Hybrids Before the Japanese

Although the common perception is that Toyota and Honda invented hybrid vehicles less than 10 years ago, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply don't know who invented the first hybrid car, because experiments in hybrid technology go back to the beginning of automobile history. As we've noted, gasoline "spark" engines have their idiosyncrasies and electric motors and their associated batteries don't present a perfect solution either, so inventors quickly tried to combine the two in an effort to offset their weaknesses.

As early as 1900, two hybrid cars were displayed at the Paris Auto Salon, the precursor of the Paris Auto Show. Several companies that built taxicabs decided they could add range to their electric propulsion systems if they added a small gasoline engine to keep the batteries charged. Krieger, Pieper, and Auto-Mixte were three of the companies that built hybrids between 1900 and 1910. The Pieper car was especially interesting, because it used the gasoline engine to charge the batteries and to power the driving wheels, but when an added boost was needed, it used the electric motor to provide supplemental power. The motor also was used to generate electricity for the batteries when the car was in cruising mode.

Hybrids weren't confined to just cabs and other light cars either. AutoMixte and Commercial built trucks using hybrid techniques. The AutoMixte system was very similar to that used by Pieper, but Commercial, a Philadelphia-based company, took a different course. It used a large multicylinder engine to generate electricity that it sent directly to electric motors to drive the wheels. This eliminated the need for a transmission and a battery pack.

After the advent of the self-starter, most auto engineers turned away from hybrid concepts, although you could make the case that a gasoline-engine car with an electric-powered self-starter is a hybrid. In fact, one of the newest hybrids on the market uses the starter motor as a generator and a supplemental power supply to the gasoline engine during hard acceleration. For more information, see Chapter 12.

Woods and Baker tried to buck the rising tide of gasoline by offering gasoline-electric hybrids, but the cost was through the roof, and few purchased the cars. Among the last gasps of the early hybrids was the Owens Magnetic, an otherwise conventional-looking car of 1921, which used a hybrid system similar to commercial trucks. Its gasoline engine powered a generator that, in turn, sent electricity to wheel-mounted motors. In essence, it used the hybrid system to replace the bulky manual transmissions of the era, but it failed to catch on.

After that it would be nearly 50 years before hybrids again gained much attention, and when that attention came it wasn't from the Japanese but from American car companies. Spurred by Clean Air legislation, General Motors began playing with hybrid concepts in the 1960s, and by the end of the decade it had built a two-cylinder gasoline-electric hybrid that could travel at 40 mph.

The Arab Oil Embargo spurred further research into the hybrid concept. Among the most notable: Volkswagen built and submitted a vehicle it called the "Taxi" for Department of Energy testing. Able to switch between electric and gasoline engine power, it eventually recorded 8,000 road miles and became an auto show curiosity. Even more notable was the attempt by engineer-entrepreneurs Victor Wouk and Charles Rosen to qualify their company, Petro-Electric Motors, for financial support under provisions of the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. Using a Buick Skylark as the basis of their hybrid car, the vehicle reportedly passed all the Environmental Protection Agency tests but the company didn't receive federal support.

That didn't mean that hybrids weren't on the United States government agenda, however. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration began a government program to advance hybrid technology, and Congress enacted the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. A decade later, German automaker Audi pulled the wraps off its Audi Duo hybrid, which used a 13-horsepower electric motor to drive the rear wheels while a 123-horsepower 2.3-liter gasoline engine drove the front wheels.

This helped prompt the Clinton Administration to create a new federal initiative called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). A consortium of the government and the American auto industry, the PNGV had the goal of developing an extremely low-pollution car that also could record 80 miles-per-gallon fuel economy. As the years progressed, it became more and more apparent to those working on the program that a hybrid vehicle was the only way to achieve the goal. After the expenditure of more than a billion dollars, three hybrid prototypes eventually emerged from the program. None of them went into production.

The exclusion of Honda and Toyota from the American program prompted those companies to step up their research on hybrid vehicles. Toyota created a project called Global Car for the Twenty-First Century, which eventually spawned the first Toyota Prius hybrid. After Toyota pulled its timetable ahead significantly, the Prius went on sale in Japan in 1997, just prior to the now-famous Kyoto conference on global warming. That same year Audi began to produce its Audi Duo hybrid for public sale. It used a 1.9-liter turbo-diesel engine teamed with a 29 horsepower electric motor powered by lead-acid gel-cell batteries, but it flopped in Europe, and Europeans have been slow to warm to the hybrid concept since.


Toyota pushed up the production date of the first Prius hybrid car by some two years so it could take advantage of the publicity surrounding the pivotal Kyoto conference on global warming.

By the late 1990s, American manufacturers had moved their concentration away from hybrids and toward pure electrics, because they knew that hybrids could not achieve the zero-emissions performance required by the California Air Resources Board zero-emissions mandate. In this era, General Motors introduced its famed EV1 to the public, while other companies took a somewhat lower profile with their electrics designed to meet the California standard.

Meanwhile Honda beat Toyota to the punch of introducing the first modern hybrid to the American market when it unveiled the two-seat Honda Insight in 1999. The car offered startling Environmental Protection Agency mileage ratings, and it was quickly followed by an American version of the Toyota Prius.

Initially the hybrids were viewed more as curiosities than as a solution, especially because they failed to meet the California zero-emissions mandate. But when that mandate was rescinded and pure electrics disappeared, hybrids became the best bet for those seeking high fuel economy with strong environmental benefits.

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