Gasoline-Electric cars: New technology 20 years too late?

GM launched last year what was touted as the biggest leap in automotive innovation.  The Chevy Volt has since been a consistent seller and proven that gasoline-electric cars, or true hybrids, are a viable power train option.  Companies are now even taking large Chevrolet trucks like the Silverado and Suburban and applying the same technology.  Each is achieving astounding mileage results.

However this “new” and “innovative” technology should have been with us since the early 80s.

This simple statement ignores the simple fact that electric cars and hybrid car technology has been developed and reliably working for over 100 years.  The gasoline-electric design the Volt features takes its cue from the diesel-electric locomotives that have been in use for over 60 years.  It’s easy to explain why gasoelectric cars weren’t a thing in the 50s, 60s or 70s.  The transistor was only new into the electronics world in the late 60s and still expensive, electrical controls weren’t cheap or mass producible.  Couple that with the fact that gas was less than $1 a gallon.  It was the age of the big block V8s and neighbourhood block sized family sedans.  There wasn’t much demand to drive innovation in this sense.  But then the 80’s happened.

In the early part of the 1980s there was the first major oil crisis our world had seen.  Gas prices sky rocketed and suddenly heavy cars that averaged 15 MPG were just not feasible nor affordable.  It was the age of the transistor.  Basic computers were starting to eek their way out of the goop all while some of the worst fashion known to man was being produced.  It was during this time of crisis that the first gasoelectric cars should have made their way onto the market.  The technology existed, the premise had been in reliable successful use for 30 years and consumers needed smaller, more reliable cars.  Let’s discuss the perceived barriers to gasoelectric cars.


“But Dan, battery technology was still in it’s infancy.  It would be impractical to have 2,000lbs of Nickel Cadnium batteries in your truck.”

True.  Batteries today are a long way from where they are today.  The mistake here is to apply the current application of gasoelectric cars to our 1980s example.  The 1980s gasoelectric car would have had minimal electric range, 10 to 15 miles at most. The design would simple be centered around a small gas engine generating electricity for the electric motor.  That premise alone would have brought cars up into the 50-60 mph range.  The technology would have been born and battery and electric motor technology innovation would have started then.  Imagine where they would be today?  Gasoelectric cars with 200 to 250 mph electric range?  Pure electric cars?

Complicated control systems

“Look at the LCD screens in electric cars.  That kind of systems were barely dreamed of in the 80s.”

You’re right, it was the thing of fantasy.  However the LCD displays and the information they present is little more than aesthetically attractive feedback on the gasoelectric system.  The fancy system actually does little to control the gasoelectric car itself.  Our 1980s gasoelectric car would need a voltmeter on it’s dial to present a charge gauge and a fuel gauge, both things readily available in the 80s.  The gas engine could be triggered by a basic system that got information from the voltmeter.  At the very least it could be started at the get go with a key as cars are now.

It’s interesting to point out that there may be a little bit of consumer perception at work here.  We as a consuming public often picture electric cars, alternative fuel cars in general, as futuristic.  There is an image of technology that is almost expected in these vehicles.  LCD displays, interaction, voice activation etc.  None of these technologies are needed to actually control these cars.  It could be argued that people would feel out of place in a “futuristic” car that didn’t have any of these things.


“Look at how much the Volt costs now, this would have been too expensive in a 1980s economy”

Let’s remove the batteries and apply the simple gasoelectric technology for the car.  Even if we have a bank of 6 NiCad batteries we’re not adding too much to the cost of the vehicle.  For example sake let’s say that the gasoelectric version of a small car would cost $10,000 more than it’s gasoline comparable.  The Chevy Volt costs, at base MSRP, roughly $19,000 more than it’s comparable (Chevy Cruze).  The Volt has enjoyed good sales despite the worst economical environment since the 80s.  Many say the current recession is equal to if not greater than the 80s.  There wasn’t as deep a credit crunch in the 1980s as we are experiencing now.  People had more access to loans to buy cars (not that I support that sort of thing).  Would a gasoelectric car have sold in an oil crisis cash strapped market?  Absolutely.  The demand for fuel mileage and reduced emissions would have caused more manufacturers to produce gasoelectric cars and spur innovation that would, after several years, significantly decrease the cost of manufacturing.

So why didn’t we see gasoelectric cars in the 80s?  The question can be extended to why didn’t the hybrid cars built in 1901 stick?  Conspiracy theorists will have their say in this area, and let them.  There isn’t a clear answer why automotive technology dies or why it continues innovate at, in a market where innovation is a daily thing, the same pace water erodes stone.  The simple fact is that any manufacturer who continues to ignore gasoelectric technology and rely purely on gasoline (turbo-charging is auto-speak for band-aid fix) engines will find themselves outpaced quickly.

I applaud GM for the innovation but do so while saying “about damn time”.

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