I've seen some optimistic predictions about the rise of micro-hybrids, but Lux Research is offering the most bullish forecast so far. It says that sales -- driven by tightening carbon regulations -- will top three million worldwide this year and reach a dramatic 34 million by 2015. Although there are hardly any on American roads now, Lux says automakers looking for emissions gains will be selling 4.6 million annually in 2015 (when U.S. sales will still be a small part of the world market).
Micro-hybrids are regular gasoline cars with something extra: the start-stop technology seen on most hybrids today, plus regenerative braking as an optional extra. Micro-hybrids, which offer a 10 to 20 percent fuel economy and emissions savings, are an attractive solution for automakers because they're far cheaper than full hybrids. Jacob Grose, Lux Research senior analyst and the lead author of the report, says it costs just $300 to $1,500 to "micro-hybridize" a car.
Almost all micro-hybrid sales so far have been in Europe, with players that include Peugeot, CitroÃ«n, BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, Jeep and others. Ford, for instance, has a version of the European Mondeo with ECOnetic technology that can deliver 115 grams per kilometer of CO2, well within the EU goal of 120 grams per kilometer by 2012. An EcoBoost Focus with start-stop is coming (109 grams per kilometer on the 1.6-liter TDCi model), and the technology will be standard on the very small Ford Ka. Chrysler's Jeep Wrangler diesel has start-stop in Europe, and VW offers a range of BlueMotion cars.
But U.S. cars have to reach 250 grams per mile by 2016, so automakers here have an incentive, too. Nick Cappa, a Chrysler spokesperson, says the company is studying all types of electrification, including start-stop, for the U.S. market.
Ford's Jennifer Moore says the company hasn't announced its U.S. micro-hybrid strategy yet, but America is getting a Focus very similar to the European model. "We are doing global vehicles now, so we certainly have the opportunity to migrate it beyond Europe," she said. American micro-hybrid plans will probably become clear early next year.
"Micro-hybrids will be on the U.S. market in two or three years time," said Grose. "It's a really inexpensive way for automakers to satisfy emission targets. You have to compare it to EVs like the Nissan Leaf, whose battery pack will cost at least $15,000. Automakers will look at that and say, 'Wow, I can sell micro-hybrids much easier than I can battery EVs.'"
So far, American companies have mainly benefited as suppliers for foreign micro-hybrids. As I've reported, frequent start-stop is hard on traditional lead-acid batteries, so manufacturers are installing ultracapacitors (which can both accept and release a large electric charge quickly) as a substitute. Industry leader Maxwell recently announced that it is becoming a high-volume ultracapacitor supplier for PSA's Peugeot and CitroÃ«n micro-hybrids.
Ultracaps are most likely to be seen in the micro-hybrids that add regenerative braking to the mix, because of all the work the electric system will be required to do. It's a lot to ask of a lead-acid battery.
Grose says that most ultracapacitors perform similarly, but Maxwell has benefited from being a "first mover" that has scaled up manufacturing quickly and offered very competitive prices. A newcomer in the market, New York-based Ioxus, is challenging Maxwell's lead and says it has a next-generation product with more than double the power of previous ultracapacitors for auto applications. Mark McGough, the CEO of Ioxus and a former Maxwell executive, claimed it is "a more powerful version of what Maxwell sells."
McGough said in an interview that Lux's 34 million projection is "consistent with the projections we've been hearing from other sources in the industry. It doesn't faze us at all." He said the company is talking to automakers, but wouldn't reveal details. According to McGough, Ioxus is also looking at the bus market (already big for Maxwell) and light rail applications.
Grose said that it might be tough for Ioxus to snare an auto contract "because they're not as well known or as big as Maxwell." McGough would undoubtedly take issue with that, and his best countering move would be to wave an automaker's signature in front of Maxwell's face.
Micro-hybrids are a good technology for Third World countries, too. Mahindra has introduced start-stop on its small Scorpio SUV for the Indian market, as this video makes clear: