A happy marriage isn’t exactly the easiest thing to engineer. Gasoline and electricity are about as compatible as Donald Trump and Mother Theresa. I know, Ferdinand Porsche built a “hybrid” in 1899, and there have been others since. But its time to bust the very myth that I’ve been guilty of perpetuating myself: Porsche’s “Mixte” wasn’t a real hybrid. It was an EV with a gas generator to extend its range when the battery gave out, just like the Volt. That’s like calling a single guy with a house cleaner and a hooker “married”. But the Toyota engineers pulled it off, teaching the two oldest propulsion systems how to dance, simultaneously. And in doing so, the Prius has become the most revolutionary car since the Model T.
Electric cars date back to 1839, when Robert Anderson of Aberdeen, Scotland built the first one. Battery-electrics would go on to have a substantial share of the market in the first few decades of the 20th century, as smooth and quiet city cars. Their huge, heavy and expensive lead-acid batteries were their limiting factor. Porsche’s Mixte and his later gas-electric vehicles, like the incredible “land trains” were more about bypassing the problems of crude clutches and transmissions of the day than practical efficiency.
In so called “serial hybrids”, which aren’t conceptually very complicated, the IC engine only drives the generator. But losses in the generator and electric motor exceed those of an IC driving the wheels directly through an efficient transmission. Like in the Volt and Mixte, a range extender works best backing up a large battery, which is of course heavy and expensive.
Parallel hybrid drive, where electric and gasoline propulsion are used interchangeably and jointly in order to maximize each system’s relative advantages, is not exactly newer than the serial hybrid, but its just a lot harder to pull off, at least commercially. In 1900, a Belgian carmaker, Pieper, introduced a small car in which the gasoline engine was mated to an electric motor under the seat. When it was “cruising,” the electric motor was in effect a generator, recharging the batteries. But when the car was climbing a grade, the electric motor, mounted coaxially with the gas engine, gave it a boost. Piper’s patents were used by a Belgium firm Auto-Mixte, to build commercial vehicles from 1906 to 1912.
There were others too, but once self-starters and better clutches and transmissions came along, interest in hybrids of both kinds mostly died out. The resurgence came in the late sixties, especially when the government began to regulate emissions. But the key engineering work that the Prius would eventually borrow heavily from, was undertaken in 1968-1971 by three scientists working at TRW, a major auto supplier. They created a practical parallel hybrid system, designated as an electromechanical transmission (EMT), and patented it. It provided brisk vehicle performance with an engine smaller than required by a conventional internal combustion engine drive.
There were two catalysts that are responsible for the birth of the Prius. In 1992, Toyota announced its Earth Charter, a document outlining goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest emissions possible. And in 1993, President Clinton created the PNGV (Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles), a billion dollar program that was to result in commercially produced family-sized cars capable of 80 mpg by 2003 (US companies only need apply).
Feeling left out but not wanting to be left behind, Toyota embarked on its own project “G21”, to create a Corolla-sized car that would improve its fuel efficiency by 50%, a target later raised to 100% (60 mpg on the optimistic Japanese fuel economy cycle). The whole story of the Prius’ very ambitious development time ne is a little beyond our scope, but here is an excellent article on it.
As is all too common with government hand-outs, the PNGV vehicles amounted to very little except the usual Detroit Autorama-style dog and pony show. All three used diesel engines in their hybrid architecture, despite the known fact that diesel technology at the time was not going to be EPA compliant by the time the cars (theoretically) arrived in 2003. Never mind asking what they would have cost to produce. Anyway, the Big Three were too busy minting serious coin from their big SUVs to be seriously distracted with such nonsense during a time of record low oil prices.
Toyota’s biggest technical hurdle by far was the Prius’ battery pack, managing its thermal issues. The rest was not really that difficult, given the prior work done in the field (resulting in on-going patent litigation). Toyota claims it spent about one billion of its dollars on development, about the same as it cost to develop a typical new car. The Prius concept was shown in 1995, and the first Japanese-market version went on sale in 1997. A somewhat revised but almost identical-looking Prius went on sale in the US as a 2001 model. I remember buying gas for 98 cents that year.
My first ride in a Prius was in a gen1 version like this that my father in-law drives. We drove down from the hills of Salt Lake City into downtown, and he kept the gas engine from coming on the whole way. The downhill segments kept the battery charged for accelerating from lights and the short flat sections. It was a revelation. I knew then that a new era was dawning, and that Detroit, Washington, and the PNGV had blown it. Here was a practical and reasonably roomy car that cost $19,995 and could get 50mpg.
Improving fuel economy from 25 to 50 mpg results in a savings of 280 gallons per year, at 14k miles/year. And the additional improvement to the lofty PNGV goal of 80 mpg? 100 more gallons saved per year. The law of diminishing returns was never better explained than by that billion-dollar boondoggle. In theory, that is.
The rest of the Prius story is well known. From 15k unit s sold in 2001, it is now one of the Top Ten best sellers. Not surprisingly, Eugene was an early adopter. There are about four or five of these gen1 models within a couple of blocks from my house. I couldn’t resist shooting this one, because of all of its stereotypical bumper stickers, and it being parked in front of that fluttering rainbow PEACE flag. How perfect and lucky was that? And the stereotypical female owner is…a massage therapist. But the military Jeep and its crusty vet owner live just down the street from her. To live in Eugene successfully, one learns to embrace diversity, even if it’s mostly white. And to visualize whirled peas.
It took a while for the rest of the industry to get what this massage therapist did ten years ago. In 2004, GM’s Bob Lutz dismissed the Prius as “an interesting oddity”. Two years later he announced the Prius-killer Volt with these words: “the electrification of the automobile is inevitable”. And now, the only manufacturers that don’t have hybrid projects humming on the front burner are either looking for a partner, as in the latest Suzuki-VW tie up, or are in a precarious state (think Fiatsler). The diesel-smoking Europeans held out for quite a while, but they’ve now taken up hybrid religion with fervor.
The oddest thing about the Prius is all the hate it has provoked. I always assumed auto enthusiasts got excited about new technologies. By that, I mean excited in the usual sense. Perhaps the Prius’ marketing contributed to it, like this very early ad. Prius polarization is just another reflection of the times we live in. If GM had come out with a Prius in 1974, based on their sixties hybrid research, it would have been universally acclaimed (until it stopped working, that is). But that was then, and now we demonize that which we don’t understand, or don’t make the time and effort to understand. As we say in Eugene: “it’s all good, man”.