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Friday, June 5, 2009

Are the Prius and Insight already obsolete?

With recent news that both Honda and Toyota hybrids are taking turns as the hottest selling car in Japan and as a result having to significantly increase production in response, the 'conventional' hybrid layout both cars use has actually been around for 10 years now. The original Prius went on sale in Japan in 1997 while the first-generation Honda Insight hybrid went into production in 1999.

In the last decade the basic technology behind both these vehicles hasn't changed much and could best be described as a standard internal combustion engine (ICE) with a large starter motor and battery. Neither can drive in EV mode for any significant distance and neither can be plugged into the power grid to be charged.

Over the next five to 10 years there will be more change in the auto industry than there was in the last 100. The traditional hybrid is an in-between solution along the road to fully electric vehicles. The next evolution is the series hybrids like the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma which are referred to as extended range electric vehicles. With larger battery packs than either the Insight or Prius and an ICE that only generates electricity instead of driving the wheels through a multi-speed CVT mechanical transmission, one of the biggest sales points is that should a Volt or Karma owner only drive 40 – 50 miles each day they may never use the ICE at all. If that is in fact a common scenario for these vehicles then it seems a waste of energy carrying around 150-200kg worth of ICE that rarely gets used.

These series hybrids are engineered to allay range anxiety amongst customers used to the freedom of the open road and to take advantage of the latest Lithium ion battery technology but in small packs to keep overall vehicle price within reason while the technology is in the early stages of reaching mass production volumes.

With the news today of the first mass produced battery electric vehicles going into production by a pair of recognized auto manufactures, Mitsubishi and Subaru, these EVs represent the thin end of a wedge that will inevitable displace not only petrol powered cars but also conventional hybrids and the so called extended range EVs.

As with any new technology when volume is low the price is fairly high. R&D costs can only be amortized over a small number of units and mass production methods take time to be perfected. Remember when Cell phones were first introduced a Motorola 'Brick' in 1983 cost $3995. Four Billion mobile phone subscribers later a phone with 100x the features of a 'brick' costs less than $100.

The same volume/price curve will apply to battery electric vehicles and with some of the biggest names in both the auto and consumer electronics industries currently pouring billions into building large format EV Li-Ion battery manufacturing capacity affordable EVs with 300 mile range are only a few years away from showroom floors.

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