'Micro Hybrids' The Next Big Thing, Less Costly Than Mild Hybrids?

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2012 Buick Regal with eAssist

2012 Buick Regal with eAssist

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Not all hybrids are created equal. In fact, several different types are sold throughout the automotive industry, all offering varying economical benefits and priced at varying levels.

Technology and innovation firm Johnson Controls Inc. suggests there's room for even more, and the next big thing in hybrids could be 'micro hybrids', according to M Live.

We've traditionally known 'micro hybrid' as a catch-all term for vehicles with stop-start technology.

They don't really feature two different powertrains, as the term hybrid traditionally implies, but they're thrown in under the umbrella due to the small economy benefits offered.

For Johnson Controls, a micro hybrid is slightly different.

Here, it's more similar to mild hybrids--vehicles with an electric motor and battery pack for assistance and energy capture, but those which can't drive on electricity alone unlike a full hybrid--but using a lower-voltage power source.

Current mild hybrids, like GM's eAssist system or Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) work at high voltage--100 volts for a Honda Insight, for example. While this poses no thread to the average vehicle user, it does mean extra expense and protection measures to ensure the electrical system can't cause harm to emergency responders and others who may come into contact with the car.

The new micro hybrids will operate similarly to mild hybrids, but use a lower-voltage system--less than 60 volts.

Without the risk of potentially dangerous electrocution, the systems can be much simpler and less expensive, cost savings which can then be passed to consumers.

According to MaryAnn Wright from Johnson Controls--who previously worked on Ford's Escape Hybrid program--such systems paired with stop-start engine technology could improve the average vehicle's fuel economy by 15 to 20 percent.

Wright believes the cost of current hybrids still keeps most buyers away (despite the success of models like Toyota's Prius) and that micro hybrids will offer a much better economy and cost balance. With cheaper batteries, they'll alleviate customer fears of expensive battery replacements too--even if those fears aren't really based on the reality of such systems.

You might be unsurprised to discover that Johnson Controls has a stake in such technology, so you're free to take their comments with a pinch of salt.

However, with mild hybrid technology already expected to grow over the coming years to bridge the gap between regular vehicles and full hybrids, low-voltage, less expensive micro hybrids might win that battle before it even starts.


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Comments (8)
  1. I've been saying for a few years now that these mild hybrid systems should be standard issue on all vehicles. An increase of 2 or 3 mpg across the entire fleet starts to add up to big potatoes. As far as the mild hybrid system itself, it sounds like Johnson Controls has a better approach at utilizing a low voltage.

  2. One of the most wasteful and irritating situations is the slow and intermittent movement in a traffic queue, where most drivers leave their engines idling. It would take very little power, maybe 200-300W, to move the car forward at up to say 5mph on level ground. This could be supplied by modified versions of the existing battery, starter motor and gearbox, at relatively minimal cost. The ic engine could be automatically turned off, to be restarted when conditions required it. That's what I think of as a 'micro hybrid', and I want want it!

  3. Mike you can have it, buy a hybrid! They work perfectly because they are engineered for results. The fear I have is public rejection of half cocked versions giving poor results. Several BMW owners have revealed to me they wouldn't buy another start/stop due to problems, Even in the full hybrid range there are poor performers due to different systems dictated by patent laws protecting the ideal systems. A minimal stop start sys will not power the car in a intermittent situation and would become irritating for the driver which I found with the original Honda Insight. Another aspect is A/C power which if driven electrically as in a Prius adds to the expense, might as well do a full hybrid and get all the benefits.

  4. It is no brainer if it cost less than $500 and don't affect interior space, quality or performance.

  5. Antony you mention...Without the risk of potentially dangerous electrocution,...I realise the word potential was there but it still infers a negative aspect towards full hybrids or electrics. Maybe you could tell us how many people have been electrocuted by these cars. This reminds me of a recent article in a national paper extoling the virtues of LPG cars with the writer grabbing attention with a headline saying "LPG makes battery power look flat" with no other content on electric until the last line which said- "and shows how much work battery power has to do". He obviously has a problem with EVs to only bring them into the equation without justification.

  6. Hi Don,

    The implication wasn't so much that people get electrocuted by these vehicles, more than the manufacturers have to put in place expensive and heavy systems to make sure such a thing doesn't happen.

    In other words, they're perfectly safe, but only because you're paying a premium for all the legislated safety systems they include. This lower-voltage hybrid system would side-step this since the potential for lethal voltage wouldn't be as high.

  7. MaryAnn is correct about the cost of current hybrids keeping consumers away, with the one exception being the Prius C, which by my calculations has a low enough price to give consumers greater cost savings in fuel than the premium they pay for the technology. We will see how much cost get's passed on to consumers with regard to the microhybrids. If they are low enough in price then yes, they will be more readily accepted. There are two true EVs which are of good value for consumers though, the Leaf and the I-miev. Both are low enough in cost to allow overall savings(with the one qualifier being that a person should have both a sufficiently long enough commute to maximize fuel savings but short enough such that the battery doesn't wear out)

  8. Full hybrids give the driver a taste of electric car operation. This luxury has value beyond the fuel saving. Sitting at a stop light with nothing happening but electric air conditioning is nice. No engine vibration in the steering wheel is great. My non hybrid cars seem so wasteful now.

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