About this Article
Written by: Joaquin Kurz
Written on: October 1st, 2000
Tags: energy & sustainability, lifestyle, environmental engineering, transportation
Thumbnail by: IFCAR/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Joaquin Kurz was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California in 2000.
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Volume II Issue II > Hybrid Electric Vehicles: A History of Technological Innovation
The release of the first hybrid electric vehicles in the United States marks the start of a revolution. Hybrid vehicles are electric cars that utilize small internal-combustion engines and an electric generator. The advantages of this concept are clear: increased fuel efficiency and reduced levels of pollution without the complications and maintenance requirements of a purely electrical-powered vehicle. This article provides some history on the hybrid concept as well as a survey of the innovative systems that have been developed in hybrid science. Current releases by Honda and Toyota are briefly examined.


Recently there has been much excitement regarding the release of the first hybrid electric vehicles into the American consumer market. It may seem as though the hybrid concept is relatively new to the automobile industry, but this is untrue. Almost a century ago, in 1904, the concept was conceived by American engineer H. Piper [1].
For many years, the concept was widely ignored, primarily because of the high development costs and the uncertainty regarding the widespread acceptance of electric automobiles. Although Piper's initial concept was unsuccessful, his idea would later spark the beginning of a revolution.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles: A History of Technological Innovation

The real surge in development occurred in 1993, when the Clinton administration announced the formation of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) consortium, consisting of the "Big Three" automobile manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) and about 350 smaller technical firms [1].
The federation is spending about $500 million a year (about half from federal funds) to develop a car that can travel eighty miles on a gallon of gasoline. Such a vehicle would be about three times as fuel efficient as a current, comparable, gas-fueled automobile. Furthermore, the increase in efficiency is to be achieved without reduction in performance, safety, or comfort in a vehicle that does not cost more and emits one-eighth of the pollutants. This leaves a substantial amount of work to be accomplished by 2004, when the first production-ready prototypes are to be released [2].
Despite the hurdles that still must be overcome, all major automobile manufacturers are involved in hybrid research and development. "The risk of falling behind could be fatal [to a company]," says Dr. Marc Ross, a University of Michigan physicist who conducts research on energy efficiency in automobiles [3]. Clearly, many involved in the industry see hybrid technology as an essential component of future vehicles. Today, more than twenty-five years and more than $1 billion has been spent worldwide on development of the concept. The US Department of Energy's Hybrid Propulsion Program began in 1993 to accelerate the technological development of hybrid vehicles. The program has played a critical role in advancing the President's PNGV initiative. Thus far, a major success of the PNGV has been the application of nickel-metal-hydride​ batteries, which enable twice the range of a comparable hybrid vehicle running on traditional lead-acid batteries. This is but one of the innovations that are leading the way toward the modern supercar. ''We are really converging on the 80-mpg car,'' said Paul Wood, spokesman for the PNGV [4].
Now, seven years after the conception of the PNGV, additional forces have aided in speeding the development of "supercar" technology. Tough federal environmental regulations are requiring motor vehicles to further reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency. For example, regulations of the California Air Resources Board require large-volume auto manufacturers to produce 10% of their California light-duty vehicles as zero-emissions vehicles beginning in the model year 2003 [2]. Major improvements in a host of enabling technologies have also brought the goal of the PNGV closer to reality. These developments include lighter-weight body structures, more efficient engines, better batteries, and more efficient electric motors and generators. A major catalyst in the development of the technology that is often underestimated is the declining availability and rising price of gasoline. This factor mostly affects US demand and advancement, as drivers in Europe and Japan already pay about three times as much for gasoline as do motorists in America.