Building 80mpg Car Tough, Making A Profit Even Harder

Carmakers looking to introduce hybrid-electrics in next few years, but also searching for way to do so at a profit.

Published: 30-Dec-2000

Dec. 22--DETROIT It doesn't look or run anything like your father's Oldsmobile or Buick, but General Motors has shown that it can build a very high mileage automobile.

It's the Precept, GM's experimental five-passenger, hybrid-powered vehicle. And, GM officials say, it can get almost 80 miles per gallon of gas.

Now all GM has to do is figure out how to build something like the Precept that people can afford to buy and drive, and that it can make a profit on.

That's a tall order. But then so was the Precept.

"We didn't know if it was even feasible to get to 80 mpg," said Gary Witzenburg, an engineer on the GM team working on advanced technology vehicles.

Getting there required completely rethinking how to design and build a car. The Precept is unlike any car now being mass produced by a U.S. or foreign automaker.

The heart of the Precept is what the engineers call a parallel hybrid propulsion system. It combines a diesel engine and electric motor, which work in combination controlled by a maze of microprocessors. Other U.S. and foreign automakers are experimenting with similar hybrid systems, using either gasoline or diesel engines, as the first step in making major advances in fuel economy.

While most hybrids up to now have relied more heavily on either the electric motors or the internal combustion engine, GM officials say the Precept represents nearly a 50-50 mix.

An electric motor driving the front axle is the primary power-source, operating at all times. The microprocessors turn the rear-mounted diesel engine on and off, in fractions of a second, to boost power for acceleration and high speed driving and to recharge the batteries that power the electric motor.

There are already two hybrid vehicles, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, being sold in the U.S., Japan and Europe. But both are available in very limited numbers and, because they are small cars and have performance limitations, analysts say they are unlikely to have mass market appeal.

The Insight, which according to EPA ratings gets 68 mpg on the highway, is a two-door and, for all practical purposes, two-person vehicle. Toyota's Prius, which gets its best mileage in city driving -- 52 mpg -- is a subcompact similar in size to the company's Corolla sedan.

GM officials say the Precept, because it is a larger vehicle and was designed from the ground up to achieve maximum fuel economy, represents the most significant breakthrough yet by the auto industry.

It's been designed from stem to stern to dramatically reduce wind resistance, or drag in engineering lingo. Door-mounted rear view mirrors were eliminated and replaced with cameras that transmit the view behind the vehicle to a video screen for the driver.

While most of today's vehicles are made of steel, the Precept frame is made almost entirely of aluminum, as are most of the body panels, to reduce weight.

The exhaust system is titanium, 40 percent lighter than conventional systems.

Every other component of the Precept, from the seats to interior coverings and electronic systems, also are made of lightweight materials. Low energy lights and instruments reduce electrical-power consumption and the need for battery capacity.

With a diesel engine, the Precept has actually tested as high as 90.4 mpg for combined city and highway driving. GM officials say that figure converts to about 80 mpg -- 79.6 to be exact -- for a gasoline engine.

GM chose a diesel engine for the Precept because it would achieve greater fuel economy. However, future use of diesels, which emit more pollutants than gasoline engines, may be dramatically limited by environmental regulations.

But even with a diesel engine, GM officials say they've succeeded in dramatically reducing exhaust emissions from the Precept.

GM has no plans to produce the Precept. But it does expect to build a vehicle based on the technology developed for the Precept. The goal is to have a prototype ready by 2004.

"What we have to do now is turn technical feasibility into commercial viability," Witzenburg said.

The Precept is the product of GM's participation in the Partnership for the Next Generation Vehicle, a joint research and development effort by the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers and the federal government.

Launched in 1993 under the auspices of President Clinton, the PNGV project combined both government and industry funds in an effort to speed development of innovative new motor vehicle technologies.

The program goals included reducing the manufacturing time and costs for all cars and trucks, and making incremental improvements in the fuel economy of conventional vehicles.

But the ultimate hope of the program was that by cooperating on the basic research the U.S. manufacturers would be able to make dramatic breakthroughs in fuel economy and emissions reduction.

The goal was for the U.S. automakers to develop an ultra high-mileage, mid-size family sedan, comparable to a Ford Taurus or Dodge Intrepid, that would cost no more to buy and operate than the vehicles they now build.

In a test drive at GM's Milford Proving Grounds outside of Detroit, the Precept proved easy to drive and surprisingly responsive. As with the Prius, it's slow to accelerate from a standing start due to the power limits of the electric motor. But at mid-range, from 30 to 60 mph, with the diesel engine adding power, the car accelerates well and easily runs at 60 to 70 mph.

Like GM, both Ford and DaimlerChrysler have rolled out experimental vehicles based on their PNGV research and are aiming to have production prototypes ready by 2004.

All of the automakers face a greater sense of urgency to develop vehicles with significantly better fuel economy than they did a few years ago. Environmentalists in recent years have pressured the government to impose higher fuel economy requirements, a move that gained currency in the last year with rising oil prices.

Industry observers say that major technological challenges still face both the U.S. and foreign manufacturers as they try to develop alternative powered vehicles. But even more important breakthroughs will have to be made in terms of cost reductions, so that a new generation of cars can be built at affordable prices.

Both the Prius, with a $19,995 base price, and the Insight, at $18,455, cost thousands of dollars more than comparably sized vehicles.

"This is not easy stuff. It's very difficult and very expensive," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, an arm of the privately funded Environmental Research Institute of Michigan.

Although Toyota and Honda have hybrid cars on the market now, analysts say the sales prices do not reflect the cost of production.

"All the manufacturers have a long way to go to make these profitable versus just making them available," said Bruce Belzowski, senior research analyst at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Still, Belzowski said, Honda and Toyota are blazing trails by testing how the public will accept the new technology vehicles.

The Prius, which Toyota bills as particularly suited for city commuting, is doing well, according to company officials.

Since it began offering the Prius in the U.S. market in August, Toyota has delivered some 4,400 of the cars and has orders for another 3,000. Buyers placing an order now won't receive their car until sometime in March.

"I think I could sell more" than the 1,000 cars a month Toyota is shipping to the United States, said Mark Amstock, a Toyota sales executive.

Hybrid-power systems have come far enough, meanwhile, that automakers are moving ahead with plans to adapt them to existing vehicles.

Daimler Chrysler has announced plans to produce a hybrid version of its Dodge Durango SUV for the 2003 model year, which will have 20 percent better fuel economy -- about 18 mpg -- than the existing V-8 gasoline engine.

"We hope to have up to 15 percent of our Durango production be the hybrid version," said Max Gates, a DaimlerChrysler spokesman.

GM will begin testing hybrid-power, full-size Chevy Silverado pickups next year with plans to begin marketing them in 2004. The company is hoping to achieve a 15 percent gain in fuel economy, to about 18 or 19 mpg, over its conventional-powered pickups.

In the meantime, GM officials say they will continue to work on even greater breakthroughs for the future based on what they've learned from the Precept.

"We've proven the technology, now we've got to get a real world vehicle," said Arthur Koby, business manager for the Precept program.

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