Do hybrids still have legs?

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The discontinuance of Eaton’s hybrid launch assist (HLA) product this year caught a few industry experts by surprise, but isn’t dampening the outlook for hybrid technology overall within the transportation much – for either electric- or hydraulic-based hybrid systems.

“We did not see [Eaton’s withdrawal] coming, but we still think there’s a great payback for such technology,” Tom DeCoster, business development manager for the RunWise hydraulic hybrid powertrain at Parker Hannifin, told me recently.

“We focus particularly on high start/stop cycle applications like the refuse market and we’re seeing big fuel economy savings for truck in that segment,” he noted. “The best part is, such hydraulic hybrid technology is ‘fuel neutral’ so it can deliver savings regardless of whether the truck is fueled by diesel or natural gas. It’s not competing technology; it’s complimentary.”

[Below is a video clip from a few years back showing how the RunWise system saves fuel in refuse truck operations.]

DeCoster noted that Parker’s demonstration project with the Miami-Dade County fleet resulted in 48% fuel savings and a 98% uptime rate as the hydraulic hybrid system not only captured and re-used energy typically lost when the brakes deploy, it’s helping reducing maintenance cost by extending brake life and reducing wear-and-tear on related components.

“The technology keeps getting better and the costs will go down as we increase build volumes for this system,” he added.

A similar feeling is taking hold among purveyors of electricity-based hybrid system makers, notably by Takeshi Uchiyamada, chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. and widely known as the “Father of the Prius,” which is the global automaker’s signature hybrid electric car.

In remarks before the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., this week, Uchiyamada said that hybrids retain “key advantages” that will continue to make them popular with consumers.

“Some people say hybrid vehicles such as the Prius are only a bridge to the future. But we think it could be a long bridge and a very sturdy one,” he added. “There are many more gains we can achieve with hybrids.”

Uchiyamada (above at right) said that Toyota studied 80 different types of hybrid systems, and finally chose the so-called “series parallel” system to enable a vehicle to run only on the gasoline engine, only on the electric motor, or on a combination of both, depending on driving conditions.

That way “overall fuel consumption and environmental protection would be optimized,” he explained.

“It’s not very modest of me to say this, but I think the facts support my statement: The Prius has become the most important vehicle for our future,” Uchiyamada pointed out. “In each of the previous moves to a new generation, we achieved a 10% increase in mileage per gallon. Also we have taken what we learned and applied it to other Toyota and Lexus vehicles. As of March, we had sold 5 million hybrid vehicles around the world. And Prius alone hit a cumulative level of 3 million sales globally in June.”

He added that Toyota is currently working on the fourth generation of the Prius and is “committed” to beating that 10% record this time around.

“We will continue to offer many types of hybrids, more than any other manufacturer,” Uchiyamada continued. “One variation is the plug-in hybrid. It reduces CO2 [carbon dioxide] to the same extent that an all-electric vehicle does. But the big difference is that a plug-in can be driven on its gasoline-charged engine even it runs out of the electricity it received from being plugged in to a socket. That gives the driver much more confidence that he or she will not run out of juice somewhere along the highway.” 

He noted, too, that while the U.S. has many hybrids on the roads, he wants the auto industry as a whole to sell 5 million such vehicles in our nation by the end of 2016 on a cumulative basis.

“It’s only when we put ourselves under the same kind of intense pressure we faced in developing the Prius that we can achieve great goals,” he explained. “That’s what it takes. I want our industry to achieve this goal of 5 million hybrids in America.”

One way or the other, it means the hybrid vehicle will be sticking around for some time to come.

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