All HEVs Are Not Created Equal

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are relatively common today. In the United States, the Honda Insight kicked off the modern HEV era when it beat the Toyota Prius to market in 1999. The popular Prius HEV followed closely the next year. Typically, HEVs have a conventional internal combustion engine, fueled with gasoline or diesel fuel, and combined with an electric drivetrain. All HEVs are not created equal, though.

From 2005 to 2014, a limited number of Chevrolet Silverado pickups were built with a “mild” hybrid system. When these came to a stop, the engine shut off. The hybrid system restarted the gasoline engine when the driver pushed the accelerator. Bed-mounted outlets provided power to anyone with equipment needing electricity. Contractors working out of their (too-often idling) ‘mobile offices’ might have saved a little fuel and emissions with the Silverado.

Better fuel economy and‒in turn, saving on operating costs and emissions‒are key HEV benefits. However, the higher initial cost HEVs and questions about their battery life caused many consumers to hesitate. An example is the original Honda Insight battery pack that came with an eight-year or 80,000-mile warranty and replacement cost estimated at between $1000 and $3000.  Much of those consumer concerns have dissipated over the last 20 years as battery technologies have improved.

Surprisingly, neither Honda nor Toyota were first with HEVs‒not by 100 years. In fact, Ferdinand Porsche built a gasoline-electric hybrid back in 1900. In the decades since, many hybrid and “advanced propulsion” technologies have been tried. Attempts have been made to use Stirling engines, jet engines – and (yikes!) even nuclear reactors!

Minnesota State University-Mankato may have been first in converting an early Prius HEV to run on E85. Its owner, Roger Aiken, is a clean energy advocate, who drove the E85 HEV throughout the state. Amazingly, Roger’s Prius is still on the road. It was spotted recently‒recognizable by its colorful ‘Clean Air Choice’ wrap (pictured left).

In 2007-2008, Ford Motor Company delivered 20 flex-fuel HEV Escapes to Midwestern fleets near E85 fueling stations. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture drove one for a year. By all accounts, the E85 HEV Escape performed perfectly and was a favorite with department staff. Sadly, at the end of the test, the Escapes were rounded up and not heard of again. Rumors suggest they were hauled to Dearborn, evaluated, and destroyed. Unfortunately, Ford Escape flex-fuel HEVs were never mass produced.

The first mass produced, commercially available “plug-in” HEV, the Chevrolet Volt, has been in production for several years. When announced in 2007, General Motors stated the Volt would also be flex-fuel. Imagine that! In one car, you’d have an all-electric vehicle that could be charged at home (or work) as well as a flex-fuel internal combustion engine, allowing you to travel beyond any battery range worries. An electric vehicle also giving you the choice to fuel with the cleaner, renewable-based E85. Seems perfect, right?

Well, fans were again disappointed by an automaker’s executive decision. When the Volt PHEV finally went to production in late 2010 (after GM’s high-profile 2009 bankruptcy), the flex-fuel system had been dropped. GM gave various reasons including lack of government backing, complicated emissions certifications, limits of the Volt’s on-board computing, and the need for more E85 fueling stations. Perhaps now is a time to consider this technology again, with E85 fueling infrastructure having grown to over 3,500 locations across the nation (370+ of those in Minnesota ‒ more than any other state).

Will flex-fuel HEV and PHEV technologies go the way of Chrysler’s jet-powered prototype?  According to this Road & Track article, maybe not just yet.  However, for now, we will need to go to Brazil to drive one.

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