To Russia with hybrids


Publish date: October 5, 2009

Written by: Boris Zhukov

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – Two remarkable events are making it a special time for the Russian car industry: First, Toyota introduced the Russian market to its Toyota Prius line. Then, Likino Bus Manufacturer (LiAZ) presented a new urban bus model, promising that a pilot batch of these vehicles will be delivered to cities already before the end of the year.

The remarkable about these two models is that both are equipped with hybrid electric engines.

The Prius line, in fact, started with the world’s first consumer-market hybrid car that became available to dealerships as long back as in 1997. (The Prius offered now on the Russian market is, of course, a next generation model). Up till now, the share of hybrid cars on the Russian market was taken up fully by the Lexus line luxury cars – the fact that a most popular, mainstream hybrid model such as the Prius would finally start making inroads into the market would suggest that average consumers may, too, now be showing an interest in cars of this type.

As for the new Likino bus model, a wholly domestic design dubbed LiAZ-5292X, its release clearly demonstrates that the Russian industry is finally finding its bearings in hybrid production. It is for the first time that the presence of hybrid models in Russia exceeds just the level of experimental designs – Russian car manufacturers and engineering schools have indeed come up with quite an array of those over the recent years – to be able to claim a sizable portion of the market as a fully developed mass-production line.  

But what is a hybrid car anyway? The term is applied to vehicles which run on a combination of a conventional – gasoline- or diesel-based – internal combustion engine and an electric propulsion system. The internal combustion system works both as the actual engine to power the car and as an electric generator that recharges the battery – which then feeds energy to the electric motor. This electric powertrain enables the driver to only use the internal combustion engine in a mode optimal for its operation – that is to say, at high speeds – which improves fuel economy significantly. At low speeds, the fuel-based engine shuts down and the car is powered by electric propulsion alone.

The electric motor itself can work as an electric power generator recharging the battery, which allows for a so-called “regenerative braking” – when decelerating, the vehicle’s kinetic energy is not wasted on rubbing away the tyres or as heat energy that gets emitted into the surrounding atmosphere, but is converted instead into battery-replenishing electric energy. As a result, a hybrid electric car is highly fuel-efficient. For instance, the 2008 Audi gas-electric model – Q7 Hybrid – has a fuel efficiency of 9.8 litres per 100 kilometres (around 20 miles per gallon), whereas its mass-production gas-only model equipped with the same V6 engine runs the same distance on 12.9 litres.

Combinations of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor have since the 1930s been used in railway trains – diesel-electric locomotives – and later on, in superheavy-duty tipper lorries. Research into applying hybrid technologies in passenger cars has been ongoing since the 1960s and 1970s. However, the task of operating such a system under the conditions of a very uneven load – inevitable when driving in the city – proved such a hard nut to crack for engineers that solutions appeared only with computerisation. Commercial-scale hybrid car production started in the late 1990s.
By then, environmental concerns, too, came to play a noticeable part in consumers’ preferences: Enhanced fuel economy means less exhaust discharged into the surrounding atmosphere. It is furthermore important for big city dwellers that the internal combustion engine turns to idle mode while in traffic jams. In addition, hybrid cars emit less carbon dioxide, which is a major factor in global warming. The well-known international consulting company McKinsey predicts that by 2020, around 15 percent of all heavy-load transport vehicles and ten to 15 percent of passenger cars will be equipped with gas-electric propulsion systems.

bodytextimage_prius.jpeg Photo: toyota

Yet, in the United States, the world’s undeniably most “well-wheeled” nation, the hybrids only account for a little over 2 percent of all new car sales. Along with all the advantages hybrid cars have over their gas-only counterparts, there are certain drawbacks to consider as well.  

No matter what all other specifications may be, the dual-engine system will inevitably be more expensive than a single-engine one, thus spelling a more formidable price tag in total. The very Toyota Prius that is currently making its way to Russian consumers comes at a price of $20,000 on the American market, while other models in the same class cost $7,000 to $8,000 less.

True, the one-time all-out big expenditure invested into a hybrid car does promise a nice return in fewer dollars spent on gasoline. But as global sales show, this factor alone is not yet enough to convince the average consumer: Hybrid cars only start taking up a larger market share in such countries where the state makes sure financial incentives are in place to stimulate the buyer’s interest. For instance, in certain countries, hybrid owners are exempt from paying the road use tax or parking fees in municipal parking areas.

To make matters more complicated, a hybrid car for now remains a high-maintenance item: It’s not every mechanic shop even in the U.S. that will agree to take a hybrid car in for a repair. Batteries only show a stable performance when operating in a rather narrow temperature range and are prone to self-discharging. Finally, replacing a conventional car battery with a powerful hybrid one is associated with the unavoidable increase in the amount of spent electrolyte – one of the most dangerous and harmful environmental pollutants.

In Russia, all of these problems will inevitably let themselves manifest – and then some. No state support for hybrid technologies exists in Russia or can be expected to emerge at any time in the near future. Nor could Russian consumers avail themselves of an efficient – if any at all – system to dispose of used-up batteries, which would mean that all of the added electrolyte flushed out of old batteries will end up directly in ground waters or rivers or, at best, in landfills.
Furthermore, it is still very rare for the Russian middle class to show any personal responsibility for the state of the environment – not sincerely, nor even for appearances’ sake – while “going green” remains a major motivation in choosing a hybrid for car buyers in developed nations. Even the undisputed advantages that would make hybrid cars so attractive in Russia are bound to have a certain flip-side for Russian consumers: High performance means low generation of exhaust heat, which makes the traditional method of interior warm-air supply an additional problem to deal with.

Alexander Pikulenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on the automotive industry and the host of several shows on all things automobile on the popular national Ekho Moskvy radio station, believes that in light of all of the above hybrid gas-electric cars are in for rather dim prospects on the Russian market. As for hybrid buses, much depends on how many municipalities in the country will find themselves capable of stocking their public transport fleet with these environmentally friendly vehicles, since these buses will obviously prove more expensive than conventional ones.
In Pikulenko’s opinion, however, the world is gradually losing interest in hybrids anyway, as consumers were thrilled about the innovation when oil prices were sky-high, but the general excitement subsided when oil prices went down again. Besides, certain major global automakers, such as Volkswagen, have just as successfully released conventional diesel- or gas-based models with fuel-efficiency or ecological-footprint scores quite on par with those of hybrid models. And as for concept cars demonstrated at largest autoshows, most of these today are represented by electric models running on the clean energy of fuel cells.