The combination gasoline and electric motor systems making up the new hybrid range of vehicles hitting the roads are drawing increased interest from drivers and carmakers.
They also could mean increased plastics use on cars and trucks for automakers that must package several cubic feet of batteries on hybrids.
``Early on, [carmakers] were packaging them in metal, but that is moving forward into plastics now, with our expectation they'll be all plastic soon,'' Ray Brown, vice president of original equipment batteries for Johnson Controls Inc., said Jan. 6 at a preview of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The first commercial consumer hybrid systems introduced by Japanese automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. in 2000 relied on in-house battery and electric motor developments. With North American automakers joining the interest in the vehicles, suppliers of existing standard batteries - like JCI, with an auto unit based in Plymouth, Mich. - are moving toward production of battery modules for hybrids.
``I'd be disappointed if we're not on the road in something by 2006 or 2007,'' Brown said.
Hybrids fuel up on standard gasoline used in an internal combustion vehicle, but also have a supplemental electric motor that taps into batteries that store energy created during vehicle use, such as when brakes are applied.
Those batteries - currently nickel hydride, but expected to shift to lithium ion eventually - hold about 4 volts of electricity per cell, Brown said. Hybrids need between 144 volts and 350 volts, so the battery modules can be sizable, measuring 2-4 feet in width and length and a few inches in depth.
Since their introduction in 2000, hybrids have been getting increased attention from automakers and consumers. The second generation of Toyota's power system in the Prius won notice from car buyers and industry watchers in 2003. Honda has hybrid power available with its Insight and a version of the Civic.
Following on their heels are new offerings from a cross-range of vehicles. Toyota's Lexus brand will introduce a hybrid sport utility vehicle later this year, the RX400H, and will focus on hybrid technology in advertising.
``We have done considerable research on how we think affluent consumers will respond to this new vehicle,'' Denny Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager, said at the vehicle's Jan. 6 unveiling. ``We have found that it is not necessarily just about being green, or more fuel efficient.''
And, noted Yoshio Ishizaka, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Corp., experience in hybrid technology will carry over to future vehicle programs.
``Hybrid technology is a key element in the advancement of fuel-cell technology,'' he said. ``If you have an advantage with hybrids, you will have an advantage with fuel cells.''
Ford Motor Co. will bring its first hybrid to the market this summer, a gas-electric version of the Escape SUV.
Brown expects that within 15 years, most cars and trucks will have some kind of hybrid system. JCI's automotive unit, based in Plymouth, Mich., is in talks with a cross-section of automakers for future products. Its European battery unit, under the Varta name, already makes systems for hybrid buses there.