Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Hybrid Phenomenon HYBRID HISTORY 101


At the turn of the last century, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, a young engineer at the time, was asked to build a new kind of horseless carriage. During a time when electric grids were few and far between, oil was cheap, and the environment lush with natural resources, Porsche’s boss Jacob Lohner, asked his employee to design a better electric car.
Lohner-Porsche had successfully offered a hybrid alternative as early as the late 1890’s. The hybrid solved the limited speed and range of popular electrics. Although electric cars were more efficient, their world’s first hybrid was twice as efficient as the Prius and four times more efficient as conventional cars. Modern internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles have put out enough horsepower to help warm
the Earth, but have only improved efficiency an estimated 1/10 of a percent per year.

The Lohner-Porsche was a runaway success. It won several races and the carriage maker produced 300 units by hand. It still filled up on gasoline, but electric motors turned the wheels. Compared to a background of a horse pulling a carriage, most vehicles were based on linear horsepower. Energy or food fed the horse or engine which in turn converted movement into propulsion. It was a one-way street! Most of the energy was lost through heat. Grills, body designs, tires, wheels, engine and transmission oils, pumps, brakes, radiators, fans, sensors and many parts were focused on this task. Unfortunately, the cheaper and easier fix for lost efficiency was to eat more energy: engines got bigger, cars went faster and trucks drove trade. We spent the last century focused on only one way to make the horse better: add more horses.

By 1920, the hybrid was run off the road by more powerful gasoline automobiles. The hybrid attempted to help cars but moved on to heavier vehicles after the ICE established itself. With limited success against power and range, the hybrid moved upstream into industrial uses. From Porsche’s 1899 hybrid through the 1940’s several auto companies tried to produce them including Lohner, GE, Siemens, Paris Electric and Woods. It took several decades before the hybrid returned to American showrooms to change the way we think about energy and transportation.

In the meantime, the hybrid was busy bolstering the United States’ rise to global superpower. It invaded heavy equipment and larger vehicles. It also helped World War II efforts, the industrial revolution and the development of the world’s infrastructures.

Hybrid locomotives built America and powered the industrial age. Hybrid ships and submarines won battles; a hybrid submarine sunk the hybrid ship after it delivered the atomic bomb that ended WWII. Hybrid heavy equipment mined our natural resources that powered manufacturing. Hydraulic hybrids invaded vehicles of all kinds including the trucks and tractors that built our roads. Hybrid electric grids flattened the world and powered civilization. Hybrid elevators ran our buildings and hybrid appliances like dryers and stoves served American homes. Hybrid vehicles finally returned to the auto business and went into mass production by 2000.

At the turn of the millennium, the hybrid moved out of the industrial age and into the information age. After almost 100 years confined to industrial uses, it went mainstream fast. Utilizing off-the-shelf technologies, it sustained an industry in crisis. More efficient power management and the ability to recycle energy increased efficiency. From inputs of oil and gasoline, through consumer use and behavior, to outputs that affected the economy and environment, hybrids became the most visible transportation product that reduced oil consumption.

Combining gasoline and electricity helped the hybrid get the job done. More efficiency reduced its ecological footprint. The hybrid marked a tipping point in the global auto industry. After 100 years of growth powered by fossil fuels and abundant natural resources, the car business moved towards efficiency and away from horsepower. Responding to environmental challenges, automakers developed cleaner technologies and responded to changing consumer behaviors.

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