What's In A Name?

As new technology makes 150 mpg hybrids feasible, industry insides wrestle with what to call them.

Published: 07-Apr-2005

What do you call a gasoline-electric hybrid with a monster battery pack that you recharge from the grid and has the potential to deliver upwards of 150 mpg?

A plug-in hybrid, of course. Or maybe a grid-hybrid. Or maybe a gas-optional hybrid. Or maybe flexible hybrid... or flex-fuel hybrid or my personal favorite, electric hybrid.

The question of what to call this new class of hybrid has bedeviled the handful of industry insiders who have been quietly and persistently pushing the idea for nearly a decade.

The debate centers around which phrase best describes the technology in the pithiest, most memorable way, while avoiding confusing the public, perhaps the biggest challenge confronting electric [plug-in,grid-connected,flexible fuel] hybrids. It is also a question that is rapidly gaining currency as the momentum supporting the technology starts to build in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

This evening, CNN's Lou Dobb had former-CIA director Jim Woolsey on to discuss his testimony today before one of Congress' many sub-committees. When Dobb asked him to summarize what America needs to do to reduce its dependence on imported oil, Woolsey focused almost exclusively on extolling the virtues of plug-in hybrids. Coincidentally, while he was testifying today, I asked his secretary, whom I have communicated with in the past, to send me a copy of his statement, which is available on EV World as a pdf.

Besides Mr. Woolsey's testimony today and his appearance on CNN, mention of plug-in hybrids found their way into several major newspaper editorials, at the same time; starting with Gal Luft's piece in the Baltimore Sun. The Orlando Sentinel endorsed the ideas propounded by Woolsey and former Reagan National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane that include support for electric-aggressive hybrids. The Philadelphia Inquirer waded in with its editorial urging more efficient vehicles by calling the 31 national security experts who are urging the Bush Administration to rethink its energy plan, "hybrid hawks".

Not coincidentally, I published my interview today with Roger Duncan, the Deputy Manager at Austin Energy. Woolsey's testimony today mentioned Duncan, who has been quietly lobbying for the city of Austin to throw its support behind the idea of providing rebates to owners of what he prefers to call "gas-optional" hybrid, if and when Detroit decides to build them.

Up to this point, carmakers have been, at best, ambivalent to the idea of aggressively-electric hybrids, mainly over cost objections. They don't think there's a market yet, an argument that is gradually losing ground as fuel prices escalate. Duncan and his colleagues in the electric power industry are planning to create that market by taking their message... and rebates... to fifty of the nation's largest cities. They figure once consumers learn that powering their cars with electricity equates to about 56 cents a gallon gasoline, they are going to start to take a more serious interest in this technology.

Which brings me back to the problem of what we call these cars. I am kind of starting to like "aggressively-electric" hybrids. Has sort of a sexy ring about it, don't you think?

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