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Are we seeing the death of hybrid vehicles?

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Written by Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx


Sales of hybrid cars in the USA collapsed from 3.2% of car sales in 2013 to under 2% in 2015 as Americans responded to the sharply reduced oil price. However the oil price will recover eventually so commentary that it heralds the death of hybrid vehicles is wide of the mark. Indeed hybrid car sales outside the USA were sharply up.

Nonetheless, hybrids, or more precisely the strong hybrids, are under threat from pure electric vehicles. For example, pure electric buses have just overtaken hybrids in sales in China. Partly this was triggered by China stopping subsidies for hybrid buses that do not plug in because these cannot operate with long enough electric range in city centers (to reduce local emissions). A pure electric large bus is a far simpler way of meeting regulations than a plug-in hybrid with long pure electric range so most of the bus leaders in China are prioritising the pure electric route. See the IDTechEx Research report, Electric Buses 2016-2026 for the full story.

Beyond legislation increasingly favouring pure electric, electric powertrains are often gaining market share on pure merit. The benchmark for range of affordable models has now doubled to 200 miles with 300 miles promised soon. This is being achieved by improving many things such as lightweight materials, aerodynamics and powertrain efficiency not just improvement of batteries. That squeezes conventional hybrids.

Nevertheless, all this is just a side story compared to a new gorilla just over the horizon. That gorilla is 48V systems for conventional cars, buses and trucks. 48V systems are expected in volume production from companies such as BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai and Volkswagen in 2017-8. Indeed an Audi version was recently announced. At their heart is the reversible motor-generator capable of torque assist and key to radical engine downsizing and downspeeding. Handling about four times the current and linked to a 48V battery storing at least four times as much electricity, it grabs much more braking energy and permits other regeneration and electrification that conventional 12V systems could never handle.

The industry has come to the view that 48V systems will probably contribute more to emissions reduction in the next 15 years than all EVs – strong hybrids and pure electric – combined. This is because 48V systems will greatly outnumber EVs. Indeed, most industry forecasts for 2031 still see more conventional (including 48V) systems sold than EVs in that year. And to take the story full circle, by acquiring nearly all of the benefits of strong hybrids at half the cost, 48V systems will put an even greater squeeze on them than the squeeze already commenced by pure electric.

Strong hybrids will not die out but they will not grow sales much either. Most vehicles made 15 years from now are likely to be 48V systems. Benefits are legion. For example, multiple forms of regeneration (suspension, thermoelectrics, exhaust turbine etc.) and external harvesting (wind, sun, etc.) can easily be integrated and even the stringent 2030 regulations can be met with minimal hassle.

Just to confuse things, we call these 48V systems “mild hybrids” but really they are gorillas. A new and unique IDTechEx Research report, Mild Hybrid 48V Vehicles 2016-2031, has the 15 year forecasts, full technology roadmap and analysis. It predicts relatively easy, incremental change sweeping the automotive industry. Its conclusions are based on new work carried out globally in 2015 and 2016.