by Greg Wilson

Hybrid powertrains and fuel cells are here or on the way, but like the latest-generation computers and software, they’ll probably be obsolete by the time the next-generation powertrains arrive.

The internal combustion engine has reigned supreme for the past 100 years or so, and though there have been many improvements to IC engines over the years, the basic engine design principles have remained the same. You could buy a (restored) 50 year old Chevy sedan today, head out onto the freeway, and keep up with everybody else who’s driving a brand new car.

2001 Toyota Prius
2001 Toyota Prius

All that’s about to change. New powertrains are here, or on the horizon, and we’ll soon be offered a choice of less traditional powerplants with vast differences in fuel consumption, vehicle emissions, and noise. Hybrid powertrains, like the gas/electric powertrains in the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius provide double the fuel economy, half the emissions, and are much quieter than modern IC engines. A similar type of hybrid powertrain will enable trucks to improve fuel consumption by 10 or 15% without sacrificing power and towing capacity. Fuel cell engines, expected to be on the market by 2003, will offer zero emissions when fuelled by pure hydrogen and much lower emissions when fuelled by methanol or gasoline, comparable fuel consumption costs, and of course, no engine noise at all. Electric vehicles are expected to have limited use, such as in LSV (low speed vehicles) for urban use.

2001 Honda Insight
2001 Honda Insight

All this sounds wonderful to those of us wishing to save the world from harmful smog and greenhouse CO2 emissions, but there may be a catch: the new generation of engines may become obsolete within a few years of introduction. The pace of change within the future powertrain technologies is advancing so rapidly, that today’s electric and hybrid vehicles will be outdated within five years. Ten years ago, Ballard Power systems showed a fuel cell that was so big, it would barely fit into the back of a bus. Now they’re working on automobile fuel cells that are a quarter the size with more than twice the power output. What does this mean for consumers? Any rapid change in powertrain technology is likely to reduce the resale value of the vehicle significantly and force buyers to upgrade to the latest generation of vehicles/powertrains with the newest powerplants.

Dynasty IT low speed electric vehicle
Dynasty IT low speed electric vehicle

Sound familiar? Remember that 500 Mhz computer you bought last year for $2000 – it’s now selling for $1,000 (brand new), and the latest generation 1 GB computer is selling for less than what you paid for your 500 Mhz unit. In addition, your used computer is worth peanuts. It would be easy if you could just replace the computer chip every year instead of buying a whole new computer, but computer manufacturers and retailers make that difficult and uneconomical. Future powertrains will suffer a similar fate: you won’t be able to replace last year’s fuel cell with this year’s fuel cell – you’ll have to buy a whole new car.

GM EV1
GM EV1

Take the case of GM’s EV1 – the first mass-produced 2-seater electric car was sold in North America. It was sold for a few years in the mid 90’s, but was discontinued when the latest hybrid and fuel cell technology began to emerge. The EVl had good acceleration and handling, but it had a limited range, and a limited battery life. So how much do you think an EV1 is worth today? Can you say ‘Massive Depreciation?’ Wisely, GM decided to lease rather than sell the first EV1’s so that buyers could walk away from their vehicles at the end of the lease.

Here’s another example: in the early 90’s when alternative-fuels such as propane and natural gas were touted as the next big thing, people paid thousands to have their vehicles converted to these fuels, expecting the whole industry to head in that direction. Ten years later, only taxicabs and fleet vehicles are running on propane and natural gas, and people who want to sell a used propane-converted car are having difficulty.

Hybrid technology, as advanced as it is, will soon be out of date too. Battery technology is developing, and new, smaller batteries will offer more power output than previous versions. Automotive computers and electronic controllers will also advance quickly and be more efficient. And it’s quite likely that fuel cells will replace hybrid technology entirely in ten to fifteen years – assuming manufacturers can make fuel cells run successfully on gasoline, or that fuel suppliers can build a proper methanol, natural gas or hydrogen infrastructure – I’d bet on gasoline – it’s already here and the big oil companies aren’t likely interested in spending billions of dollars converting the existing infrastructure to another fuel.

Critics can argue that the internal combustion engine itself is about to become obsolete. Eventually yes, but with 99.9% of the world’s engines running on gasoline or diesel, and the entire world’s infrastructure geared to these type of engines, it’s going to be a long time before the pendulum swings in another direction.

If you’re thinking of being an early-technology adopter, remember that not only will the powertrain be outdated in a few years, but replacing a hybrid’s large battery pack is reputed to cost in the $2,000 to $5,000 range after the eight year warranty is up – that will also have a detrimental effect on resale value.

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