Hybrids power past 15 million sales
There seems little doubt that the future of the automobile is electric.
Driven by tightening emissions regulations in Europe and elsewhere, practically every one of the world’s major car makers has announced ambitious plans for expanding the number of electric vehicles (EVs) in their showrooms.
German prestige car maker Mercedes-Benz, for instance, is aiming for the complete de-carbonisation of its products and production processes by 2039.
By then, the company is planning to exclusively offer either battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
It is a bold forecast for a car maker that currently has a single pure electric model in its range, the EQC 400, plus a scattering of plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models.
While every car maker has its own timeline and challenges for the move to electrification, the Mercedes-Benz example is emblematic of the broader changes sweeping the industry.
The transition is underway but the shift to a world where EVs are the predominant form of personal transport, rather than a bit player as they currently are, will be slow, disruptive, and very expensive.
One of the primary goals of electric vehicles is, of course, to reduce vehicle-based emissions, which are a major contributor to global warming.
Transport represents about 19% of Australia’s overall emissions, says Marty Andrews, the CEO of electric vehicle charging provider Chargefox, who believes that a shift to EVs powered by renewables is “one of the big chunks that can be tackled,” when it comes to reducing emissions.
But to get to that position requires far greater EV market penetration than we see today.
In some markets, such as China and Norway, beneficial government subsidies have helped drive strong consumer acceptance and sales of EVs.
But in Australia less than 3000 EVs found a home in 2019, a tiny number compared with the overall market of 1.06 million new vehicle sales that year.
While sales of EVs are likely to continue to accelerate as barriers to take-up, including range, price and infrastructure, are addressed, the growth is coming off such a low base that it’s difficult to predict exactly when EVs will achieve a significant market share here.
By contrast, in 2019 more than 30,000 hybrid-powered vehicles were sold in Australia, most of them by Toyota, which released its first hybrid Prius in 1997 and is the dominant global player in hybrids.
The company estimates its hybrid technology uses about 30% less fuel than a comparable petrol-engine vehicle to travel the same distance.
While much of the automotive industry has been focused on developing new electric cars, Toyota has been getting on with the business of lowering its carbon footprint by expanding the number of hybrid-powered models it sells.
The company recently passed the milestone of 15 million hybrid vehicles sold worldwide and estimates that this represents a saving of more than 120 million tons of CO2 compared to the same number of vehicles equipped with only a petrol engine.
In Europe, where more than 2.8 million Toyota hybrids have been sold and every second Toyota sold is now a hybrid, the technology is helping the automaker meet tightening emissions regulations there.
“Thanks to our hybrid sales, Toyota is well on track to meet the EU’s 95g/km target for 2020 and 2021 in Europe, where CO2 regulations are the strictest in the world,” said Matt Harrison, Executive Vice-President by Toyota Motor Europe (TME).
The Japanese automotive giant also has its own plans for electrification, including 10 pure electric cars by 2025 and a target of more than one million zero-emission vehicle sales by the same year, but the company has shrewdly used hybrid technology to bridge the gap between established internal combustion engine cars (ICE) and EVs.
Many industry observers believe the hybrid, and its closely related cousin the plug-in hybrid (PHEV), are logical stepping stones for consumers concerned about the transition from the proven and long-established ICE format, to the relatively unknown EV format.
So-called “mild-hybrids” like the Prius make this transition easier because they continue to be powered by a combustion engine, albeit one which is assisted by an additional battery and electric motor.
The battery of a mild-hybrid is recharged as the vehicle decelerates, so it doesn’t need to be plugged in, while hybrid drivers never need to worry about running out of power, provided there’s petrol in the tank.
The upside is significantly better fuel consumption and lower emissions than a comparable ICE-only model, thanks to the electric motor and battery, which play a fuel-saving support role when accelerating.
The downside is that the electric-only range of mild-hybrids is limited to just a few kilometres, which is where the PHEV comes in.
Like hybrids, PHEVs retain the convenience and range of an ICE-powered vehicle but offer an expanded window of electric-only motoring.
The Volvo S60 PHEV, for instance, promises up to 45km of electric-only driving.
As with a pure EV, you recharge a PHEV by plugging it in to an electrical power source, but unlike an EV the PHEV can keep driving when its battery is exhausted, because the ICE motor takes over.
The downside of a PHEV compared with a pure EV is its still-limited electric-only range, and the need to top up with fossil fuel.
While many car makers now have mild-hybrids or PHEVs in their range, others have opted to skip these phases altogether and shoot straight for full electrification, often with extended development windows that mean it takes years for them to bring a viable product to market.
Toyota meanwhile remains the clear leader in production and sales of mild hybrids worldwide.
Some 134,200 of the 15 million hybrids the Japanese giant has sold worldwide have been in Australia and, so far this year, hybrid models have accounted for an impressive 23% of Toyota’s local sales.
Toyota Australia’s hybrid-powered range includes three different Prius models, as well as the hybrid Corolla, Camry, C-HR and RAV4.
Later this year, hybrid versions of the all-new Yaris hatch and Yaris-Cross SUV will be added, while the next generation Kluger, due here in the first half of 2021, will be Toyota’s first seven-seat SUV to offer a hybrid option.
Toyota’s luxury Lexus division also offers hybrid powertrains in nine of its 11 models, making it the largest luxury hybrid line-up of any automotive manufacturer.