Are Mild Hybrids Wasted Investment?

by Benjamin Jones on April 29, 2009

At a panel discussion during the 2009 New York International Auto Show, the inevitable question came up: should we focus on one green technology or continue our scattered approach to things? Henrik Fisker, the charismatic man at the helm of Fisker Automotive, had an answer that surprised me: we should explore every avenue, except mild hybrids. According to him they were a short term solution at best, and much of the investment in them is wasted money.

Since then I have been thinking about the pros and cons of investment in mild hybrid technology. While hybrids like the Toyota Prius have certainly enjoyed their fair share of commercial success, there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.

3 Reasons Mild Hybrid Investment is Wasted

  1. Mild hybrids may reduce our fuel consumption, but they are not a substitute for petroleum based fuels. Using less gas may be great, but is it worth money that could go to developing non-petroleum transport technologies?
  2. Fuel efficient technologies already exist. Small cars and diesels have had the potential to get great fuel economy for decades; it would require less money and less waiting to just cut the fat.
  3. Hybrid technology is still a bandage for inefficient vehicles. While the Prius may be popular, more money is being spent on making SUV, trucks, and luxury cars into hybrids than vehicles with any decent fuel economy potential. Cadalac Escalade hybrid, anyone?

3 Reasons to Keep Investing in Mild Hybrids

  1. They save fuel. Like it or not, internal combustion engines are going to be in the United States and the world for decades. We might as well develop the technology to save fuel over that long term.
  2. Mild hybrid technology is profitable and affordable. Compared to other technologies like battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell, it’s actually possible to purchase and afford mild hybrids.
  3. The technology builds consumer acceptance of environmental automobiles. Unlike many skeptics predicted when the Insight first came to the United States, people aren’t getting shocked to death by their cars or having the electric motors blow up and fail on a daily basis.

So, is Fisker right? Is money invested in mild hybrid technology a waste? It’s clear that he has an agenda to sell his own plug-in electric vehicles, but I think he may be on to something. The economical Geo Metro is still competitive with the Prius in terms of fuel economy, but such conventional technology has all but given way to modern hybrids. Perhaps a return to the basics and renewed focus on conservation would do more than all the world’s advance hybrid drivetrains put together.

What do you think?

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1 Imee April 30, 2009 at 3:44 am

I’m one of those people who thinks everything, even seemingly bad stuff, all have a purpose. So I don’t think mild hybrids were a wasted investment, actually. Just think about it. Without it, better hybrid technologies won’t be discovered.

2 Lou May 7, 2009 at 2:03 pm

The article fails to mention that mild hybrids eliminate pollution while the vehicle is stopped (a significant source of poor urban air quality). It also sidesteps the fact that most cars are bought by private owners, on the basis of what makes economic sense for their current needs- NOT as an investment in future technology development. While GM’s Volt may be a considerable leap in alternative propulsion technology, its projected price will keep it in the “bleeding green” buyer fringe, barring some breakthrough in battery price/capacity. While “conventional’ technology merits rediscovery (1982 Dodge Omni Miser had an EPA highway rating of 50 mpg), mild hybrid techniques allow larger vehicles to be more fuel efficient without the high price of large primary drive battery packs.

3 Benjamin Jones May 7, 2009 at 2:44 pm

No need to insinuate that I’m trying to deceive people. It’s true that many hybrid shit off the engine at idle, but so do non-hybrids with start-stop systems, which makes me conclude that this is not a benefit of advancing hybrid research, but simply applying technology that has been on the market for years to new cars.

Thanks for your comment.

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