~e; GM u-turns on hybrid-electrics

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Tue, 24 Dec 2002 14:16:08 -0600

  [the news below is significant enough to warrant sending the
  whole story, if only for hope and potentially good news: that
  U.S. automakers may begin turning towards hybrid-electric
  vehicles and take on the challenge, beyond insignificant
  legislation for increased fuel-economy, and go beyond the
  current targets, several fold. while 2007 seems like a long-
  time away, the article mentions 2005, and while there is also
  criticism that this is not enough, it is possible a compromise
  in the right direction is a good deal better than nothing at all.
  so, with a sense of hope, this may be a gift for a better future.]

G.M. to Offer Hybrid Power in 5 Models by 2007


DETROIT, Dec. 23  General Motors, which has been the most reticent 
major carmaker when it came to the prospects for hybrid vehicles, 
intends to offer some form of hybrid electric power on five of its 
major models over the next four production years, according to people 
briefed on the plan.

G.M.'s plan, which will be announced next month at the North American 
International Auto Show here, is a surprising endorsement of the 
fledgling hybrid technology, which improves gasoline mileage by 
supplementing the internal combustion engine with electric power. G.M., 
the largest automaker, will offer several versions of the hybrid 
technology. The most advanced will be on the Saturn Vue sport utility 
vehicle, while less advanced versions will be available on the GMC 
Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, a coming Chevrolet pickup 
called the Equinox and the Chevrolet Malibu.

The development is a sign that the Big Three are growing increasingly 
serious about the technology as a business threat from overseas. For 
several years, Toyota and Honda have been the only companies offering 
hybrid cars. The Toyota Prius, for instance, has an electric motor that 
takes over for the internal combustion engine at low speeds. The car 
never needs plugging in, a shortcoming of battery-powered cars, because 
the battery is recharged by the gasoline engine. Honda sells a small 
aluminum hybrid, called the Insight, and a hybrid version of its Civic.

"G.M. needs an aggressive plan just to keep pace with the Japanese, who 
view this as a core technology over the next decade," said John Casesa, 
an analyst with Merrill Lynch, when told of the plan. "It's an idea 
that hasn't arrived yet, but whose time is coming fast. This is going 
from an environmental and public relations curiosity to a generally 
accepted commercial product."

G.M.'s plan, along with those of the rest of the industry, could also 
have considerable tax implications for the country. The Internal 
Revenue Service already allows a $2,000 deduction for vehicles that use 
alternative fuels or some form of electric power, and Congress has been 
considering further incentives. Toyota has already said it plans to 
sell 300,000 hybrids a year worldwide, many of them in the United 
States, within five years. The Ford Motor Company plans to start 
selling a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility vehicle a year 
from now. And DaimlerChrysler has said it will sell a hybrid version of 
the Dodge Ram pickup truck next year.

G.M. is presenting several versions of the technology. The most 
advanced, and most like the Prius, will come in 2005, when the company 
will offer a hybrid version of the 2006 Saturn Vue with average gas 
mileage of nearly 40 miles a gallon, compared with average mileage as 
high as 25 for the nonhybrid versions, people briefed on the plan said.

In 2004, G.M. will offer a less ambitious version of hybrid technology, 
for the 2005 models of the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado. They 
will use small electric motors that allow the trucks' engines to shut 
off at stoplights and restart when a foot touches the accelerator. The 
modified pickups are to raise fuel economy about 12 percent. And in 
2006, G.M. will offer similar technology on a forthcoming Chevrolet 
pickup truck called the Equinox and on the 2007 model Chevrolet Malibu. 
The addition of hybrid and other technologies is expected to increase 
gas mileage on these models 15 percent.

All told, the technologies will be used on three chief manufacturing 
platforms, meaning that G.M. could use it in as many as one million 
vehicles and a dozen models by 2007 if the demand materializes.

Environmentalists expressed a mixture of encouragement and 
disappointment at the news, part of which was reported today by The 
Wall Street Journal, and said that the Vue, as described, would be a 
significant improvement. "G.M.'s hybrid plans are a mixed bag," said 
David Friedman, an engineer and analyst for the Union of Concerned 
Scientists. "The full hybrid Saturn Vue appears to be a move toward 
good hybrid technology. The other vehicles are an example of using good 
conventional technology."

"Labeling them as hybrids is an attempt to ride the `green' image of 
hybrids," he added.

Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Network in San 
Francisco, another environmental group, said it was "tremendously 
disappointing that they would take such a weak approach."

"You've got to imagine some of this comes from their anxiety about 
California and wanting to be prepared for potential regulations here 
that would essentially force the use of hybrid technologies," he said.

Indeed, because of coming regulations expected on the federal level and 
from California, the nation's largest auto market, G.M.'s plan could be 
seen as a matter of necessity. Last month, the National Highway Traffic 
Safety Administration announced a plan that would raise federal fuel 
economy standards 7 percent by the 2007 model year. Though 
environmental groups derided the plan as a baby step, it is the largest 
increase in more than a decade.

And considerable pressure is coming from California. Because the 
state's clean-air laws predated the federal government's, it has 
retained the authority to set its own air standards, and other states 
can opt to use California's tougher standards. Mr. Long's group drafted 
a proposal to cut automotive greenhouse-gas emissions that has become 
law in California. The industry is expected to mount a vigorous legal 
challenge before the law is to take effect late in the decade.

Still, G.M.'s hybrid plan is a notable step toward improved fuel 
efficiency for a company that had previously been noncommittal on the 
idea of producing a full hybrid vehicle.

"I don't think anybody's got confidence that the economics make any 
sense," Rick Wagoner, G.M.'s chief executive, said in an interview in 
August. At a meeting in the late 90's, company officials decided to 
throw most of G.M.'s research-and-development dollars behind hydrogen 
fuel cells, which the industry has embraced as the power source that 
will eventually make the internal combustion engine obsolete. But there 
is wide disagreement on when fuel cells will be ready for mass 
marketing, and on the big challenges like outfitting the nation's 
filling stations with hydrogen instead of gasoline.

The economic equation will be addressed by relying on government 
incentives. G.M. plans to price the hybrids at cost, meaning that they 
could cost a few thousand dollars more than the conventional versions 
of similar vehicles at first.

Increasingly, fuel economy is becoming a business issue as well as an 
environmental one and attracting the attention of Wall Street. Mr. 
Casesa of Merrill Lynch said, "We're moving toward a future with higher 
fuel-economy standards, risks to energy supplies and higher 
environmental consciousness."

"If we decide to dramatically increase fuel economy," he added, "there 
is no way to do that besides making cars smaller, unless you have a new 
technology. And this is that technology."

Copyright NYTimes 2002.

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