LKJ Setright: Hybrids are not up to the job

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Indy Lifestyle Online

More than 200 years ago, thanks to Alessandro Volta and his pile, we had a means of storing electrical energy. The idea of pouring energy into a box that you could carry around and use, was a huge improvement on the primitive device we had previously employed. Like that device (you recognised the horse?), the battery had a short life, was costly, heavy, produced unpleasant emissions, and was unsuitable in extreme temperatures. After two centuries, it is still a pain.

Carrying substantial storage batteries is what makes all electric vehicles paralytics. Having an engine on board as well – especially linked to a conventional gearbox to drive the car, with the battery chipping in occasionally – is a messy complication. That is one of the faults of the hybrid car.

Hybrid systems try to gain a false economy by backing an inadequate engine with an electrical system, failing to recognise that all present modes of storing electrical energy are inadequate. They make all manner of provision for clever energy recovery, but they do not see that the prime purpose of powered transport is to provide mobility at the highest feasible speed.

The hybrid vehicle is not up to it. Those so far seen can satisfy only the most lackadaisical or obsessively mean of drivers. One who expects to accelerate and cruise at rates commensurate with other traffic, or understands that decent average speeds are partly the product of late and heavy braking, will find their accumulator is drained too fast and cannot be recharged fast enough. Most of the buying public think all the time about money. Accordingly, the idea has spread that the object of the hybrid vehicle is to save money. Imagine their disappointment when they discover that the hybrids on offer only save significantly if they are driven very gently.

Where is the hybrid car that offers inducement to the business driver? Where is the hybrid truck? What is likely to be the hybrids' real function? They will provide a place for development of electric traction motors and systems, with which the public may become accustomed to the ease and precision of control they offer, pending arrival of the valid and marketable fuel cell.

Hybridisation must soon abandon not only the back-up accumulator but also the notion of the engine being coupled to the final drive through an old-fashioned gearbox. The time must come when the engine will simply have to drive a generator – the piston engine will soon prove unfit for duty.

It will probably be whipped to its dying day, so that the carriage wheels may continue to turn until the fuel cell car arrives. That should happen too soon for any serious work on alternative engines; it will, however, be enough for all desired development of electrical motors and systems to be done.

The frightful, old-fashioned gearbox, even the best of modern automatic transmissions, could be bade a blessed farewell. If the hybrid achieves no more than to get rid of all that rubbish, it will have done a good job.

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