Germany car companies skeptical of hybrids September 15, 2005 6:05 AM
New York Times
September 15, 2005
At Frankfurt Auto Show, a Reluctant Embrace of Hybrids
By MARK LANDLER
FRANKFURT, Sept. 14 - This was the week that Europe's reluctant auto industry bowed to the popularity of hybrid technology, with a skein of announcements by leading German carmakers that they would follow Toyota's lead in developing these dual gasoline-electric engines.
But backstage at the Frankfurt International Motor Show, a different picture is emerging: Europe's auto executives remain privately skeptical, even dismissive, about the merits of hybrid technology.
A spate of press releases may be no more than that - a public relations response to what many in the European auto industry say has been the Japanese industry's shrewd promotion of a so-so technology.
"This was a marketing battle between Europe and Japan, and diesel engines were Europe's proposal," the chairman of Porsche, Wendelin Wiedeking, said in an interview on Tuesday. "We must accept that we lost."
Adding to the pressure, some Europeans said, is the sharp rise in oil prices, which has cast a shadow over this gathering and renewed the focus on a search for alternatives to fossil fuels.
Porsche said early in the week that it would build a hybrid version of its Cayenne sport utility vehicle by the end of 2010. It is joining an alliance with Volkswagen and Audi to develop hybrid engine technology. But Mr. Wiedeking declined to say how much Porsche would invest in the project.
Volkswagen's chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, played down his company's investment, even though it has announced a hybrid venture with a Chinese partner in addition to the Porsche project. In Europe, at least, Mr. Pischetsrieder said hybrids would not command a premium. "I can't afford to spend money on something customers won't pay for," he said. "I'm not going to spend any more than I have to."
Toyota, which pioneered hybrid cars and is the market leader, hopes to sell one million of them by early in the next decade. Its Lexus division showed off two hybrid models here: the GS450h, which it promotes as the first hybrid luxury sedan, and a sport utility vehicle, the RX 400h.
But many Europeans see only a niche market. BMW's chairman, Helmut Panke, predicted that hybrid vehicles would eventually account for 2 percent to 3 percent of the industry's sales volume, chiefly in the United States with a smaller presence in Asia and still less in Europe.
BMW recently joined an alliance with General Motors and DaimlerChrysler to develop hybrid engines. It has not disclosed plans to produce a vehicle, though Mr. Panke said on Wednesday that it would compete effectively.
"We'll all have one within five years," he said, "but this is not the big be-all and end-all of technology."
BMW is investing heavily in the development of hydrogen-powered cars, which Mr. Panke said he believed was the long-term answer to dependence on oil. He acknowledged that because of distribution and storage problems, hydrogen would not be a marketable fuel for 15 to 20 years.
Still, BMW has pledged to make a version of its 7-series sedan that runs on hydrogen and gasoline in the next few years. It displayed a rocketlike, hydrogen-propelled vehicle here that it said achieved a speed of more than 300 kilometers an hour (187 miles an hour).
Few European auto executives can even discuss hybrid technology without referring to a recent test conducted by a German trade magazine, Auto Bild, in which a Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. with a diesel engine was pitted against the Lexus RX 400h in a drive from New York to San Francisco. The Mercedes finished with substantially better fuel efficiency.
Advocates for hybrid technology concede that in long-distance driving, the most advanced diesel engines are more efficient than hybrids. But in cities, with frequent stops and starts, switching between gasoline and electric motors gives drivers an edge in fuel economy.
"The problem with hybrids is that in economic terms, they don't make a lot of sense," said Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Cardiff University. Because they use both gasoline and electric motors, he said, hybrids are more expensive than regular cars.
The engines are also heavier - something that BMW says is difficult to reconcile with its reputation for agile, zippy cars.
While European carmakers say they are ready to respond to the growing demand for hybrids, especially in the United States, some worry that governments will tilt the playing field by imposing emission standards that favor hybrids over vehicles with clean diesel engines.
In the United States, diesel technology has never been able to shake an image of being noisy, smelly and dirty. Mr. Panke said the high price of gasoline might prompt Americans to give it a fresh look, particularly since the newest turbocharged diesel engines can be hard to distinguish from gas-powered ones.
The debate over hybrid technology was so intense here this week that it almost obscured another new challenge from Asia: Chinese carmakers, which appeared for the first time at this show.
Three companies presented their wares - Landwind, Geely and Brilliance - though only Landwind has already sold cars in Europe. Peter Bijvelds, 27, a Dutch car dealer who has the exclusive European distribution license for Landwind, hopes to sell 1,000 of them this year.
Built in the southeast Chinese city of Nanchang by Jiangling Motors, the Landwind is a boxy sport utility vehicle starting at 15,000 euros ($18,412). Mr. Bijvelds says that is about a third cheaper than its closest rival, and should help Europeans get over their qualms about buying a Chinese car.
"They already produce our clothes and our shoes," he said. "Why shouldn't they produce our cars?"
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[quote from above] "....a Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. with a diesel engine was pitted against the Lexus RX 400h in a drive from New York to San Francisco. The Mercedes finished with substantially better fuel efficiency."
I don't doubt it. But there are two misleading factors in that statement.
First, hybrid technology doesn't help on the highway...the advantage is converting the kinetic energy to electrical energy while braking - and converting it back to motion when accelerating. So the saving is in stop and go city driving, not traveling the interstate from New York to San Francisco.
Second, it is misleading to compare an "diesel" with a "hybrid". It would be more useful to compare diesel engines with gasoline engines, both of which can be used in hybrids. If we combined good hybrid technology with the very efficient european diesel engines, then we would have the best of both worlds.
Please note that I'm not against hybrids, I purchased my Honda Civic Hybrid new in 2003 and have nearly 70,000 miles on it. Love it. Even so, there is a lot of improvement that could be made.
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