Plug-in hybrids are the future, but gasoline-driven cars aren’t giving up yet

When one technology sees a rival coming over the hill, it does not ordinarily just lie down and surrender — clunky cigarette-box-shaped cell phones persist  despite the feverish popularity of the smart phone, for example. So it will be with electric-propelled vehicles. Plug-in hybrids look likely to start small, then make a serious dent in ...

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

When one technology sees a rival coming over the hill, it does not ordinarily just lie down and surrender -- clunky cigarette-box-shaped cell phones persist  despite the feverish popularity of the smart phone, for example. So it will be with electric-propelled vehicles. Plug-in hybrids look likely to start small, then make a serious dent in the vehicle fleet in the 2030s -- forecasters think that half to 70 percent of new vehicles sold in 2030 in China will be electrics of some sort. But that does not mean the disappearance of gasoline-driven vehicles -- makers of vehicles using the internal combustion engine are already cooking up devilish upgrades now that they see competition nipping at their heels.

The latest rollout in this devilish category is Ford, which next year will roll out a gasoline-propelled Focus in Europe that it says can get 69 miles per gallon. How does this Focus (race car version pictured above) do so? By downsizing the engine to three cylinders, reports the London Independent.

It is interesting how efficient a car can become -- and how overall oil demand can plummet -- when the factor of economic extinction comes into play. BMW has unveiled a concept car called the i8, also featuring a three-cylinder engine but in this case hedging its bets -- this is a hybrid vehicle with a battery that alone can take the car for 20 miles.

When one technology sees a rival coming over the hill, it does not ordinarily just lie down and surrender — clunky cigarette-box-shaped cell phones persist  despite the feverish popularity of the smart phone, for example. So it will be with electric-propelled vehicles. Plug-in hybrids look likely to start small, then make a serious dent in the vehicle fleet in the 2030s — forecasters think that half to 70 percent of new vehicles sold in 2030 in China will be electrics of some sort. But that does not mean the disappearance of gasoline-driven vehicles — makers of vehicles using the internal combustion engine are already cooking up devilish upgrades now that they see competition nipping at their heels.

The latest rollout in this devilish category is Ford, which next year will roll out a gasoline-propelled Focus in Europe that it says can get 69 miles per gallon. How does this Focus (race car version pictured above) do so? By downsizing the engine to three cylinders, reports the London Independent.

It is interesting how efficient a car can become — and how overall oil demand can plummet — when the factor of economic extinction comes into play. BMW has unveiled a concept car called the i8, also featuring a three-cylinder engine but in this case hedging its bets — this is a hybrid vehicle with a battery that alone can take the car for 20 miles.

These are all signs of an industry undergoing a fundamental shakeup. In a way it is simply back to the future, writes Rohit Jaggi at the Financial Times, who notes that Porsche unveiled its first hybrid electric in 1900.

Look for the makers of gasoline-driven cars to dig in their heels with greater and greater efficiency. But the result of that seems likely be more robust plug-in hybrids. This blog has noted that it will be difficult for pure electrics to gain wide popularity since range-anxiety will persist, but the same does not hold for plug-in hybrids, which will calm nerves with a back-up gasoline engine. Even I am being forced to give up my clunky cellphone.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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