What Happened to Hybrid Drives

This past week Ford announced the company will start production in 2019 of a new model panel truck or van with a hybrid drive, called the Transit Custom PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle).  It will be first introduced to the European market, perhaps for the reason that the EU (European Union) is generally more concerned about air pollution and urban congestion than we are in the U.S.–and pocket-book fact that gasoline is a good deal more expensive in those parts.  Potential production sites are in the U.K. and in Spain.  Prototype testing have been underway throughout 2018 in London and in Valencia, Spain.

Why should we have an interest in this development?  For one thing PHEV technology goes a long, long way toward eliminating range anxiety, and while there are, in fact, numerous small-to-medium-sized, commercial, “Transit-like” vans are out there now, the Transit Custom PHEV has features which may be adaptable to our PTVs.  And, wouldn’t be nice not to have to worry about making it home after an exhalating day at the somewhat distant golf course?

“The Future is Hybrid” (Not!)

A couple of years ago, I enthusiastically penned an article, entitled “The Future is Hybrid”.  (You may read the full article on my website, www.smallvehicleresource.com .  Click on the Buying Guide tab and on the drop-down click on Technology and you should find the above title.)  The focus of the article was on UTVs in the hunting market because it was the one segment that particularly catered to a hybrid vehicle.  The idea was that you could approach the hunting grounds silently, and the turkey or deer would not hear you coming.  My thought was, however, that these drive systems could find much wider applicability in the small vehicle market.

To quote the article, here is a passage:

The vast majority of small, task-oriented vehicles (STOVs) are either gas-powered or electric-powered. The hybrid is not a rarity, but it remains on the sidelines when it comes to market share. Yet, this drive train answers so many issues. In particular, it answers the issue of range anxiety that afflicts electric-powered vehicles and it answers the issue of exhaust fumes in closed operating environments. It also answers the issue of noise levels in others.  In various articles over the years, and in our market research reports, I have made the argument that hybrids were a logical choice for consumers and commercial buyers in so many instances.

At the time the article was written, mainstream PHEVs were a small part of the overall mainstream, conventional vehicle market.  Thus, I went on to say,

In other words, there is no significant transportation or fleet market where hybrids have a significant position that might provide psychological assurance or emotional impetus for the average buyer in the STOV market. In more other words, this is a market where hybrids, as a drive train design, have to prove themselves to the buyer…

It appears we have now crossed the bridge into large scale use of PHEV technology in fleet applications.

Special features of the Ford Custom Transit PHEV

The Ford Custom Transit PHEV has features which suggest adaptability to PTVs.  First, the lithium battery pack, while significant in size for a PTV fits below the floorboards of the vehicle and could be so engineered for a PTV.  The vehicle is equipped with a 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder gas engine, which is actually a generator that extends the range of the vehicle to over 350 miles.  The electric motor, however, supplies the power to the wheels at all times.  The pure electric range is a little over 31 miles.

Interestingly, the gas engine is so small it is described as being able to “fit within the confines of an A4 sheet of paper” (slightly larger than our standard of 8.5 X 11).   Thus, another feature which caught my eye and suggests the possibility of adaptation to a PTV.

Shades of the past

In a kind of back-to-the-future perspective, I remember years ago at the PGA Show, Tomberlin provided transportation for attendees from their hotels to the Convention Center and back with a generator-equipped E-Merge LSV.  (This was before the merger with Columbia Par Car.)  The company was out to show the range capabilities of the product.  It worked extremely well; perhaps so well that the other major golf car manufacturers threw a hissy-fit, because Tomberlin was getting notoriety but was not actually exhibiting at the show.  It should be noted that Mike Tomberlin, sort of the Elon Musk of small vehicles, was and is one of the pioneering entrepreneurs of the industry.  This, in an industry that is content with incremental improvements, but eschews significant change.

Another instance of hybrid technology in the golf car industry was E-Z-GO’s Exceed Hybrid Technology™, introduced in 2011.  It was available as a factory-installed option on the RXV and 2Five LSVs.  What became of it?  It had a lot going for it.  The Exceed system added a 6hp, 205cc gas-powered generator to a 48-volt AC Drive system featured on the electric Freedom RXV and 2Five. The generator was designed to recharge the vehicle’s batteries on the fly, extending the range of the vehicle to 150 miles on a single charge. Moreover, the system’s single-cylinder, low-emissions gas-powered generator met all EPA and California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards at the time.

I was told by a company contact that the vehicle did not sell well.  One possible reason was that the generator/engine took up too much space in the rear of the vehicle, making it difficult to use as a golf car.

Shades of the future

Despite the lack of success of earlier introductions of hybrid technology in the personal transportation segment of the small, task-oriented vehicle industry, I am still of the opinion that it could be a significant factor in the PTV market, particularly now that it has broached the mainstream market in a version that might be adaptable to gated communities.

Contact the Author: Steve Metzger at smetzger@smallvehicleresource.com.  Or check out our website at www.smallvehicleresource.com, where you will find an extensive database of vehicle models and can make side-by-side comparisons of vehicles based on a full set of specifications.

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