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Monday, February 13, 2006

VW R&D Chief on Hybrids, "Stupid" Regulations

In the latest issue of Automotive Engineering International, the SAE's trade magazine, Volkswagen's gruppenfuhrer* of research and development Wilfried Bockelmann was interviewed about VW's efforts to improve fuel efficiency (p. 78).

Most of the article was about VW's fuel cell projects, and a dual-stage forced induction engine, the Twincharger, which uses a supercharger in series with a turbocharger to squeeze 177 lb.ft out of a 1.4L I4 at merely 1750RPM.

However, at some point, Bockelmann was asked about hybrid cars. In a surprising show of straight talk, he explained the real reason why hybrids are so fashionable: CARB and its Zero Emissions Vehicle rules. I nearly dropped the magazine when I read:
"Nobody would deal with hybrids if we did not have the "stupid" regulations in California that make them necessary," he said. "But we have to have one of these models on the market if we want to sell our cars there in 2008-9. With the right kind of driving cycle it will safe fuel in Tokyo or Paris, but not when it comes to typical U.S. driving habits, such as a 55 mile drive to work with just the last five in stop-and-go conditions. Even on I-75 in Detroit, it is a case of slow cruising at 30-40mph--and at that speed you are not saving much fuel in a hybrid."
He speaks the truth. California law requires automaker to sell a certain number of ZEV's. However, since electric cars never really got off the ground, except for a few greenies, California amended the rules to give carmakers credits for PZEVs (Partial Zero Emission Vehicles) and AT-PZEVs (Advanced Technology PZEVs, or hybrids). Only to a California bureaucrat, by the way, does "partial zero" make any sense.

"Stupid" rules or not, no carmaker can afford to lose the business of California, or the several other states which have adopted their stringent emissions rules. These "green states" comprise about 30% of North American automotive volume. VW is in an especially sensitive spot with CARB, because California's emission rules keep VW's TDI diesels out.

I sometimes worry that GM and Ford have "drank the kool-aid", with the ecstatic pursuit of hybrid vehicles, but I think that they are too smart for that. Rather, it is a strategy to play environmental politics well, and pick up some electric powertrain knowledge along the way. If done right, it can generate lots of goodwill, good press, and government breaks. But if the hybrid fad doesn't pan out, it may turn out to be a very costly strategy.

*sorry, I couldn't resist.


Anonymous said...

I think that GM and Ford (and others) are merely sipping the Kool-Aid, and only because they are dumbfounded that consumers think that it tastes good. That is probably why they were late to the hybrid party, because it is relatively weak fuel-efficiency technology, and it didn't make a whole lot of sense to dump a ton of money into what can only be considered a temporary psuedo-solution. What they didn't consider is the huge mainstream fad that hybrids would become, and they probably underestimated the power of Toyota and Honda's PR and marketing departments. Imagine if Toyota came out with the EV-1 (GM's electric car from 10 years ago) right now. It would probably be the "it" car of the year, based upon nothing but Toyota's reputation and marketing genius.


Shawn said...

It's all about marketing. You have the self-righteous hybrid crowd on one end, and then you have the "It's got a Hemi" idiots at the opposite spectrum.

Geotpf said...

Toyota sold 107,897 Priuses in the US last year (plus 20,674 Lexus RX 400hs and 17,989 Highlander Hybrids (which were both only available during part of the year)).

If you don't think Toyota is making money off of those numbers, you are crazy. Unless Toyota really is selling them at less than cost (Toyota is nowhere near that stupid), they certainly have paid for all development costs and is now making a tidy profit off those.

Everybody else (except Honda) is just having sour grapes for not thinking of it first. Oh, and you can make a PZEV car which is not a hybrid-pretty much every manufacturer has one.