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Dobyns Writes about Hybrid Automobiles

JACKSONVILLE -- January 18, 2002 -- Lloyd Dobyns, who holds the Ayers Chair in the Jacksonville State University communication department, recently published an article which questions whether U.S. automakers will embrace hybrid automobiles. In the piece Dobyns mentions JSU's involvement in a consortium that "is being organized to research and transfer technology back and forth between the Army and private industry."

The Blue Ridge Press article was distributed to Atlantic coast newspapers from Maryland through Mississippi, including West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The article appeared on the Anniston Star's op-ed page today. Dobyns' and other Blue Ridge Press columns are available at www.blueridgepress.com.

The full article is reprinted below.


U.S. Hybrids: Passed at the Starting Line?

Lloyd Dobyns

The military may lead the way this year in advancing hybrid automobiles, just as it led in advancing computers in 1946 and the Internet in 1969. The hybrids, with dual gas and electric motors, may be as important to the economy and the environment in the near future as the computer and Internet are now.

Yet it seems unlikely that the potential of hybrids will be realized by U.S. automakers. While there are fuel-efficient Japanese hybrid cars on the market, they have been produced in limited numbers. For the U.S. production and sale of hybrids to grow, domestic consumer demand and hybrid technology will have to develop further. And that will have to occur without strong federal support.

Department of Energy secretary Spencer Abraham announced at the Detroit International Auto Show in early January that the Bush administration will help fund efforts to develop hydrogen fuel cell vehicles at the exclusion of hybrids.

The administration could be missing an opportunity to help Detroit notch substantial short-term market growth. Viable fuel cell vehicles and a hydrogen distribution network are still many years, even decades, away. But we likely now stand at the cusp of dramatic advances in hybrid technology.

The military's effort illustrates this well. At Alabama's Anniston Army Depot, a consortium of military, Jacksonville State University and business representatives is being organized to research and transfer technology back and forth between the Army and private industry.

Gregory F. Potts, an executive with United Defense in Anniston and a retired army colonel, is part of the consortium. "The army has a huge interest in hybrid vehicles," he said.

United Defense has a diesel-electric hybrid armored personnel carrier that accelerates faster than any other and can carry 12 troopers for 600 miles without a fill-up, 10 miles of that in absolute silence. On site, it becomes a generator.

In civilian vehicles, hybrids get 50 to 70 miles per gallon in the city, slightly less on the highway, so a switch to hybrid vehicles could cut oil imports by half. It could also significantly reduce a number of harmful automotive emissions, including carbon dioxide, the stuff blamed for global warming.

Honda and Toyota already offer the two-seat, 64-mpg Insight and the four-door, 48-mpg Prius, respectively, but there were fewer than 20,000 available in the U.S. in 2001, barely a statistical blip in a 17.1 million passenger-vehicle market.

American consumer interest, however, may be ready to swell, especially as word gets out that sliding behind the wheel of a hybrid can be fun.

"Iíve never had a car," Augie Kreivenas of Durham, N.C., said, "where my friends wanted to drive it."

He and his wife, Liz Mahanna, bought a Prius six months ago, and now, he says, some of their friends are at least considering buying hybrids after borrowing the Prius.

While consumer interest may be set to take off, in a market where more than half of all vehicles sold are pickups, minivans or sport utility vehicles, today's hybrids lack something Americans want--size.

Ford Motor Company and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced plans to develop a hybrid engine for heavier passenger vehicles using a gasoline engine and a pressurized liquid rather than a storage battery.

Ford and EPA will share financing and personnel on the project, but considering the slumping national economy and Fordís recent sales decline, layoffs and corporate restructuring, it is fair to ask how much money and effort Ford can now direct at developing hybrids. On the heels of Abraham's announcement, Ford announced that it would no longer be working to develop a hybrid Explorer, only a hybrid mini-SUV, the Escape.

This move may reverberate throughout the American automotive industry. DaimlerChrysler has been working to develop by 2004 a hybrid V6 to replace the Dodge Durangoís conventional V8. By pairing a gasoline engine for the rear wheels with an electric engine for the front, the company hopes to increase the fuel economy of the SUV. But absent the motivation that competition from Ford created, the future of this project may now be uncertain.

Abandoning this and other projects to advance hybrids could be a grave mistake. Recall past events: In 1979-80, Japanese automakers absorbed short-term financial losses to establish U.S. market share with their small, fuel-efficient cars. Meanwhile, American auto companies told President Jimmy Carter that Americans would not buy small cars. Detroit stuck with its gas guzzlers, and the Japanese successfully moved in.

Even knowing the promise of hybrids, American automakers now may choose to stick with standard technology, the internal combustion engine, or bank on the distant promise of fuel cells. In the meantime, competitors may establish a far stronger reputation for technological and environmental innovation, two qualities American consumers respect.

In the U.S., what the customer wants, the customer will get--even if it comes from overseas.


Lloyd Dobyns holds the Ayers Chair in the communication department at Alabama's Jacksonville State University. He has worked as a journalist since 1957, including 16 years as a network television correspondent.


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