Never Stop Driving #56: EVs or Hybrids?
The recent front page of the trade publication Automotive News perfectly illustrated the conflicting nature of our automotive times. Two of the three articles cover the future of personal transportation: One headline touts Toyota’s plan for an EV with a 900-mile range and another highlights the dedicated and often risky handoff between robot and human drivers. The third, however, speaks to the reality that gasoline-powered cars and trucks will be with us for a long time: GM is investing $2 billion to develop the next generation of pickups and SUVs.
Toyota announced wide-ranging plans for EVs, battery research, and the factories to build them. Japan’s leading automaker has been accused of moving too slowly in this revolution and being at risk of being left behind as other companies pour billions into battery R+D. Ford, for example, recently received a $9.2 billion loan to invest in battery research and production. But I think the criticisms directed at Toyota, while fascinating, are for the most part unfair. The company’s outgoing president, Akio Toyoda, has said EVs are too expensive for most people and that increasing the number of hybrid-powered cars with small batteries is a more effective strategy for reducing CO2. Based on the well-documented challenges of building the battery supply chain, he has a point. (I’ve shared this article on the topic before).
The irony here is that Toyota popularized the modern gas-electric hybrid. It’s easy to forget what a moonshot the original Prius was when it debuted some 25 years ago. The magic was and is the Toyota-developed transmission that integrates two electric motors and the gas engine. Effective. Durable. Engineering genius. I don’t have room here to explain this complicated mechanical device works, but this video—now viewed over 700,000 times—does a decent job.
I first drove the third-generation Prius around 2012. It was comfortable, quiet, and delivered over 40 mpg no matter how this lead-foot drove. Amazing. At the time VW was touting its diesel technology as an alternative fuel-saving technology, but we know how that turned out. Toyoda could be accused of being self-serving in his desire to focus on hybrids, but I believed him when he said he was speaking for a “silent majority” when he expressed reservations about making EVs the only option for buyers.
Toyoda’s logic is simple: One 100-kilowatt-hour (that’s the amount of energy stored, like the capacity of a gas tank) Tesla Model S battery could be divided among 10 Prius plug-in hybrids, which deliver about 30 miles of electric-only range before the gas engine kicks on. The Department of Transportation reported that most people drive fewer than 40 miles a day, so, in theory, more people would be driving more often on EV power if they were driving Priuses. Sure, the Tesla can go some 400 miles on a single charge, but how often do most people need that capability? Furthermore, a Prius costs a third as much as the Model S. Want more people driving EVs? Make more cars like the Prius, something that could be done today. Instead, the auto industry seems focused on delivering EVs with ever greater range, including Toyota.
As I’ve often written, we’re in a messy transitional time where PR and public opinion often outweigh basic engineering. Let’s move on.
The highlight of my week was hearing about a vintage Mustang that was rebuilt by Prodrive, which is located in the heart of the UK motorsports industry. The wizards there modified the vintage Stang to endure the punishment of off-road rallies while retaining its original appearance. You might remember Prodrive for the Subaru rally cars it once raced and this Ferrari 550 Maranello race car. Some years ago, I visited Prodrive and saw the expertise inside its factory walls, so I’m sure the Mustang is fantastic to drive.
I’m still enjoying follow-up material from the NASCAR Le Mans effort, including this terrific explainer video. Last fall, I interviewed Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports and saw the Le Mans stock car as it was being built. Gordon asked me not to take pictures while he giddily explained the project. His enthusiasm made me think we might see him behind the wheel, but, alas, he passed on the opportunity.
Last week’s report about the new Acura Integra Type S, a $50K sports sedan that is only available with a manual transmission, has me seriously thinking about a new car. Acura recognizes that plenty of us are in no rush to hand over driving to robots. Bravo.
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I’m off next week for the holiday so this newsletter is taking a one-week break. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Fourth!
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