9/20/2018 | 3 MINUTE READ

The Hybrid Car as Plan B

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Hybrids need two propulsion systems. This is good for manufacturing. 


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Being the editor of this magazine for almost 20 years and responsible for finding the content that goes into it has taught me one huge lesson—always have a plan “B” in place for sources tapped for information. I could tell you some horror stories about wonderful potential articles that “fell though” at the last minute, often through nobody’s fault. These served as demonstrations of the wisdom of having a plan “B.” It has saved us on many occasions.
I mention this because I’ve been hearing and reading about concern in the metalworking machine tool industry and among the shops that use machine tools about the up and coming electric vehicle revolution. I’ve read that the prospects of electric motors supplanting internal combustion—gas and diesel—engines is striking genuine horror in metalcutting circles built on building and assembling the discrete parts that go into the millions of units produced each year.

The horror is grounded in a perception that, compared with the complexity of the modern internal combustion engine, the electric motors waiting in the wings are relatively simple: basically, many precision machined parts versus not very many precision machined parts. From a number-of-components perspective, the electric motor is pretty simple compared with a traditional gas or diesel engine, which is the source of angst for companies that produce the many complex parts.

However, regardless of how many hours Mr. Musk puts in on the floor of his Tesla plant, a mass market for the all-electric car is simply not there yet. And it probably won’t be for some time. Without a national infrastructure of charging stations, all-electric cars are just too risky to put all of one’s transport eggs into. As a road warrior, please give me a plan B for when the juice runs out. We have a very big country. 

Don’t misunderstand me, we will most likely be driving pure electric cars eventually, but I believe the interim step between now and then is the hybrid. And because of the practical and commercial viability of this interim step, machine tool builders around the world should climb back from the ledge and breathe a collective sigh of relief. There is good potential business in the plan B approach that hybrids represent.

But first, a little history lesson, if you please. Let’s set the “way-back” machine to 1900, Mr. Peabody. The 18-year-old Ferdinand Porsche is hired by Vienna coach maker, Jacob Lohner, to develop an electric powertrain for his coaches. Gasoline engines were not a forgone conclusion for propulsion at the time.

Porsche went to work and developed hub-mounted electric motors that drove the wheels directly and independently, powered by a battery or gasoline engine generator. It was among the first hybrids, maybe it was the first, and it was on the road in 1900.  

I’ve seen this car at the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, Germany, and, if one takes away the carriage body, the drivetrain components are pretty contemporary. It just took a lot of time to recognize the genius of the concept. According to one source I read, NASA and Boeing studied the Lohner-Porsche design for motor-in-hub direct drive for use on the Apollo program’s Lunar Rover Vehicle. Now that’s an idea with legs.

I have a colleague with a Chevy Volt that he has been driving for several years. He logs his mileage and averages 250-plus mpg using the electric motor backed up by a gas engine. Moreover, he doesn’t hesitate to take a trip more extended than his commute to work.

On the other hand, I have a cousin with a Tesla who loves the car. I have ridden with him, and the performance is amazing. He lives in Michigan and to visit me in Ohio, he must rent a car because of the range limitations of his Tesla. He says it’s a great town car, but the open road is just not ready to support it yet.

As for makers of machines, several companies I have had contact with look to the future by embracing the hybrid concept. For discrete parts makers, and the machine tool builders that supply them, hybrids represent a net gain in machined components. Tooling up to make electric motor components, rotor, stators and housings for electric motors in addition to traditional internal combustion engine parts represents opportunity, not demise.
Hybrids use two sources of propulsion. That’s a plan B the machine tool industry and its customers can get on board with.