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Improved Technologies Serve as Catalyst for Consumers Choosing Hybrids

Fuel Efficiency, Environmental Concerns Top List for Vehicle Choice


Hybrid cars entered the auto market back in the late 1990s with little fanfare but today's consumers are choosing these fuel-efficient vehicles in growing numbers. And it's no wonder: the two-propulsion system at the heart of hybrids and plug-in electric hybrids is credited with supporting the nation's energy security by reducing the reliance on foreign oil, lowering operating costs through lower fuel use and in many cases, reduced maintenance costs, and finally, decreasing the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions chugging into the air we breathe.

As the U.S. Department of Energy points out, a number of plug-in hybrids and hybrid electrics have made their way to FuelEconomy.gov’s "Top Ten EPA-Rated Fuel Sippers" list. This comes as no surprise as current estimates are that most drivers will cut their fuel costs in half by choosing a plug-in hybrid over a conventional vehicle of the same class, stemming from the former's ability to go from 10 to 40-plus miles on electric power alone. The energy security benefit comes into play because the plug-in hybrids are making use of domestically produced electricity over foreign-sourced petroleum.

And consumers are taking notice of these advantages. Once a leery lot, today's car shoppers are better informed about hybrid technologies. One of the strong catalysts for the hybrid market has been the industry's ability to better meet consumer expectation. This capability has been fueled by millions of dollars in investment in advanced hybrid technologies, enabling automakers and the industries that support them, to manufacture products that are better able to meet consumer expectations for quality, performance and economics.

It's no surprise that the government is ensuring continued incentive for consumers to give a second look at more fuel-efficient models, like hybrids and EVs. In addition to tax incentives, the Energy Department has been pumping resources into researching technologies that are directed at making hybrid vehicles more cost competitive against their combustion engine counterparts in addition to continuing to raise the bar on fuel efficiency. With more and more hybrids and plug-in hybrids hitting the market each model year, consumers are faced with greater numbers of choices than ever before. Numbers reflect the payoff of these choices. It's estimated that hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles could reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil by nearly 80 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent. Recognizing these benefits, both public and private research funds have been channeled toward technologies that are aimed at making both hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles cheaper and more efficient.

One of the primary areas of focus for hybrid technology research has been directed toward efforts to reduce the size of batteries while improving battery efficiency. In fact, this has been at the foundation of hybrid research for decades. As an example, efforts are being put into development of new chemistries and other battery components to eventually identify ways to replace the usual nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries with ones that provide greater power and storage in a more economical package. This is another common area of private-public partnership. Batteries are becoming a part of overall vehicle energy storage systems with new technologies being tested and compared to existing energy technologies before hitting the commercial market. In addition to saving dollars for consumers, these battery technologies are helping to address the growing concern of utilizing rare earth materials--which, like foreign-sourced petroleum, are imported--in batteries. The hope is that these new battery chemistry technologies will help the U.S. avoid exchanging a foreign dependency on oil for a foreign dependency on battery components.

The public-private partnerships spawned by available research dollars and the competitive award environment that results is seen by many in the industry as vital to further development of hybrid technologies, which in turn enhances consumer interest in and purchase of hybrid vehicles. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone has allowed for a $2 billion investment that has enabled the U.S. to move from production of very few advanced automotive batteries to becoming a true player in the advanced vehicle industry. This in turn has helped to stimulate further interest in hybrid vehicle ownership.

Magna E-Car Systems of America, Inc. is one example of a public-private partnership leading to improvements in hybrid vehicle offerings. Magna received a $40 million award from the Department of Energy and coupled that with its own $47.4 million investment to open a new facility in Michigan in 2012. The 66,000-square-foot facility is used to make electric drive components for the Ford Focus EV, such as electric motors, inverters and electronic power train controllers. It is also able to provide components to other companies building hybrids and plug-in hybrids. When operating at full capacity, the facility is able to support 100,000 all-electric vehicles.

There are numerous other examples. General Motors received $30.5 million to develop,analyze and demonstrate 155 Chevy Volt extended range electric vehicles, in conjunction with its utility industry partners. Chrysler was awarded $48 million to develop, validate and deploy more than 140 advanced plug-in hybrid pick-up trucks. Remy, Inc. received $60.2 million to establish a standardized platform of hybrid motors and controls. These are but a handful of examples of public and private partnerships advancing hybrid technologies for the good of the overall hybrid industry. Improved technology development will continue to help drive greater consumer interest in hybrid vehicles.

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