GM, DC Team for Dual-Stage Hybrids

December 14, 2004

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Slow to accept the concept of hybrid powertrains, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors are taken a bold step that they insist could “leapfrog” existing technology and put them in the lead in this small but fast-growing market segment.

The two automakers have signed an initial memo to join forces on hybrid development. In particular, they will focus on a new, two-stage gasoline-electric powertrain that is expected to be used in a wide range of vehicles, from small cars to large pickups and SUVs, that could be sold all over the world.

Leveraging the vast engineering and financial resources of DC and GM “will allow us to speed up the development” of technology that can reduce fuel consumption and minimize emissions, stated Eric Ridenour, executive vice president of product development for the Chrysler Group.

Catching up

There’s no question that the two companies need to move as fast as possible to catch up with the competition, industry analysts said. Honda is about to launch the Accord Hybrid, its third hybrid-electric vehicle, while Toyota can barely keep up with demand for its Prius. Both manufacturers plan to offer gasoline-electric drivetrains on a wide range of products.

Meanwhile, Ford has begun offering a hybrid version of its small Escape sport-utility vehicle. The Escape Hybrid was named, on Monday, as one of three finalists for North American Truck of the Year. Ford has announced plans for two more hybrid vehicles, including versions of both the Mercury Mariner sport-ute and Ford Fusion sedan.

GM has outlined broad plans for the future, but so far has only introduced a so-called mybrid, a mildly hybridized version of its full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. Chrysler has taken a similar approach with its Ram pickup.

That could change in reasonably short order, according to company officials, who spoke during a telephone news conference with the media on Monday.

Complements to each other

The joint venture was put in motion during an industry conference in October, where it became clear that GM and DC had a similar vision of the future for hybrids — and complimentary technology under development.

Like Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, the proposed DC/GM system will be able to operate in gasoline-only or electric-only modes, or blend power from both sources. But the fully geared, two-stage system should improve torque and performance at all speeds and applications, officials insisted.

“Our customers will experience the benefits of low fuel consumption with no sacrifice in performance or safety,” said Tom Stephens, head of GM’s powertrain operations.

Current hybrids generally perform best at lower speeds and in urban driving cycles. In some instances, they can actually yield lower mileage than gasoline-only vehicles when driven at freeway speeds. And because vehicles like the Prius and Escape Hybrid downsize their internal combustion engines to maximize mileage, they sacrifice payload and towing capacity.

Trio of hybrids

Together, DC and GM plan to develop three versions of their new technology, and expect them to be usable with a breadth of internal combustion engines in a wide range of front- and rear-drive products, and possibly in all-wheel-drive vehicles. Diesel and gasoline versions may be developed as well, suggested DaimlerChrysler board member Thomas Weber. This would permit the technology to be used all over the world, though the partners see the U.S. as their primary market.

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