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New Electric Hybrid Cars Coming, But How Green Are They?

electric hybrid car.jpgHybrid vehicles have caught the fancy of policy makers and the people in general. It is widely believed that hybrids hold the key towards unleashing a greener economy. However, a high cost of hybrids as compared to conventional vehicles is a major challenge that needs to be resolved before its entry in the mainstream automotive sector.

Hybrids employ a combination of the ICE and the battery for power generation. An onboard computer processor is employed that determines the right combination of battery and ICE under varying conditions of operation. Such an arrangement however is complicated and adds to the cost of the vehicle. Furthermore, batteries need to be charged repeatedly and replaced frequently, adding to the cost. Proponents of hybrids argue that their high cost would be offset by the reduced use of gasoline over a period. They however stop short on the cost incurred on battery charging.

Thus, the challenge in commercialization of hybrid technology may be considered a classic chicken and egg problem. In order to reduce manufacturing costs there has to be an increase in volume (the number of units sold), which is possible only with a decrease in price.

In this regard, it is heartening to note the availability of financial incentives in the US for boosting the sale of hybrid vehicles. A significant federal tax credit of twelve thousand dollars is currently available on purchasing of certain basic hybrid vehicles. Some states and municipalities also provide additional tax relief and incentives to specific hybrid vehicles. Rhode Island tax credit for electric vehicles and Oregon business energy tax credit are some major programs. The state of California also provides emission reduction funding to certain hybrid vehicles, if these are used primarily in California.

The advantage of such tax credits was identified early by Toyota unlike carmakers like GM, Ford and Honda. In early 2005, Toyota had a strategy for the sale of nearly 100,000 units of Pirius whereas Honda anticipated sale of only about 20000 units of its Accord hybrid. Toyotas vision paid off and the sale of its Pirius model accounted for nearly half of the total hybrid sale in year 2006. Toyota is now lobbying with the Australian government for incentives to produce the next generation hybrid – Toyota Camry. Toyota aims at production of Camry by 2011 for Asian markets. Emboldened by the success of Toyota, other carmakers are also running to grab a pie of the hybrid market.

Hybrid Technologies (HT) a company founded in 2000 and headquartered in Mooresville, N.C aims to develop, and manufacture lithium based battery systems for a variety of vehicles such as scooters, mopeds, and passenger cars.  HT seems to have taken a very bullish attitude towards the hybrid vehicle segment as evident by a large variety of electric vehicles in its product lineup.  At the top of its product lineup is the magnificent sports car – LiV. The international automotive supplier, Continental also plans to launch the production of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles by 2008.

These batteries are expected to be utilized in the Mercedes S class Blue hybrid. Ford Company is also embarking on a major revamp process to kick-start the development of mass produced hybrids. It has recently purchased a majority interest in the in Norwegian-based PIVCO industries known for its “Think” prototype.

So, do hybrids provide the only alternative for environment friendly power? Definitely not, research is also being pursued for development of vehicles that operate on power of fuel cells, or completely on electricity. Honda motors recently unveiled its fuel cell powered vehicle FCX clarity at the Los Angeles auto show. GM has also developed its Chevrolet Equinox FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle).

Furthermore, the impact of hybrids on the environment is not clear. The efficiency of hybrid is dependent on the extent of utilization of battery power. The greater employment of battery power, lesser the use of ICE .This in turn would entail smaller consumption of gasoline and consequently lower emissions. However, greater utilization of batteries would also imply frequent charging. The charging of batteries is done through electricity mostly generated by fossil fuel powered electric stations. Therefore, in a sense hybrids would involve trading of lower emissions from vehicles and passing them to the power stations. Further research and development may be instrumental in determining the “green” efficiency of the entire hybrid vehicle operation.

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