Marketers are jumping on the green-car movement and the gears are audibly grinding over what counts as a "hybrid vehicle."
First applied to small sedans emphasizing fuel economy, the term is now blithely used to encompass a vast array of trucks, SUVs and luxury cars that in some cases offer only modest fuel savings over traditional vehicles, some critics charge.
Even the White House wants to wring some extra mileage out of the hybrid label. In a little-noticed remark following January's State of the Union Address, the Bush administration handed credit to the Department of Energy for developing the batteries used in hybrids -- a statement that more or less runs out of gas on closer examination.
Scott Nathanson, the national field organizer for environmental activist group the Union of Concerned Scientists (or UCS), contends the term "hybrid" is confusing at best and misleading at worst. "People think that it if you slap a hybrid label on something, that makes it a green vehicle," he said. Not so.
According to UCS, the upcoming 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line SUV along with the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado hybrids, make claims that are "hollow" and classify them as "mild hybrids" that should not be considered the same class of vehicles.
Nathanson said that while the Saturn Vue hybrid includes useful fuel-saving features such as deactivating cylinders when not in use and shutting off the engine while idling, a hybrid should include a battery with a minimum of 60 volts of power. By way of comparison, the Saturn hybrid's batteries (produced by Ovonics' subsidiary Cobasys) are rated at 36 volts, while the Toyota Camry hybrid includes 244-volt batteries.
While hybrid vehicles from Honda, Toyota, Ford and Lexus include battery packs that can recover substantial amounts of energy from the braking system (known as regenerative braking), the Saturn hybrid battery pack "doesn't have sufficient power to provide an assist to the engine," according to Nathanson.
To inform consumers about the variations of hybrids, UCS set up the HybridCenter website.
Tim Grewe, the chief engineer of GM's power-train hybrid, dismissed the criticism as misplaced, saying the fuel economy realized is more important than the specifications of the hybrid's technology components. "Why do you care about an intermediate component when you get the performance you want?"
Grewe said the Saturn Vue hybrid can be powered solely by electricity and gets 20 percent fuel savings over the standard SUV.
Some see signs of revisionist history in the Bush administration's recent effort to strike a more energy-conscious image.
In the 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush announced the Advanced Energy Initiative, an effort to fund renewable-energy research. The following day, the White House provided details, issuing a document that claims "current hybrids on the road run on a battery developed at the DOE."
If that's true, it might be reassuring to see the DOE as the automotive equivalent of Xerox Parc, spawning breakthrough technology for others (read: Japan) to commercialize.
Not so fast.
The DOE did provide funding to advance the nickel metal hydride, or NiMH, battery technology used in today's hybrids. But its involvement came nearly a decade after the NiMH battery was first developed, providing an assist to existing technology. And its efforts have not yet led to products in use in cars that are on the road.
The NiMH battery was invented in the early 1980s by a little-known husband and wife team, Stan and Iris Ovshinsky, the founders of ECD Ovonics. In the 1960s the Ovshinskys began research into the science of amorphous and disordered materials, which resulted in the creation of the NiMH battery and the Ovonic Battery Company in 1982.
The company now holds 350 patents for devices including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, rewritable optical storage and solar cells. In 2004, ECD Ovonics settled a patent dispute with Panasonic over NiMH technology, in which both parties agreed to cross-license their technology, among other things. (Wired News made repeated calls to ECD Ovonics' Cobasys subsidiary for inclusion in this article without a response.)
To its credit, the Department of Energy recognized the potential of the Ovshinsky's technology to power vehicles, and in 1991 founded the United States Advanced Battery Consortium to advance the technology. USABC included Ford, GM, Chrysler (later DaimlerChrysler) and ECD Ovonics, which worked together to enhance the capacity and efficiency of the NiMH-battery design.
"If it hadn't been for the DOE, the nickel metal hydride battery for vehicles wouldn't exist," said Dave Goldstein, who consulted to the DOE and is now president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Washington, D.C.
Goldstein said the DOE saw "a fairly crude battery with great potential," and provided funding to refine the technology.
However, the NiMH batteries in the hybrid vehicles sold by Toyota, Honda and Ford are from Panasonic and Sanyo of Japan, companies that were not allowed to participate in USABC because they were based outside of the United States. Panasonic and Sanyo had each begun work on NiMH batteries before the Department of Energy project started.
Dave Hermance, an executive engineer at Toyota, said Panasonic developed its NiMH batteries without input or funding from the Energy department, and called the claim that the DOE is responsible for developing today's hybrid batteries "weak."
One fact that is not in dispute: Hybrid cars using batteries developed directly in conjunction with the DOE are not yet on the road. The first hybrid vehicle to use a battery developed by Cobasys, Saturn's Vue, will be out this summer.
But don't give too much credit to Toyota and Honda, either.
Toyota, which sold its first Prius in Japan in 1997 and Honda, which brought the Insight to the United States in 1999, are most commonly thought of as the founding fathers of hybrids. However, the first hybrid-vehicle prototype predates their first models by almost 20 years, and much of the technology used in hybrid vehicles today evolved from electric-vehicle research.
Electrical engineer Victor Wouk (the brother of author Herman Wouk) built a hybrid from a 1972 Buick Skylark as part of the EPA-sponsored Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. Wouk paid for the research and development himself through his company Petro-Electric Motors, with the promise that the government would order 350 of the vehicles if the car passed the federal emissions tests.
The car passed the initial EPA test, but an EPA administrator reneged on the contract and killed the program, and Wouk abandoned his car in disgust.
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