Engine of Progress

Future Tense: Hybrid Gasoline-Electric Engines

Do you remember the axiom that information is the "oil" of the new economy? Well, as it turns out, oil is still the oil of the new economy. In a world that's been reshaped by software and telecommunications, the central role of fossil fuels hasn't diminished. But if a 350-person team at General Motors has its way, the world will use fewer fossil fuels in the future. And the future will arrive in 2004, in the form of vehicles that use a hybrid gasoline-electric engine.

Other car companies, notably Honda and Toyota, are selling small hybrid-engine cars to people who are willing to give up space and power. But GM's advanced-technology vehicles unit believes that hybrid engines will never be more than anomalies if they aren't installed into the vehicles that Americans love to drive: trucks and monster SUVs. "We can't make a business on early adopters," says John Hepke, a 33-year GM veteran who directs propulsion engineering at the unit. "Plus, the more hybrids we put into vehicles that people actually want to drive, the more we do for the environment and fuel consumption."

Hepke learned his lesson the hard way. In 1990, GM made one of its first green bets on a svelte two-seat electric car called the EV-1. Hepke was an engineer on the project. But after a billion dollars, the EV-1 never became a success. It's easy to see why: The EV-1 had a range of 80 miles, room for two people, and no place for groceries.

But EV-1 was a trove of technology for the ParadiGM system, GM's gamble on an electric transmission coupled with a 42-volt battery and a standard internal-combustion engine. Driving a vehicle with the hybrid engine requires no special knowledge or behavior on the part of the driver. In fact, drivers won't really know that they're driving a hybrid save for a couple of nifty things that happen when you stop or accelerate. When you come to a complete stop, the gasoline engine turns off — so you're using no gas and spitting out no emissions, and there's no noise pollution from the engine. Press on the gas, and you're off — using the power of the regular engine. And unlike electric vehicles of the past, which had to be plugged in, the batteries are constantly recharged from the workings of the vehicle.

Contact John Hepke by email (john.hepke@gm.com).

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Future Tense: Hybrid Gasoline-Electric Engines

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