Carmakers step up hybrid race

Three major carmakers are spending $1bn to develop new hybrid technology they hope will challenge the current market leader, stepping up competition in the market for fuel-efficient cars.

General Motors, Daimler and BMW are co-funding a research project to develop a new “dual-mode” hybrid engine, company representatives at an industry conference in Michigan said.

By joining forces on the costly project they hope to develop cutting-edge hybrid technology at a reduced cost – and to wrestle part of the market away from Toyota, which is currently the market leader with its Prius.

Hybrid cars greatly improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions by switching between an electric battery-powered motor and a conventional gasoline one, as well as harnessing the energy produced while breaking.

The new dual-mode engine should be adjustable to shift between optimum performance and fuel efficiency, giving a car that is very adaptable to consumer demand and manufacturers’ specifications. It will include an on-board computer which will determine when to make the transition from gasoline to battery power.

So far, the research project has seen about 500 engineers working for 18 months to develop the “next generation” in hybrid transmission, and ways of integrating it into vehicles.

“We believe that our two-model hybrid is the best of the hybrid systems,” Andreas Truckenbrodt, executive director of Daimler Chrysler’s hybrid program, told reporters at a trade show in Michigan when announcing the investment this week.

“I think all three of us can say it’s truly amazing what you can get out of if you bring wild, dedicated engineers together,” he said of the research alliance.

Once developed, the dual-mode hybrid engine will be used in a range of vehicles made by all three producers – Daimler Chrysler’s Dodge Durango, and GM’s Yukon and Tahoe.

Apart from rising petrol prices and environmental concerns in some countries, energy security concerns and associated government incentives are also fuelling the race to develop hybrids.

At the beginning of this year, the US government decided to award a tax break of up to $3000 to people buying the cleanest and most fuel efficient vehicles (see related story) – a sum roughly corresponding to the extra costs currently incurred by buyers of hybrids compared to conventional cars in the US.

While Toyota, GM and partners battle it out for the hybrid market, other carmakers, such as Ford, see the future elsewhere and choose to focus on the development of ethanol-powered vehicles.

Goska Romanowicz

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