergy Drive is as revolutionary as the Wankel but has more chance of success. The Prius feels like any 5-door automatic hatchback. The starting procedure is a bit fiddly and when you press the Start button nothing much happens. It moves off when you put it in Drive, gliding away sometimes in electric, sometimes on the quiet little engine in response to instructions from the computer. Brake, or slow down, and the computer turns the electric motor into a generator, pumping energy back into a battery behind the rear seat.

It is accomplished technology. You can follow it on a monitor screen, which shows power going to the front wheels from the petrol engine, or the electric one, or both at once. It is not specially swift. It is slower than a 1.4 Ford Focus but its CO2 output puts it in the lowest tax category.

The facia monitor shows fuel used every five minutes. One column gives an instantaneous read-out, so downhill goes off the scale at 100mpg because the petrol engine is shut down. Labouring uphill it collapses to 25mpg. Ambling along on the level it registers 50mpg, then goes up to 60mpg cruising at 50mph. Its best was 95mpg driving slowly with the electric engine helping.

Overall economy depends on how you drive. Prius was not at its best on motorways. The petrol engine is a feeble 4-cylinder, not best suited to pushing a streamlined but broad-shouldered saloon through the air, so has to work hard at speed. Like a diesel the Prius does best in traffic. Over 1300 miles of mostly motorway driving 46mpg was not really surprising, although a good way short of the official combined figure.

Sometimes Prius argues with itself, hunting through the CVT-style transmission, uncertain whether to propel itself with petrol or electric. This results in unevenness, but probably the most disappointing aspect of the car is road noise. Coarse surfaces send a lot of drumming up through the structure, all the more noticeable since the mechanism is so quiet. At red traffic lights there is uncanny silence, the engine stopped awaiting GO.

BOX: Verdict: Astonishing technology, quiet, for the most part smooth, mandatory for Greens
Length 4,450mm
Width 1,725mm
Body Five-door hatch
Engines One and a half litre petrol 76bhp (56.67kW) and 67bhp (49.96kW) electric
0-60mph 10.9sec
Fuel Combined 65.7mph but see text