I was reading an article in Car and Driver (November 2016) about the new Acura NSX— I know, I am a bit behind in my reading. The author (Eric Tingwell) spends quite a bit of time talking about the NSX’s gas-electric hybrid drivetrain and makes an assertion that all cars in the high-performance category will within 10 years be hybrid-electrics. This really distressed me (way more than it should have), but it also got me thinking:
- Hybrid Electrics are complicated beasts and it pains me to think that we need this much complexity to achieve both performance and fuel economy, ouch;
- It seems to me that most car companies are moving toward hybrid-electrics points to one or more of several things:
- Car companies are following the path of least resistance. They are doing the Hula Hoop thing. Hybrid Electrics are a fad and they just can’t manage to help themselves—they are producing the flavor of the day;
- Internal combustion engines have a serious PR problem and it isn’t worth fighting uphill against the headwinds that face that technology;
- Hybrid-electric technology is sexier than materials science structural engineering. In other words, the engineering management is predisposed to want to work on hybrid-electric projects and so are their engineers. So instead of putting the effort into lightening the vehicle, they choose to focus on propulsion systems;
- It is the only solution that will provide the solution that we are looking for— the required performance and efficiency.
But, it is likely to be some combination of these, quadruple ouch!
I later read an article in the November Road and Track (Sam Smith & Jack Baruth) where they compare two hybrid supercars, the Ferrari LaFerrari and the Porsche 918. They retail for $1.4M and $845K respectively. And, here is what they said: “The problem for me is that I think both cars would be better without the hybrid components.” So, the arguably most sophisticated hybrid electrics on the road would be better without the “electrics”. Further, they continue: “They’re both based on this kind of bogus idea that there’s going to be room in the future for 900-hp, two-ton, two-seat cars because… what? Because they have electric motors?” The idea being that they won’t have the durable appeal that truly “well engineered”, in the truest sense of the phrase (see my previous post—A Short Checklist that Pays Big Dividends and Ensures Success), have.
But, what really bothers me most, is that (in my mind) engineers aren’t supposed to care about sexy. They should focus on the best engineering solution. And, if I was looking to improve both the efficiency and performance of a car I would concentrate on weight. While the problem of reducing weight is not easy, the resulting machine is likely simpler, probably more efficient and incorporate better tested technology (the internal combustion engine has been around better than 100 years) than the hybrid-electric solution.
And, if you think about it, radical weight reduction could have a profound impact on both the performance and efficiency of an automobile. A 2006 paper from the folks at Argonne National Laboratory for the Society of Automotive Engineers called Fuel Economy Sensitivity to Vehicle Mass for Advanced Vehicle Powertrains does the math. And, there are others, do a web-search to find them.
Finally, some might make the argument that you can’t perfect the breed without investing in it. To that I answer that I don’t think anyone thinks that hybrid-electrics are anything but a suboptimal interim solution and that batteries have a long way to go (and are themselves an interim solution) before they can truly supplant the internal combustion engine even in terms of overall end-to-end efficiency if you would put serious engineering effort behind further advances in the technology.
I don’t have any issues with technology and moving forward to ones that are clearly superior. But, most of the experts seem to feel that hybrid-electric is at best a transitional technology (so, this move toward hybrid-electrics can’t be meant to improve the breed) and until batteries (or fuel cells) get a heck of lot better than they are today, it is unlikely that one can make the case that electric or hybrid-electric cars really make sense. So, why are there so many hybrid-electrics and an increasing number of battery-electrics?
I ask this question in all seriousness to better understand the issue, maybe I’m wrong. Help me understand how that is!
Copyright 2017 Howard Niden