Big 3 'Hybrids' Still Gas Hungry

With Iraq war looming, switching to hybrids may make sense, says Chicago Tribune.

Published: 31-Jan-2003

am Roe
Tribune staff reporter
Published January 30, 2003

DETROIT -- Five years ago, just days after the landmark Kyoto global warming summit, General Motors Corp. received worldwide attention by announcing it would be ready to mass produce by 2001 its first hybrid car: a highly fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicle powered by electricity and a conventional gasoline engine.

GM never produced that vehicle. Similar plans by Ford and DaimlerChrysler also have been quietly scrapped in recent years as the automakers reaped positive publicity without having to invest in new production lines.

Now, as the nation gears up for a war with oil-rich Iraq and President Bush touts hydrogen fuel-cell technology, GM promises to build by 2007 hybrid versions of more than a dozen of its best-selling cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.

Why believe the promises out of Detroit this time? For one thing, building hybrids might now make economic sense. Having fallen behind Japanese automakers in producing these models, Detroit has a strong incentive to become competitive and not forgo a small but growing market.

At the same time, a closer look at the proposed vehicles raises questions about how much gasoline they really would save.

Of the numerous hybrid models GM is promising, only one--the Saturn VUE sport-utility--is scheduled to have an advanced electrical system that will result in substantial savings. All other models, including the popular Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, will rely far less on electricity and therefore save less fuel.

Those two trucks now are rated at 16 miles per gallon in city traffic and 21 m.p.g. on the highway. The hybrid option will improve the fuel economy by only 2 m.p.g. in the city and none on the highway. GM reports that the electric motors will not propel the trucks but only run accessories, such as the air conditioning, when the vehicles are idling and help restart the trucks when they are at a standstill.

While environmentalists have generally hailed GM's plans, they said the company should not be describing many of these vehicles as hybrids.

"I think it is confusing at best and misleading at worst," said Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group in Cambridge, Mass.

GM's latest pledge to build hybrids comes as Detroit is facing increasing criticism over its gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups. Critics argue that America's dependence on foreign oil, its war on terrorism and its troubles with Iraq make SUVs a luxury that consumers should reassess.

Television commercials sponsored by syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington link SUVs to terrorism, while an ad campaign by the Evangelical Environmental Network asks, "What Would Jesus Drive?"

And extremists in several states have damaged SUVs, spray-painting "no blood for oil" on vehicles in Massachusetts and setting ablaze two pickups and an SUV at a Pennsylvania dealership.

Bush's support of hydrogen fuel cells as a future technology, which he emphasized in his State of the Union speech, also is an acknowledgement that the country's dependence on foreign oil is a national concern. Many in government and industry see hybrids as a bridge technology to take the nation from gasoline-powered cars to hydrogen-propelled vehicles.

Japan leads the way

In the nation's showrooms, the pressure for hybrids is coming from the Japanese. Honda and Toyota have been selling hybrids in the U.S. for a few years while other automakers continue to talk about these models.

In hybrid systems, an electric motor and a conventional engine work in tandem. In the Toyota Prius, which gets 52 m.p.g in the city and 45 m.p.g. on the highway, electricity powers the car at low speeds and a gasoline engine kicks in at higher speeds while simultaneously recharging the batteries.

Analysts see GM's announcement as a sign that the company thinks hybrids are not simply a fad.

"They don't want to miss a market," said Walter McManus of the marketing firm J.D. Power and Associates. "So if it does take off, they want to be positioned so they can be part of it."

His firm predicts hybrid sales will grow slowly over the next several years and that by 2007 a quarter-million will be sold in the U.S. annually--a small number compared with the 17 million passenger vehicles sold each year.

Many of today's hybrid owners are people with above-average incomes who are concerned about the environment and rising oil imports. To appeal to a cross-section of car buyers, hybrids need to be quicker and more powerful, said Mike Wall, an analyst with the automotive forecasting firm IRN Inc.

"Horsepower is still king," he said.

Analysts predict the automakers will earn little, if any, profit on hybrids. But Detroit might produce them anyway to help meet fuel-economy rules, which require a manufacturer's fleet to average 27.5 m.p.g. for cars and 20.7 m.p.g. for light trucks. So the more hybrids a company sells, the more gas-guzzlers can be sold.

Regulatory pressures are expected to grow as the Bush administration has proposed raising the truck mileage standard to 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007. John DeCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense, a New York advocacy group, said Detroit's hybrid plans give the automakers cover in the fight against further toughening of fuel economy rules.

"It's providing them with an answer in Washington to the response that they are not doing enough on the oil and climate issue," DeCicco said.

While environmentalists criticized GM for trumpeting the limited hybrid systems, they lauded the promise of an advanced hybrid Saturn VUE. GM said this model will be available in late 2005 and that the vehicle's fuel economy will improve up to 50 percent, or to about 35 m.p.g.

Dan Becker of the Sierra Club said that given GM's resistance to fuel-economy improvements in the past, a hybrid Saturn VUE is "like Nixon going to China."

Becker said he did not think GM's plans were simply public relations.

"It would be really stupid if this was just PR, and they were prepared--yet again--to sacrifice the market for the next generation of cars to the Japanese manufacturers as they did in the 1970s."

McManus, the J.D. Power analyst, said it appears GM intends to follow through with the first phase of its hybrid plans, as auto suppliers have been preparing for those vehicles.

GM's limited hybrid line

The first will be the Silverado and Sierra, which will be in showrooms early next year and have a limited hybrid system. GM spokesman Scott Fosgard said that by offering at least some hybrid technology in a variety of vehicles, the company will be appealing to a wide range of consumers and saving fuel across the board.

He called GM's plans "the biggest, best and most important news on the hybrid front to date."

But GM has failed to deliver before. At the Detroit auto show in 1998, GM vowed to have a hybrid car ready for the market by 2001. That never happened, though Fosgard said that the company had devised by 2001 hybrid systems that could be incorporated in future models.

The Big Three also promised throughout the 1990s to build an 80 m.p.g. sedan by 2004 as part of the U.S. government's much-heralded Supercar research project. But the automakers successfully fought to kill the project, even after taxpayers spent $1.5 billion on the effort.

GM unveiled an 80 m.p.g. hybrid concept car in 2000 as part of the Supercar effort but said it was too expensive to produce.

The company now says that recent technological advances, particularly in computers, have brought costs down somewhat. GM also says it has discovered ways to incorporate hybrid technology in enough popular models to justify the expense.

Other automakers have promised hybrids, then pulled back.

Last year, Chrysler dropped plans to build a hybrid Dodge Durango sport-utility after discovering that the hybrid system robbed the vehicle of towing power. Chrysler still plans to introduce early next year a hybrid Dodge Ram pickup, but it will be a limited hybrid with fuel savings of about 2 m.p.g.

Company spokesman Max Gates said there is no chance that the hybrid Ram will be canceled like the Durango was.

"The program has been approved by top management and funded," he said.

At Ford, company officials canceled plans for a hybrid Explorer SUV after discovering the technology would cost consumers $2,000 but save less than a mile per gallon.

In one of the most ambitious hybrid efforts, Ford plans to introduce next year a hybrid Escape, the company's smallest SUV. The fuel economy figure is expected to be impressive: about 35 m.p.g. compared with about 25 m.p.g. for a non-hybrid Escape.

Looking to fuel cells

Many industry officials predict that cars of the future will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. GM sees hybrids as the bridge between today's cars and hydrogen vehicles; Chrysler, which is less excited about hybrids, sees diesel engines as that bridge.

Analysts said the future of hybrids depends on sales. SUV and pickups sales continue to climb while hybrid sales remain low.

GM sold 33 times as many Silverado pickups as Toyota sold hybrid Priuses last year -- 653,000 to 20,000.

Even GM's 11 m.p.g. Hummer H2, modeled after the military vehicle U.S. forces used in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, almost outsold the Prius last year.

So in terms of fuel savings, higher SUV sales have canceled out hybrid sales. One result is that the average fuel economy of new passenger vehicles on U.S. roads is the worst since 1980.

Environmentalists say Congress should pass tougher rules to force automakers to improve mileage.

"The public needs to take it out on the politicians," DeCicco said. "It's the politicians' job to balance the needs and interests of the country and come up with solutions and policies."

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