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Auto makers see future in hybrid, diesel engines

DTI Globalwatch : 22 October, 2006  (Technical Article)
Sustained consumer interest in cars that use alternative energy sources, such as hybrid and diesel engines, will largely depend on US gasoline prices remaining high, auto industry executives said at the Reuters Autos Summit in Detroit this week.
'If gasoline falls significantly below US$3 a gallon and stays down below US$3 a gallon, you undercut the economic viability of all these alternatives,' said Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation Inc. , the United States' largest car retailer.

The average US price of gasoline, which accounts for about 40 percent of US daily oil demand, hit a record near US$3.03 per gallon this summer, but has since eased to US$2.66.

Hybrids, particularly Toyota Motor Corp.'s iconic Prius, have gained a reputation for hipness among environmentally conscious Americans, in part fueled by famous hybrid owners such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. Accounting for about 1 percent of new car sales in the United States, a hybrid couples a traditional combustion engine with a battery to allow for lower gasoline use.

Diesel engines can use 20 to 40 percent less fuel than gasoline models and are popular in Europe but remain uncommon on consumer vehicles in the United States, where they are sometimes perceived as dirty and unreliable. Diesel fuel is also often priced higher than gasoline in the United States.

Executives at the summit said they believe that for much of the next decade, gasoline-powered hybrids, diesel engines and cars that can run on blends of gasoline and ethanol will jockey for market position.

'With hybrid technology focused more on small cars, we believe diesel offers an advantage on larger vehicles,' said Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics at Honda Motor Co. Ltd. 'There's a diminished return on hybrids when you start getting larger frontal areas and more weight and mass.'

Both technologies can add several thousand dollars to the retail cost of vehicle, with some purchasers aiming to save back that money in lower fuel costs.

'I don't know that everybody actually does the math when they say 'I'm going to invest in a hybrid engine,' and that is going to pay back,' said Pete Hastings, a vice president in corporate fixed-income research at Morgan Keegan. 'There's a bit more emotion in buying these things.'

Gregg Sherrill, group vice president and general manager of power solutions at Johnson Controls Inc. , forecast that over the next decade hybrid engines would be a feature on 5 to 8 percent of new cars built worldwide.

Several executives at the summit said diesel engines have gotten short shrift from the American public.

'The technology that is a winner is diesel engines, which already exist in Europe,' said Earl Hesterberg, president and CEO of Group 1 Automotive Inc. . 'There's also a different perception of emissions.'

Perhaps the holy grail of alternative fuel sources for cars is the hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, producing water as its primary byproduct. While fuel cells hold the promise of readily available fuel and lower emissions, auto makers have estimated that they are about 10 years away from being commercially realistic on consumer automobiles.

'Our philosophy is that we need to take the vehicle out of the energy debate once and for all,' said Brent Dewar, vice president of field sales, service and parts at General Motors Corp. 'So we see the ultimate being in the hydrogen fuel cell technology.'
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