Hybrid cars have been around for 100 years

Technology seems new, has roots in early industry

Published On: May 19 2011 10:32:12 AM CDT
Green Automotive

Hybrid cars are not a new innovation, nor are they a fad.

Indeed, hybrid cars have existed in one form or another for more than 100 years, and the perceived benefits of such vehicles have mostly rested on the back burner -- until now.

Hybrid Technology Roots

According to HybridCars.com, Henry Ford rose to the challenge in 1904, eliminating many of the negative factors surrounding gas-powered cars, and put the Electric Vehicle Co. out of business by manufacturing vehicles that weren't too loud and didn't offer an uncomfortable amount of vibration.

However, in 1905, the patent for a petrol-electric hybrid car was filed by H. Piper. The engineer hoped to build a vehicle that would achieve speeds of 25 mph using an integrated electric motor with an internal combustion engine.

The progress of hybrid cars was delayed again in 1905. The Woods Interurban hybrid took about 15 minutes to switch from electric to gas-powered driving, and did not fair well commercially. The same goes for the Woods Dual Power in 1916, though a competing hybrid was said to achieve 48 miles per gallon.

In the late 1960s, TRW developed and patented the electromechanical transmission, which would become the foundation for today's hybrid cars. This invention created a smaller engine with better performance, and HybridCars.com reports that the engineering used to create these hybrid cars is still used today.

Growth Of Hybrids

Over the last 40 years, many factors have combined to create the need, desire and tools possible to create and sell hybrid cars. The public at large has become drastically more in tune with the environment, actively seeking out new ways to conserve our resources and protect our planet.

In 2000, Toyota came out with the Prius, the most attractive and efficient hybrid car to hit the market. It is still selling well today, forcing consumers to sit on waiting lists if they hope to get their hands on one. Honda has released both the Insight (a two-door sedan) and the Honda Civic Hybrid (four door) to compete with the Prius.

The Toyota Prius won the Motor Trend 2004 Car of the Year award, further solidifying hybrid cars in the American auto industry. The editor of Motor Trend, Kevin Smith, said that the Prius won the award based on "performance, engineering advancements and overall significance" of the vehicle.

Hybrids really took off as gas surged to record highs during the summer of 2008. Buyers who wanted hybrids often found themselves on waiting lists for the popular cars. While those gas prices have come down, the demand is still there.

"We still think many new-car shoppers are interested in buying vehicles that are more fuel-efficient and better for the environment," said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director for Kelley Blue Book.

Far To Go

While hybrids remain a popular choice, it's important to note they still make up only a small portion of the cars on the road.

Conventional gas-electric hybrids account for less than 3 percent of the car market, and it took about eight years to get 1 million hybrids on the road in the U.S., according to automotive consulting firm R.L. Polk.

Part of the reason is the cost. Even when gas hit $4 a gallon, most consumer and automotive publications agreed that the stiff prices of hybrid cars can't be justified by fuel-cost savings alone.

Edmunds.com, a leading online source for auto information, put it this way: "There are many good reasons to buy a hybrid. Saving money still isn't one of them."

"The economics won't make sense for the majority of Americans in the next several years," said Brett Smith of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.

That could change though.

The cost of hybrids continues to fall, with the 2010 Honda Insight going for less than $20,000 and the 2010 Prius starting at $22,000, with a cheaper version in the works.

Plug-Ins On Horizon

And the move continues toward producing more plug-in hybrids, with President Barack Obama is pushing to put 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015.

Plug-in hybrids allow motorists to drive a limited number of miles on battery power before the engine switches over to run on gasoline or other fuels. A driver can plug the car into a wall outlet at night and be ready to go electric again in the morning.

General Motors and Nissan will become the first automakers to offer mass-produced, plug-in vehicles available for sale in the U.S. in late 2010 with the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf.