Not too long ago the car makers where competing with each other on performance—mainly measured by horsepower and acceleration. Fuel economy did not have high attention in the benchmarks for premium cars. This has changed recently and fuel economy is suddenly a major trait that every OEM has on its list.
This trend was not only driven by environmental regulations of various governments but the fuel price itself. Also consumer behaviors have changed a lot and our society is undergoing a paradigm change with regards to our transportation concepts and mobility behavior.
These days more and more new car customers are looking at the datasheets and specifications for fuel consumption and emissions. The prestige and image of many cars are now largely driven by its benchmark fuel efficiency and emission values rather the pure horsepower backed driving performance and acceleration. So this changing consumer behavior and the strong government involvement via rules, regulations and incentives for environmentally friendly cars leads the automotive market towards a new generation of cars to satisfy this trend of “green transportation”. And that’s the main reason why hybrid-electric Vehicles (HEVs) are showing up in every fleet and product line of the major car manufacturers.
What we often forget, especially here in the U.S., is that fuel efficiency and low emissions are not only achieved via revolutionary game-changing technologies like the emission-free electric powertrain of a hybrid vehicle. Looking at the fuel efficiency of currently available or shortly announced HEVs, you would be surprised that this fuel efficiency can be pretty closely matched by a modern diesel engine using state-of-the-art direct fuel injection systems and an electronically controlled and well optimized motor control unit. The big difference comes with the price "bump up" for the technology that the buyer pays.
A diesel engine typically adds only moderat cost compared to a comparable gasoline engine (in the range of approximately $1-2,000). The price adder of HEVs vs their traditional standard combustion engine version is normally at least 2-3 times as high. The reason for this is that hybrid-electric vehicles need to incorporate a complete electric powertrain plus all the energy management and storage systems, a high voltage battery, and plenty of electric systems like inverter, converter, and charger applications into the vehicle architecture.
Therefore the additional electronic content in a HEV is much higher than the little electronics in the motor control unit plus some diagnostic and monitoring sensors which are needed to build a very efficient direct fuel injection system for a modern diesel aggregate in a much more cost effective way.
Checking the numbers
Let’s look at the table below, which shows the average highway fuel consumption in miles/gallon of HEVs vs diesel. There is not much difference between similar sized and powered diesel and HEV cars. The emission values of those cars are also in a comparable range. Only the pure city consumption of the HEVs seems to be superior since the HEV-engine typically shuts down (so called start-stop mode) every time the car is stopped in a traffic jam or at red lights. But adding relatively low cost start-stop functionality to a regular diesel engine (so called micro-hybrid) would push the diesel city mileage likely into the same range as the one advertised for gasoline-HEVs.
Looking at these numbers the diesel solutions could offer quite some threat to the penetration of HEVs. In countries in Europe where diesel is a well established engine type and the consumer acceptance is at least as high for gasoline powered aggregates we see already a very strong market penetration of diesel while HEVs seem to sell much harder compared to U.S. or Japan, for example.