Timing is often everything in the automotive world. Take American engineer H. Piper for example. In 1905, Piper filed a patent for a gasoline engine-electric motor powertrain—a hybrid. But unlike today, the purpose of Piper's hybrid design wasn't to increase a vehicle's fuel mileage and lower its emissions. According to the patent application, an electric motor would augment a gasoline engine, allowing a vehicle to accelerate from zero to 25 miles an hour in a sizzling 10 seconds—three times faster than contemporary cars.
Unfortunately for Mr. Piper (here comes that "timing is everything"), when the patent was issued three and a half years later, cars had become powerful enough to achieve or exceed the same performance.
Then there's the Ford Motor Company. Ninety-nine years after Piper applied for his patent, the automaker introduces for sale the world's first hybrid sport-utility vehicle, the Escape Hybrid. Talk about good timing: The groundwork for consumer acceptance of hybrids has already been laid by Honda and Toyota; gasoline still hovers around $2.00 a gallon; and the Escape Hybrid is a vehicle that many car buyer's have longed for—a fuel-sipping SUV with near zero emissions.
Back to the Past
But let's get back to Mr. Piper. While perhaps a visionary, he wasn't the first person with the idea of combining a gas engine with a battery-electric motor.
As the 19th century moved into the 20th, great expectations abounded, especially for the fledgling automotive industry. There was a flurry of activity in America and abroad as inventors, carriage makers, blacksmiths, bicycle makers and just plain tinkerers were adapting steam, electric and gasoline engines to wagons and carriages.
General Electric produced electric cars in 1898 and 1899 and built a hybrid with a four-cylinder gasoline engine in 1899. The French firm Kriéger (1895-1909), an important contributor to electric car technology, experimented with an alcohol-electric hybrid in 1903, and unsuccessfully marketed a gasoline-electric model in 1904. Around this same time, a young Ferdinand Porsche was working with Viennese coachbuilder-turned-electric-carmaker Jacob Lohner and Co. Porsche designed a system in which electric motors were incorporated into the front wheel hubs, with the necessary power coming from a gasoline engine. These become known as Lohner-Porsches.
In these infant days of the auto industry, of the three forms of automobile propulsion vying for public support in the United States, electric cars appeared to be the propulsion method that would win out. Optimism ran high in 1899 that storage batteries would become more efficient, extending the range of the "silent servants" as they were called. In 1900, 4,200 automobiles were sold. Of these, 38 percent were electric, 40 percent steam and 22 percent gasoline powered. Sales of electrics peaked in 1912 with nearly 34,000 being registered, plus, scores of electric trucks and commercial use vehicles. (No numbers are published for hybrid vehicles.)
Electrifying Early Automakers
From around 1890 to 1920, there were more than 100 makers of electric cars in the U.S. and Canada, some of course producing no more than a handful of vehicles. Top names in the industry included Columbia Manufacturing, Riker Electric Motor Company of America, Electric Vehicle Company, Detroit Electric, Rauch & Lang, Studebaker, S.R. Bailey Co., Milburn Wagon Company and Baker Electric Company. The Woods Motor Company of Chicago was founded in 1899 and sold electric vehicles until 1919. One of their last vehicles was a 1917 gasoline-electric hybrid that achieved a 20-mph cruising speed with the electric motor alone, 25-mph when combined with the four-cylinder engine. In Canada, the Galt Motor Company offered the Galt Gas Electric in 1914 with a 10 horsepower two-stroke, two-cylinder engine connected to a Westinghouse generator with a claimed top speed of 30 mph.
Often overlooked is that between 1900 and 1920 thousands of electric trucks and delivery vehicles were in use in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. They were ideally suited for their time—extremely reliable, cost efficient to operate and, because cross country freight was the railroads' domain, most deliveries were local. Several companies that built electric cars also manufactured light-duty electric trucks, or vans, such as the Baker Electric Company. Others, including GMC, were strictly truckmakers. Couple-Gear trucks, known for their heavy-duty abilities, made a mark with a model that offered four-wheel drive and four-wheel power steering by using a geared motor built into the hub of the wheels. This was followed with a hybrid version that used a four-cylinder gas engine to power a generator, thus eliminating the batteries and the transmission.
By 1920, the electric vehicle—automobiles and trucks—had all but disappeared, and consequently, most of the interest and development of hybrid powertrains. Over the next forty or so years, hybrid automobiles were pretty much relegated to the tinkerers and inventors.
Then, in the late 1960s, the first pronouncements by public officials reprehending the auto industry for its use of internal combustion engines as a serious threat to public health resulted in renewed interest in the electric vehicle. American Motors, General Motors and Ford each unveiled passenger car prototypes during 1967 and 1968, including GM's experimental 512 hybrid, a tiny two-seater with a 12-cubic-inch gasoline engine connected to a series DC electric motor.
Oil Crises and a Research Act
Another flurry of activity occurred in the mid 1970s and into the '80s, prompted by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. The Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development & Demonstration Act of 1976 not only brought government and industry research engineers together, (a good thing as it turned out ), it also brought federal funding. A number of hybrid vehicles—not all of them gasoline-electric—were built and tested. Significant engineering occurred during 1978 and 1984, and in fact, engineering work by TRW Inc. has carried over into today's hybrids and can be found in the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape.
It's not surprising that this hullabaloo sparked good 'ol American entrepreneurial spirit. Small companies, often founded by electric car aficionados, were touting gas-electric hybrids like the Hummingbird II based on the Volkswagen Rabbit and the Hybricon Centaur, which was a converted Honda 600 sedan. Perhaps the strangest vehicle from this time period was the 1980 Briggs & Stratton hybrid. Yes, the lawn mower engine company used one of their gasoline two cylinder, four stroke engines and an electric motor to power a custom designed two-door fastback body with six wheels—two in front, four aft.
Hybrids Around the Globe
Hybrid activity was not an American exclusive, however. The oil embargoes affected all major world economies, plus, smog pollution was already a major problem in large cities. In Germany, Volkswagen responded with a hybrid Microbus taxi with a system very similar to those used in today's offerings. In Japan, most engineering development focused on electrics, but Toyota built a prototype gasoline turbine engined hybrid, and Mazda produced a diesel engine hybrid truck called the Titan.
Gasoline-electric hybrid development has revolved around electric vehicles from the beginning. But no single event has had more affect on the advancement of electrics, and thus hybrids, than a mandate in 1990 issued by the state of California. The state adopted rules requiring car companies to sell "zero emission vehicles" (ZEVs)—two percent beginning in 1998, five percent by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003—or pull out of the state. ZEV meant only one thing, electric vehicles and with California representing 12 percent of U.S. car sales, the volt rush was on.
After amending the ZEV mandates a couple of times, California finally backed off entirely last year. The net result was significant engineering development and progress and every major car company in the world that showing electric cars, some of which that actually became available in small numbers to consumers, and mostly in California and Arizona.
As for the gasoline-electric hybrid, by 1996 prototype vehicles had been revealed by many automakers, and they continue to do so with a variety of innovative technical designs. As for the reality of hybrids, Toyota introduced the Prius sub-compact sedan for the Japan home market in December 1997—the world's first mass-produced hybrid car. Honda beat Toyota to the U.S. market in 2000 with its two-seat Insight hybrid, and the Prius followed several months later.
Since then, Honda has followed with a Civic hybrid model, Toyota has an all-new Prius, and of course there's the just-arrived Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. And the future? New car and/or SUV models have been firmly announced by Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. There are also full-size truck entrants arriving soon from Dodge, Chevrolet and GMC that use a different type of hybrid system than found on current vehicles. (See "What is a Hybrid?")
The earliest hybrids coupled an electric motor with a gasoline engine to benefit the performance of electric vehicles; today, it's the opposite. And no matter how unsophisticated those first hybrids were, the basic principals remain the same. Breakthroughs in technology were sporadic until the late 1970s and accelerated rapidly in the 1990s, only because computer technology made it possible. It has taken a century to bring this method of propelling a vehicle down a highway into the mainstream of personal transportation, but there are improvements coming down the road and the final chapter about hybrids has not yet been written.