Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Hybrid Phenomenon INTRODUCTION


“The contemporary automobile, after a century of engineering, is embarrassingly inefficient: Of the energy in the fuel it consumers, at least 80 percent is lost, mainly in the engine’s heat and exhaust, so that only 20 percent is actually used to turn the wheels. Of the resulting force, 95 percent moves the car, while only 5 percent moves the driver, in proportion to their respective weights. Five percent of 20 percent is one percent – not a gratifying result from American cars that burn their own weight in gasoline every year.”

Led by the most efficient car ever mass-produced, hybrids disrupted the “largest industry in the world, automotive transportation.” Toyota’s Prius recycled energy and soon became an American icon. The leap forward in efficiency reduced oil demand and left a smaller environmental footprint.

From 2000 to 2005, global Prius sales grew over 820%; U.S. hybrid sales jumped 2,100%. Compared to the modern car at 20-25% efficiency, the Prius provided 37%. The phenomenal little car changed everything. By 2007, over 800,000 consumers fell in love with hybrids and fueled over $15 billion in global sales.

This report studied the hybrid from the perspective of what influenced “The Hybrid Phenomenon.” The search led to questions about oil and fuels, government, the environment, popular culture, the auto industry, hybrid buyers, and technology.

For over two years, I researched the hybrid phenomenon. In a changing environment, the hybrid evolved from a funny looking little car into mainstream technology. At first, gas prices and the environment were the biggest issues. Then came oil and government. Pop culture followed to help the hybrid “cross the chasm.” But it threatened domestic gasoline, so alternative fuels received a huge push. Once the technology successfully established reliability, the hybrid entered the mainstream.

During the research, the most surprising reaction I experienced was at SFSU’s 2006 Graduate Research Showcase of over 140 culminating experiences. The first car on my painted road titled, “Hybrid History 101” attracted the most attention. Most ignored the hybrid savings analysis, celebrities and the growing number of new models. All ages from kids to drivers to masters and PhDs stopped and stared at a picture of the world’s first hybrid (see Figure 1). They were dumbfounded to learn that the hybrid was designed over a century ago by automobile industry genius, Ferdinand Porsche.

Figure 1: World's First Hybrid

Source: Tom Whitney, “Hybrids and Hybrid History,” CanadianDriver, Canadian Driver Communication’s Inc. Web site, February 24, 2005,, accessed July 10, 2006.

The first hybrid cars came out of a need to add acceleration to electric cars. Around 1897, Porsche probably filed the world’s first hybrid patent. He designed the first front wheel drive, eliminated several moving parts including the transmission, added a petrol engine, to successfully build the world’s first hybrid car. His phenomenal design exhibited 83% efficiency. Most of the billion modern cars and trucks mass-produced until the Prius, only achieved about 10-20% efficiency. Some modern diesel-electric hybrids, electrics and hydrogen-electric hybrids improved to 45%, but had yet to be mass-produced as cars.

In 1900, American car makers produced only about 4,200 cars. Most were steamers and electrics, not gasoline. In the early years, Porsche built and drove his hybrids and won several races. He even set world records for speed. The exposure fueled the early success of the hybrid and jumpstarted Porsche’s legacy. His boss, coach maker Lohner, seized an opportunity that many start-ups have taken; he sold the hybrid patents to Austro-Daimler. During the transaction, Daimler’s head salesman and father of a young girl named Mercedes, convinced Porsche to come aboard. The hybrid enabled Porsche’s first career move on a list of several historical automaking accomplishments including the world’s best selling Volkswagen and Porsche ventures.

General Electric also developed an early hybrid prototype but it never made it into the showroom. A French company built an alcohol-electric hybrid concept in 1903 and followed with an unsuccessful commercial gasoline-hybrid version the following year. In 1905, an American engineer filed the first U.S. hybrid patent, but failed to commercialize it. In about 1912, a Chicago electric carmaker released a fairly luxurious and successful hybrid that sold 600 units. That would be America’s best-selling hybrid until Ford released the first hybrid SUV (see Ford’s Escape) to join the hybrid phenomenon.

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. H. Lovins, Natural Capitalism (Boston, New York, London: Little Brown and Company, 1999), p. 24.
Ibid., p. 22.
Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2002).

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