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Honda's new EV-N concept debuted at the Tokyo Auto Show last week.  (Source: AutoBlog Green)

Honda announced that it may be switching gears and launching EVs of its own. That would leave Toyota as the only automaker without EV plans -- and the only automaker to be focusing chiefly on hydrogen.  (Source: Eco Auto Ninja)
Honda's CEO says a plug-in is a real possibility in the near future

Honda and Toyota bet big on two things -- hybrids in the short term and hydrogen fuel cells in the long term.  For Toyota, the first bet has added up to 2 million units in sales and big profits.  And while Honda, which was the first to release a commercial hybrid in the U.S. initially saw the attempt flop, it now has a new second generation model -- the 2010 Honda Insight.

The latter market, though -- hydrogen vehicles -- remains unproven and expensive.  And with federal funding drying up for hydrogen research and pouring into the electric vehicle industry, Toyota and Honda are placed in a tough position.  What makes it tougher is all the major U.S. automakers have plans to debut electric vehicles by 2012, as does Japanese competitor Nissan.  Even the Germans are looking to get in on the action, with Mercedes and Volvo both sporting electric concepts and cooking up commercial plans.

Now it appears that Honda may become the second to last of the major international automakers to jump on the electric vehicle bandwagon.  Honda debuted a fastidious and tidy little EV at the Tokyo Auto Show a mere week ago.  The vehicle features swappable seat fabrics, a solar roof, and an embedded "communications system".

However, Honda has dropped an even more tantalizing hint that it might be reaching for the plug -- and jumping into the EV market.  CEO Takanobu Ito told Reuters that his company is considering a major policy shift, moving away from hydrogen and instead moving to launch a mass-produced electric vehicle in Europe, Japan, U.S.

Honda admits that the considered switch is largely due to frustrations concerning the hydrogen infrastructure.  It says that stations are being installed too slowly to deploy to even parts of the U.S. in the short term.  And it fears that without EVs it will be unable to meet California's strict emissions regulations.

The news puts Toyota in a precarious position.  While Toyota is the world's largest automaker, and an incredibly successful firm, if Honda switches, it will literally be defying the entire market and calling them on their electric vehicle bet, hoping it fails.  If it doesn't, Toyota will be left on its own trying to deploy hydrogen to Europe, the U.S., and Japan.  And it will be left hoping that EV sales don't showcase the strong growth that some analysts are predicting.

Meanwhile the news is welcome for American automakers.  While a Honda entry would clutter the emerging auto market, it would be acknowledgment that the Big Three made the right call for once.  It would also leave Honda playing catch up to Ford, GM, and Chrysler all of which have spent the last few years crafting electric vehicle designs.  That's a position the U.S. automakers would undoubtedly love to maintain if they can keep it up.

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By Solandri on 10/22/2009 8:37:27 AM , Rating: 2
Uh oh! Another one of these hybrid is a "performance car" people. Your car is not quick, sporty, fast, or great handling. It is what it is dude. Be happy with it without trying to make it into something it's not. I drove eco cars for many years and I didn't think they were anything than what they were.

While I agree that most hybrids aren't geared towards performance, the hybrid does solve a performance problem which has been vexing the auto industry for decades. Your car only needs about 25 horsepower to cruise at highway speeds. So why do people want cars with hundreds of horsepower? For acceleration - quickly getting up to speed from a stop, and for passing.

The problem is, you can only optimize the engine design for one RPM. If you optimize it around 25 horsepower (best highway mpg), then it will have (for its displacement) poor peak horsepower (and thus poorer acceleration characteristics than similar-sized competing engines). If you optimize it for peak horsepower, then it will suffer in mpg during cruise. Most car engines settle for a compromise which gives you a bit of both. One attempt to lick this problem has been the CVT (continously variable transmission), but the mechanical linkages just aren't strong enough to transmit the high horsepower of anything but eco-model cars.

The hybrid solves this problem. You optimize the engine for the 25 hp cruise (actually a little more so you can divert some power to recharging the batteries). And you use battery power as a kicker for when the driver wants 100+ hp for acceleration. If you made a hybrid with a big enough battery and electric motor, you could have 300-400 hp on tap for acceleration thus making it quite the performance car, while the vehicle's engine was still optimized for cruise hp thus preserving mpg.

Honda tried just this with its Accord hybrid. Unfortunately it seems people weren't willing to pay extra for the hybrid drivetrain which gave roughly the same peak horsepower as the regular Accord, albeit with moderately better gas mileage. Whereas people wanting substantially better mileage are willing to pay for the hybrid drivetrain. Another problem is that the low rolling friction tires tend to be rather hard and not conducive to good cornering characteristics.

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