Energy efficiency, not electro-energy anarchy, is the future and hybrid vehicles point the way


As a youth, I, like most others, did my best to drive my parents crazy by spending my time reading magazines as opposed to anything they might have considered worthwhile. I knew nothing about any historical events before the most recent Tuesday, but I could tell you anything about fast cars. To this day I remember little about high school biology but I do remember quite clearly a review of a Porsche 911 from the early 1980s. I can see the pictures and stats page in my mind, and I can remember that it had a flat six engine that produced 185 horsepower. It was very quick for the day, hitting 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. Interestingly enough, I have no clue what sort of mileage the car achieved, and possibly the publication (Road & Track) didn’t even mention it. I can now of course find out in seconds that a 1982 911 gets about 17 miles per US gallon.

A 2018 Porsche 911 GT3, on the other hand, produces 500 horsepower, gets to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds and returns, oddly enough, 17 miles per US gallon. That same gallon of fuel doesn’t get us farther in this instance, but it does allow us to do it in a sillier manner.

We can, of course, do better, and automakers are also showing some potential for putting their powers to good use rather than pointlessness (having said that, 500 hp is a lot of fun…). The environmental footprint of the automobile can be significantly reduced with existing technology that is both saleable and non-disruptive. Some people pine for truly disruptive events like an end to fossil fuels, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or, if they insist on that as the desired game plan, I’d like to see them live without fossil fuels of any sort for six months; after that “disruptive” experience I’ll listen to them. Grandiose and juvenile plans to overthrow the existing systems will inevitably run into a wall of inertia. It simply isn’t realistic to end fossil fuel usage any time soon; the sooner we realize that the sooner we’ll start making real progress.

Hybrid auto technology holds great promise to meaningfully impact fuel consumption. Basically, the technology involves adding electrical motors to a gasoline-powered vehicles. The batteries for these electric motors can be charged by plug-in, by regenerative braking, or by the gasoline engine itself.

Much like an electrically assisted bicycle, a little electrical power can help a lot. A hybrid vehicle can often run for 10 or 20 miles on battery power alone, meaning a lot of errand running can be accomplished with no fuel. In densely populated urban areas, that is a very important capability. The technology has enormous potential, not just because the technology is fairly straightforward, but also because it does not require mass rewiring of the electrical grid as would mass adoption of pure electrical vehicles. Hybrid electric motors and battery packs can now be fitted completely unobtrusively so that one would have to be truly bone-headed to object to hybrids from any physical perspective. Cost is another matter, but that is coming down as well.

One reason why hybrid technology holds such promise is because it smuggles efficiency into packages that otherwise would have trouble gaining mainstream acceptance. Pure electric vehicles are a tough sell to the masses who are too addicted to the comforts and ease of use of conventional behemoths. Threats of apocalyptic warming, massive government subsidies and other forms of coercion work for some, but for most do not, and have even had the opposite effect of encouraging bands of idiots known as “coal rollers” who will spend up to $5,000 to modify their vehicles solely for the purpose of belching black smoke and annoying anyone they feel like. Laws are in motion to stop the practice, but the point is the population is a continuum with Nissan Leaf drivers at one end and coal rollers at the other. Reducing emissions is not a matter of winning a war along this continuum; it is a matter of convincing the population to slide along it.

Making the technology as seamless as possible, and attractive to boot, can do that. This is the balancing act that manufacturers must walk, and it is also why they tend to make hybrids performance-heavy at the expense of optimal efficiency. Optimal efficiency does no good if it doesn’t leave the sales lot.

Thus, we have SUVs like a new Acura MDX SUV that, through hybrid technology, can reduce fuel consumption by about 20 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but it is if multiplied by all the MDXs sold. Furthermore, they achieve this with a large vehicle that is still very powerful. The gains could be even larger if a moderately powered hybrid were offered. The Acura reviewed above makes over 320 horsepower in hybrid form; a 250 hp hybrid would get even better fuel economy and still be more powerful than many high performance cars of 20 years ago.

Hybrid vehicles are a sensible development that pushes things in the right direction to prepare us for a future less reliant on fossil fuels. It will be interesting to see how far manufacturers can take it. We should all hope for their success, because the more technologies like this succeed the less will be the clamour to do something legislatively drastic.

Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here

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