Hybrid halfway

Recently in Nanchang I was surprised to find a fleet of Toyota Camry Hybrids operating as taxis. Taking one of the taxis the driver told me that the car was new. And with its comfortable leather seats and environment it was a lot better than the run of the mill Volkswagen Jetta, which appeared to be the most frequent car used as a taxi in the city.

Hybrids, however, have so far proved to be unpopular in China. They are seen by some, as a stop gap on the way to a greener future. In an earlier post I looked at electric cars in China and the market for them. In many ways it is a similar story with hybrids.

Forgive me whilst I give a quick rundown of the technical side. The term ‘hybrid’ can actually refer to a number of different things and some cars that claim to be electric are in fact hybrids. At its most basic a hybrid is a vehicle that uses two or more different power sources. These days it is generally used for vehicles in which one source is electricity.

A mild hybrid (parallel) has an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor. Regenerative braking allows energy that would otherwise be lost when braking to be stored in the battery – done by using the electric motor as a generator. This can then be used to help with heavy acceleration or in some cases move the vehicle at low speeds. The battery is larger than in a normal car but there is no battery pack. Stop/start technology is also included to cut the ICE when the car is stationary. Chinese examples include the Roewe 750 Hybrid and Buick LaCrosse eAssist.

A full hybrid (series-parallel or power-split) whilst similar has a much greater capacity to operate as an electric vehicle due to containing a battery pack. Both the electric motor and ICE can propel the vehicle. The ICE is also used for charging the batteries. The best known example of this type is the Toyota Prius.

Often referred to as an electric car the Chevrolet Volt is in fact a type of series hybrid. Here the ICE is only used for charging the batteries and there is no mechanical connection to the wheels.

Finally there is the term plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Here the battery pack can be charged by plugging into a mains electricity supply. A larger battery pack is required to get benefit out of the system. The system can use the ICE as a series-parallel or as a series hybrid. BYD’s F3DM is an example of the former and the Volt the latter.

As a general rule the cost of vehicles increases in relationship to the sophistication of the type of hybrid. And this seems to be the sticking factor in China. Toyota’s Prius, the darling of American eco-warriors, has in China been a complete turkey. The second generation when production stopped in 2010 was barely selling one a month and from 2006 less than 4,000 were ever sold. Cost was the main reason, with the Prius going for the same amount as much larger and more luxurious cars. This at a time when Chinese fuel prices were artificially low meant there was no reason to even consider the car.

Back in 2008 I test drove the hybrid version of the first generation of the Buick LaCrosse for the South China Morning Post. The price difference over the standard car was RMB20,100 and with rumours of big increases in fuel prices after the Olympics I said that it stood a chance of gaining sales. That fuel price increase did not materialise. It wasn’t until 2010 that I saw another hybrid LaCrosse on the road and that was when they were introduced as one of the two types of Shanghai Expo taxis. It seems however that running costs proved to be too high and they were quietly dropped after the Expo finished.

Will the Nanchang taxis be more successful? Nanchang is one of the cities in the electric vehicle demonstration program and it may be that the cars were introduced as part of this effort. It seems, anyway, that the Nanchang government last year ordered 160 of the vehicles for use as official cars and taxis. Whereas the LaCrosse was a mild hybrid the Camry is a full hybrid and uses a similar system to the Prius. Whilst undoubtedly fuel consumption will be cut the economics probably make little sense with a Camry Hybrid costing more than double and maybe even treble a Volkswagen Jetta as a taxi.

Fuel consumption with hybrids is also a bone of contention. In a 2007 test by Auto Express the second generation Prius only managed tenth place when pitted against a range of similarly sized diesels – the best for fuel efficiency was a Citroen C4. Staggeringly the Prius in the test returned 37% less fuel economy than the official figure.

In Europe turbo diesels are very popular and achieve high levels of efficiency. The hybrid craze largely started in Japan where diesels are not popular and so one way of looking at them is as a ‘Japanese diesel.’

The Roewe 750 Hybrid is a mild hybrid and costs what appears to be a mere RMB12,000 more than the standard model without any subsidies. This though based on a fuel price of RMB8 per litre is 1,500 litres of fuel. If the 1.8 turbo engine in a Roewe 750 uses 6.5l/100km and the hybrid saves SAIC’s claimed 20% fuel you would have to drive around 116,000km to breakeven.

It seems therefore without subsidies, big drops in the price difference of hybrids, or much higher fuel prices there is only a limited case for hybrids. Chinese consumers are likely to vote with their wallets and are unlikely to embrace hybrids anytime soon.

  1. Well, to take your last point first hybrids are ralley nothing but a marketing gimmic. There’s nothing”wrong” with them they do reduce fuel consumption. Its jsut a ridiculously expensive way to do it when you can build cheaper cars that get jsut as good mileage with efficient gasoline engines.As for the future here’s my estimate: electric. The reasons are basically simple:>alternative fuel cars would (based on what we know) be either biofuels or hydrogen. the first is workable but there’s no way for us to produce that much biofuel without causing massive impact on the ecology worldwide. And, unless wedeelop some very innovative technology tha tisn’t in the offing, it is NOT carbon neutral though it does reduce the “carbonfootprint” considerably.Hydrogen presents technical problems ones tha twill take years to solve. Mainly this involves how to store enough hydrogen on a car to give it a decent range. also, hyddrogen is currently obtained from oil. The alternative electrolysis could becomeccost effective. But to use electricity to break down water for its hydorogen you have to have to produce the electricity first.My guess-when we reach the point of producing that much electricity without using oil or coal to do it (by solar power, for instance) and can do it cost-effectively you might as well use that electricity to power electric cars. We already know how to build them, with enough range for urban driving and short tirps and do so at reasonable cost. Going to hydrogen would jsut be an expensive complication.The real key we need is large scale cost-deffective alternative means of generating the electricity in the first place. But the technology for that ( or technologies, raher there are several) are either already working (wind, for example) or on the verge of becoming highly competitive 9such as new tidal power and solar array technologies now in development).

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