22 February 2013

Uganda: Time to Go Hybrid?

Reports from the 2013 Chicago Auto Show are buzzing about Kia Motors' latest hybrid offer; a crossover concept that, analysts say, points to its design direction.

Dubbed the Cross GT, the new South Korean SUV hybrid technology builds on Kia's parallel hybrid system to produce an all-electric range of about 30kms.

Hybrids typically combine a conventional petrol engine with an electric motor that work seamlessly together.

The electric motor operates as a generator to help recover surplus energy that would be wasted in a non-hybrid car, including from decelerating and braking. This rescued energy is stored in a high-power battery, which in turn can be used to power the car's wheels. In the new KIA technology, you get longer kilometres.

Secondly, the bonus from the efficiency of the two engines; electric and conventional, dove-tailing is a low CO2 aka greenhouse gases emission levels.

This development is important even for our dusty Kampala roads because it goes beyond the usual clean energy rhetoric. It offers a real promise that hybrid can make actual cost cuts in an era of high and volatile fuel pump prices especially for fleet managers. Although there are a few hybrid Toyotas, like the earlier Prius and Camrys, the technology has not caught on yet partly because of the initial investment. In the past, it has been difficult to recoup this investment over the long term. This is what led to the Prius selling point focusing on the green energy altruism.

Until as recently as two years ago, hybrid vehicles have been shown to be, in fact less fuel efficient than some diesel cars.

A 2011 study showed the Toyota's petrol-electric Prius, which kick-started the fashion for hybrids a decade ago, achieving fewer kilometres per litre than the diesel sporty BMW 3-series. The hybrid Honda Insight SE had an annual fuel bill just £25 ahead of the diesel Skoda Octavia Greenline II. But the Lexus RX 450h hybrid cost £78 cheaper than the diesel Volkswagen Touareg, and the Toyota' Auris Hybrid cost £129 less than the diesel Vauxhall Astra.

In a final analysis, therefore, it did not make financial sense to discerning customers in most cases to pay the premium most hybrids cost compared to a standard petrol or diesel model. The net saving was small but the point was made; the hybrid does not save money in fuel and costs you more on the initial buy.

So why would a Kampala, shell out a premium on a hybrid to cruise on our dusty roads?

According to online commentators, hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs) combine the benefits of gasoline engines and electric motors and can be configured to obtain different objectives, such as improved fuel economy, increased power, or additional auxiliary power for electronic devices and power tools.

Some of the advanced technologies typically used by hybrids include regenerative braking, which converts energy normally wasted during coasting and braking into electricity, which is stored in a battery until needed by the electric motor.

There is also, the Electric Motor Drive/Assist which provides additional power to assist the engine in accelerating, passing, or hill climbing. And finally, the Automatic Start/Shutoff, which saves energy by automatically shutting off the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop and restarting it when the accelerator is pressed.

Finally, part of the advantage of the hybrids could be in the tax regime that favours cars with low carbon emissions and of course, this being Kampala, is the issue of prestige.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we shall be seeing mass market issues of hybrid versions of popular cars any time soon. After decades of governments in major industrialised countries pressuring car makers to offer alternative-energy cars or risk being forced out of business altogether, the so-called 'green-fanaticism' is fading.

On online commentator wrote: "Ever since Toyota made a fortune out of selling its hybrid Prius to pious greens, hybrid power has been synonymous with a stodgy, self-righteous eschewal of any hint of style or excitement in cars." That is now changing too.

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