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Hybrid Hype Hits the Election Trail

If spending four months and 12 days as a loose cannon – according to a commanding officer – in Vietnam can qualify you for Commander-In-Chief, just imagine what several campaign trips through Ohio and Michigan can do to qualify you as an insightful automotive analyst and structural specialist? Candidate Kerry would like to take the niche market success of Toyota and Honda, with their hybrids, and swap it out for some big volume models, like say the Ford 150, and have a measurable impact on national fuel usage.

Interestingly, he actually resents that Honda and Toyota are the architects of the current fleet of hybrids available in the U.S. and further resents that their U.S. plants building other cars and products are nonunion. To the Japanese auto builders and suppliers, it’s a real slap in the face.

It amazes me how this supposed consummate diplomat can rail on the very auto companies who have been creating meaningful manufacturing jobs for more than two decades with business models that are globally competitive, but then underline that “we” must build their advanced technology here with the traditional domestics and the UAW. Rebuffed earlier this year by both automakers and the UAW when he and Senator John McCain attempted to raise CAF? limits to 36 mpg by 2015, Kerry has now brought focus around to reducing fuel dependence as a national security issue rather than an environmental one.

Kerry is proposing, among other things, to provide automakers – ostensibly U.S. automakers and UAW operations only – with up to $10 billion to convert plants from producing SUVs to more fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids. Tax incentives as high as $4,000 per vehicle have also been discussed by Kerry planners for individuals buying more efficient vehicles. What qualifies as fuel efficient is as yet undefined.

Hybrids are attractive in some market segments and the SUV is also about to be tested with Ford’s Escape hybrid this summer. But the hybrids are so misunderstood, most people still thinking they have two energy sources, and that they are getting something for nothing, when what they are really accomplishing is greatly reducing the parasitic losses of a normal driving cycle. Most European diesels go toe-to-toe with hybrids on fuel economy in a straight comparison and they will positively blow their doors off performance wise. The modern high-speed diesel was and is Europe’s answer to the oil disruptions of the 1970s and it has been eminently successful.

Thoughtfully, Europeans left themselves enough room by balancing emission regulations close enough to reap the diesels great benefits in lowering CO2 emissions, but opening up NOx emissions enough to keep diesels comfortably in the game past 2007. It isn’t that European standards are more or less stringent; they are just balanced better and take into account CO2 emissions – which U.S. standards do not.

With modern diesels you sure could meet higher CAF? requirements here in the U.S. and keep crisp performance, too. Ultimately, I think the free market will find a way to do this. Hybrids will play their role, no question, and diesels will as well. And the ultimate niche player just could be the diesel/hybrids. They are soon coming off the drawing boards.

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Sat. July 13th, 2024

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