History of Hybrid Cars

Announcer: Go behind the wheel and under the hood on everything automotive with High Speed Stuff from HowStuffWorks.com.

Scott Benjamin: Hi, everybody, and welcome back to the podcast. I'm Scott Benjamin, the auto editor here at HowStuffWorks.com, and I'm here as always with Ben, and Ben is the video writer I think we've decided, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes, yes.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, good. I remembered.

Ben Bowlin: We have to put something down. The IRS is asking questions.

Scott Benjamin: Well, like I said last time, I think I mentioned you should be CEO or someone - corner office.

Ben Bowlin: Thank you.

Scott Benjamin: You do have a corner office, don't you?

Ben Bowlin: Technically, I do have a corner office.

Scott Benjamin: You do, with a view.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, with a nice view.

Scott Benjamin: I'm intensely jealous.

Ben Bowlin: You can always come hang out there, man. There's always a [inaudible].

Scott Benjamin: Sometimes, I do. I feel like I'm bugging you a little bit.

Ben Bowlin: No, not at all. It's always a pleasure.

Scott Benjamin: It's a good chance for me to ask you some questions anyway.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and you brighten up rooms when you come in.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. Well, thanks. I appreciate that.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, no, no, no, seriously.

Scott Benjamin: Too, too kind.

Ben Bowlin: It is a little bit out of the way compassionate for me. No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. But let's get right down to the nitty gritty here. There's been a lot of excitement about hybrid cars. You'll remember earlier last week or the beginning of this week, I had sent you an interesting article in The Economist about hybrid cars and electric vehicles. Then, we had a little bit of a conversation about this that was so good we're taking it on the air with a podcast. Scott, can you tell me the history of hybrid cars?

Scott Benjamin: The history of - okay. So, we're gonna go all the way back, then?

Ben Bowlin: Well, how far back does it go? I thought it just went back to the Honda Insight.

Scott Benjamin: No. No, no, way, way, way, way beyond that.

Ben Bowlin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Way beyond that.

Ben Bowlin: How far back?

Scott Benjamin: Well, actually, okay. If you're talking a little bit - if you want to go a little bit further back than that, the Prius was released in Japan in 1997. It wasn't made available here in the United States until around I think it was 2001, but that's not going way back.

Ben Bowlin: No. And that happens a lot with technology released in another country. It takes a few years to get over here.

Scott Benjamin: That's right. And you're talking about the initial Insight model where it had the skirts over the rear wheels, bullet shaped, real aerodynamic, sleek looking car.

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: That's what a lot of people think of as the first hybrid car, but that's not correct. It goes - like I said, it goes way, way, way back. How far back, you ask.

Ben Bowlin: How far back does it go, Scott?

Scott Benjamin: Thank you. I feel like I'm on an old game show or something. It goes back to 1900.

Ben Bowlin: No, it doesn't.

Scott Benjamin: It certainly does. To 1900. In fact, it might even go a year or two prior to that, I'm sure, with development, etc.

Ben Bowlin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: The first time anybody really saw in public a hybrid vehicle was right around 1900.

Ben Bowlin: Turn of the century.

Scott Benjamin: Turn of the century, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Turn of the last century.

Scott Benjamin: And again, that may be off a year or two only because - we'll get into it, but there's a technicality here that the first car that actually became a hybrid was initially an all electric car, and then later it was converted into a hybrid car.

Ben Bowlin: I can't stand the suspense, man. Let's get right into it. What happened with this car at the turn of the century?

Scott Benjamin: Well, at the Paris Exposition in 1900, that's when Lohner-Porsche debuted a vehicle called the Elektromobil. And the Elektromobil was actually an electric car at this point, like the name indicates, and it had - this is fascinating to me. It was a combination vehicle, a vehicle that was designed and built by two different people with similar interests. There was a coach builder by the name of Jakob Lohner, and he combined his idea - he thought that gas driven cars were already too noisy and loud and a problem.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: And this is in 1900 or 1899 or somewhere in that era. He just felt that they're already causing too much pollution. Sound familiar? That's kind of what's going on now, right?

Ben Bowlin: He was a little ahead of his time.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, way ahead of his time. He combines efforts with this young guy - young guy at the time, he was only 21 - named Ferdinand Porsche, w ho, of course, we know founded the Porsche Company. He built tractors, built all kinds of things prior to actually operating Porsche. Anyways, they combined efforts in - I think it was in 1896 because that's when Porsche had developed these in-wheel hub motors, these electric motors. And we had talked about those -

Ben Bowlin: We have a podcast about that.

Scott Benjamin: We do, yeah. So, you remember that, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: That technology, as it turns out, goes all the way back to 1896.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: I know. It's amazing how these things go away for a century and then come back.

Ben Bowlin: Tell me about the Elektromobil.

Scott Benjamin: Well, the Elektromobil had these in-wheel motors, and the guy, Jakob Lohner, he decided that this is a great idea. He's gonna give him a coach that he makes, because he's a coach builder, and he said, "I'm gonna build a car that's an electric car out of these things." So, they made the car, and they debuted it at the Paris Exposition. People thought, "Oh, what a fantastic car. This is great," but the problem with that car was that Porsche decided later was that they couldn't keep the batteries charged because it's an electric car. There had been other electric cars in the past. It's not the first electric car by any means.

Ben Bowlin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: But this is what made it monumental is that Porsche decided to add an internal combustion engine, which was relatively new at the time, to his design to keep the batteries charged. So he, in effect, made the first hybrid vehicle.

Ben Bowlin: Now, did they actually make this vehicle in a working prototype form?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, they made more than a prototype. They made - I think they made 300 of them by the time production was over. But then, what's odd about this is that the technology just kind of went away. There were a couple of other attempts that I can list off here if you like, but really, the technology basically went just kind of dormant for about 100 years until it came back.

Ben Bowlin: Now, can I - you are getting so good at reading my mind when I'm about to ask another question, so first, I guess, we'll get into the real pertinent question in a second, but first, what are the rest of the vehicles that came afterwards?

Scott Benjamin: Well, okay, if you want to go right through history, we've got the article on our site here, so you can follow right along with me if you want. So, we've got the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil in 1900, which later became the first hybrid electric vehicle with the gas electric power. Then in 1917, the Woods Motor Company introduced something called the Woods Dual Power, which had the same thing - internal combustion engine, electric motor. Top speed was around 35 miles an hour, but for whatever reason, it wasn't a success, so that one just went away. Again, that was in 1917. Then, it was all the way until the 1960s, 1970s when someone built a prototype hybrid electric vehicle based on the Buick Skylark, which is kind of an unlikely vehicle for that.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, I did not see that coming.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, and I guess the government decided to invest in it, but then the person who was designing it ran out of money, and the project was just left alone.

Ben Bowlin: Ouch.

Scott Benjamin: So, in the 1970s, that kind of died away. Then kind of in the middle of that, in 1968, GM developed a vehicle called the GM 512, which was an experimental vehicle, and that was an electric vehicle that ran - just at low speeds, though - and then used gasoline for high speeds. So, GM had a hybrid car in 1968. Again, nothing really just ever came of that. It was just an experimental vehicle. You'll find that all the way through this history, by the way. Only a couple more here. In 1989, Audi had a car called the Audi Duo, and it used a 12 horsepower electric motor with a 139 horsepower internal combustion engine, so again, hybrid electric - gas electric, I should say. They had several variations of this, but, again, none of them really took off. In 1997, this is when the Prius began to be marketed in Japan, so that's really kind of the modern area of hybrid cars really taking off is in 1997. Then in 1999, has you know, the Honda Insight, which you mentioned earlier, Ben. And it wasn't until about - I guess it was in 2000 when Toyota brought the Prius to the United States, but it was the 2001 model. That's what the confusion was earlier.

Ben Bowlin: And now, we have so many more hybrids coming out.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, yeah. They're all over the place now. It seems like every manufacturer has one at this point. It's probably not true. It seems like a lot of concept vehicles now are hybrid electric. It just seems like the technology is finally grabbing on. It's staying around for a while.

Ben Bowlin: There's a resurgence now. But the immediate question that comes to mind when we're talking about the history of hybrid cars - and to be honest with you, I had no idea the history went this far into the past - what stopped these vehicles from ever progressing past an experimental phase or an initial production line?

Scott Benjamin: Well, some of them were just unreliable. It wasn't well executed, so you had cars that were - believe or not, there were a lot of electric cars in that time when we had talked about earlier - in the 1900s, 1917, that era - that were a lot of electric cars at the time, and those were just more reliable at that point. Or you could just buy an internal combustion engine that was also reliable at that point, or as reliable as they could be at that point in time. To combine the two and have these systems that don't necessarily work together or they don't work well, and it's kind of an unknown, people were just a little nervous about. And you're talking about production numbers of 300 for the Elektromobil. It's low production numbers. It's not like today where they're making millions of these now. They're refining it continually. Not that every car is different by any means, but just R&D is so much better at this point. Not that they didn't put effort into it then, it's just that the technology just wasn't there. It wasn't available. They didn't have lithium ion batteries at the time. They didn't have the systems that we have in place now.

Ben Bowlin: And we're still working on getting a decent battery, right?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. You know what? We're still working on it. It's not a cut and dry thing to build a hybrid vehicle. It's still difficult, of course, and we're still figuring it out. It's still not perfect, and I don't know if it ever will be perfect, but you can imagine what it was like more than 100 years ago.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, sure. I have this - based on your conversations about weight and the first electric vehicles and stuff, I just have this nightmare vision of something that looks kind of like a Model T, and then this gigantic trailer behind it just full of batteries.

Scott Benjamin: That's probably not too far off. I'm sure they used nickel batteries at the time.

Ben Bowlin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: And they were heavy. I'm sure that they had the same concerns as we do now with weight. They weren't necessarily concerned with fuel mileage at that point. They just wanted to be able to get from Point A to Point B and be able to come back without having any problems, just like we do now. Maybe they weren't as concerned with weight as we are.

Ben Bowlin: Do you think you're gonna get a hybrid car in the future, possibly?

Scott Benjamin: There's one coming out soon. There's a couple of prototypes that look like possibilities for me. I'm not sure exactly, though. How about you? What do you think?

Ben Bowlin: I have really enjoyed the explorations we've made of hybrids, the plug in hybrid, history of hybrid now, and this technology is amazing to me. I'm still not sure yet. I think the price has got to be right because you know how cheap I am. And I think that the reliability is key. So, we'll see.

Scott Benjamin: Well, the price thing, that's probably the one thing holding me back because you do pay a premium up front for a hybrid car.

Ben Bowlin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: And we've talked about that also in the past. How long does it take to get your money back from that initial premium based on fuel savings alone?

Ben Bowlin: Which was really - I got to tell you, it was a harsh awakening for me.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's a real eye opener, isn't it, when you look at that?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: And if you really look at the numbers right now, for me personally, not worth it. It sounds like you're kind of dealing with the same thing.

Ben Bowlin: In the future, maybe.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: I just - I love my Monte Carlo so much. It's not the perfect car, I will say that, as far as fuel efficiency goes, but it's just so cool.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. I understand, and that's the compromise. You have to determine what's more important to you, fuel economy or power, I guess, or space because a lot of these smaller hybrid vehicles don't - newer hybrid vehicles, space is a concern because they're trying to build them smaller, more efficient, lighter, etc., and you're not gonna have the cargo carrying capability. You're not gonna have the speed because you won't have a large engine. You'll have a smaller engine combined with an electric motor. Not that they can't correct that. There could be sports cars that are hybrid electric, and there are sports cars. There are some that are wickedly fast that - because these electric motors, all of their torque is instantly available. They can be extremely fast. They can be - well, of course, they're extremely efficient. But right now, we're trying to keep them small so that the - we. Listen to me, like I'm manufacturing them. But everybody's trying to keep them small so that they don't have to haul around that all extra weight, and then they become less efficient.

Ben Bowlin: Sure. You know what? One thing that we're talking about here is we're verging onto - from the history of hybrid cars to why people get cars with certain features. You know what? Before we wrap up this episode, I think this an excellent time to segue into some -

Scott Benjamin: Listener mail.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, so listener mail. Check this out, Scott. We've got Doug from Gresham, Oregon, who writes in to say, "Regarding the discussion of cup holders and why they're so plentiful in newer cars, see the following article and psychological implications of these devices." He mentions his car was a 1988 Ford Ranger, and it had no cup holders. As you had said, you've driven some cars with no cup holders.

Scott Benjamin: Lots of cars with no cup holders.

Ben Bowlin: So, this article, which you can read on truthaboutcars.com, is very interesting. I checked it out, Scott. It's an anthropologist who's saying that people associate cup holders with safety, with the ability to have warm liquids or food. It's very strange. I don't know if I completely agree with it, but it's a very interesting point. You know, of course, that car manufacturers spend a lot of time thinking about psychology when they make a vehicle.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, I do. I'm still shaking my head at this one. I don't understand the cup holder's equals safety idea. But I do know that - I could tell you that minivans have a dozen of them or more.

Ben Bowlin: Right, yeah.

Scott Benjamin: My car now has four within reach. You probably have three or four within reach, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes, yes.

Scott Benjamin: I know that psychology has a lot to do with it. I know that they want people to have comforts. Everybody wants to be comfortable in their car. That's a major issue right now. Psycho logy - I just didn't have any idea that cup holders played into psychology in a vehicle at all. I can understand the creature comforts, but I can't understand the psychology of a cup holder.

Ben Bowlin: I'd recommend this. This article is very good. I want to thank Doug for pointing this out to us because for our listeners, it's a very interesting angle. Now, again, as I said, I'm not 100 percent on it, but they do point out how instinctual a lot of our emotional reactions are to things and how subconscious these reactions can be. We might not even be consciously aware that we consider a minivan with 15 cup holders less safe than a minivan with 23 or something.

Scott Benjamin: Sorry, I don't mean to laugh. But I can't help it. I just can't -

Ben Bowlin: It's so weird, though.

Scott Benjamin: It really is. That's a really a strange though.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: This is the very first time I've ever heard this theory.

Ben Bowlin: And, so - and me too. I'd really love to hear if people check this out and what they think about it.

Scott Benjamin: Interesting. An interesting idea!

Ben Bowlin: And so, to our listeners, again, thanks everybody who writes in. Scott and I both love listener mail. If you have a future suggestion or you have a question or you have something really neat that you want to tell us, please send us an e-mail at highspeedstuff@howstuffworks.com.

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