Technology, not drive, now stalls the hybrid

As little as 15 months ago Nissan president Carlos Ghosn dismissed the hybrid motor car as "niche technology" that offered a "terrible business proposition".

Yet in a climb-down this week, he was forced to announce that Nissan will be producing a hybrid car by 2010. More humiliating still, Nissan is obliged to "borrow" the technology underpinning Toyota’s successful Prius because it hasn’t yet developed its own. If the world’s most dynamic car-making magnate can be caught on the hop like this, what is going on?Ghosn’s "road to Damascus" conversion is no isolated incident brought on by a mystical communion with Toyota’s sales figures.

It is part of a wider step-change that is hitting car manufacturers and consumers alike with such terrifying speed that they hardly know how to react. Its manifestations are various. Japan and the state of California are preparing to introduce swingeing carbon emission controls. These are still some way off (2015-20). Nearer home (in every sense of the word) are the everyday measures making it economically unappetising to buy the kind of cars we used to. Mayor Livingstone will introduce the new, extended version of the C-charge – bolstered by anti-SUV steroids – earlier than 2009 if he possibly can. At £25 a day – with no resident’s exemption – for the one in five of us who have a vehicle in excise band G, that’s a serious price to pay for fantasy driving. Fantasy? Those affected will not just be owners of Range Rovers or Jeep Cherokees but souped-up versions of the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra. And where Livingstone leads, local authorities follow. Richmond, for example, is about to introduce a cheeky, rather cynical, parking levy that penalises non-hybrid and/or multiple owners.

Motor manufacturers are rightly concerned that such headline-grabbing measures have had an adverse impact on sales. After ten consecutive years of gains, 4x4s (mostly SUVs) are down by almost 10,000 vehicles on 2005.

Almost as interesting, sales of diesel-engined cars also fell last month. If this turns out to be more than a blip, it will have serious implications. Diesel, in its lean-burn, common-rail form, has been the backbone of the European car industry’s strategy for dealing with increasingly difficult environment demands. Many have shared Ghosn’s scepticism about the alternatives, deeming them faddish, unproven, or just plain Quixotic.

But the luxury of doubt now seems over, and the problem for marketing as much as for production chiefs is: what alternative technology should they plump for?The Prius hybrid formula has certainly captured the public imagination, but it looks no more than a stop-gap solution. Its electrical range is limited, its cells still bulky and once the conventional engine kicks in, it’s no more environmentally friendly than the next mid-size saloon.

Further along the line, we have the hydrogen solution: but this raises as many problems as it solves. BMW has recently produced a hybrid prototype, the Hydrogen 7, which uses liquid hydrogen in a conventional engine. Performance is good, but everything else about the car suggests that it is only a practical alternative when scaled against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Humvee. Most other interested manufacturers prefer (pressurised gas) hydrogen cell technology – Honda being particularly strong on the power of this dream. But it’s many years from fruition. And the difficulties of hydrogen storage and distribution remain formidable. Not to mention the fact that hydrogen’s vaunted carbon cleanliness depends very much on how it is generated.

So car makers are left holding the sticking-plaster, binding today’s failing strategy with tomorrow’s impossible dream. And nowhere more so than in the marketing department.

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