Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is it too soon for hybrid backlash from Ford?

I’m detecting a little bit of hybrid car backlash where you might least expect it – from Ford.
After posting a $12.7 billion loss last year one might think that wholeheartedly embracing hybrid technology would be in their interest. Consumers have again become very conscious of fuel economy and are showing their power in the showroom these days by switching in droves from bigger trucks to more economical cars including hybrids.
So what gives?
In his keynote address last Thursday at the Rhode Island Auto Show to a VIP crowd that mostly comprised Rhode Island and SouthCoast Massachusetts auto dealer representatives and members of the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association and their families, Bob Tasca III gave a clear thumbs down to hybrid.
Bob, from the third generation of the well-established Rhode Island based Tasca Automotive family, is one of 12 national Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealer representatives who regularly pow-wow with Ford Motors about where the company is headed.
“Truthfully, I don’t think hybrid, as we know it today, is really the answer…,” he opined. “So, the industry is really going to technology like flexible fuel vehicles.”
He cited battery disposal issues and the premium price of hybrid vehicles as hurdles that have ultimately lead some in the industry to rethink that direction.
This was news to me.
I always understood that hybrid automotive technology was transitional. In the grand scheme of things hybrids would be positioned to move us from total fossil fuel dependence as we make our way toward hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
But to hear the technology dismissed so soon from someone in a key position to see what one of the industry leaders is planning for years down the road came as a bit of a surprise.
Apparently, the industry is all charged up about the prospects for E85 fuel that’s primarily made from ethanol. Many of today’s vehicles are already equipped to burn the fuel and are designated flex-fuel vehicles.
Being a renewable resource, made from plants including corn, ethanol is suddenly looking like a big player on the field.
One big obstacle, though, is finding E85 at the pump. There are precious few places around the country where E85 is available on a regular basis.
“Once you see the infrastructure build around it, you’re going to see ethanol as a real serious option in the field,“ noted Bob.
But there’s more.
Where I thought the internal combustion engine was headed for its last days as we move toward the holy grail of hydrogen powered vehicles, the industry is now putting some renewed effort into making engines that better conserve the fuel we have.
“You’re going to see some tremendous advances in the gas engine,” said Bob. “From variable displacement to variable valve timing, it’s going to be a big improvement over what we have today.”
I’m pleased with the news but a little confused with the mixed signals. I wonder what Toyota and Honda think about this?

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