If anyone harbored any doubts that hybrid cars are hot, last week the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show put them to rest. Carmakers practically ran over one another promoting their versions in attempts to catch up with Honda and Toyota, the technology's pioneers. Companies such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, GM, Volkswagen and Porsche showed new models or talked about plans to sell them by the end of the decade at the latest. On display were not only regular hybrids, the kind powered by gasoline engines mated to electric motors, but also variations adding hydrogen to the mix and a system that puts electric motors at the wheels. The frenzy to churn out hybrids and their technological cousins is so fierce that archrivals GM, DaimlerChrysler and BMW have teamed up to build a research and technical center in the Detroit suburbs. And Ford is so desperate to fill 200 open jobs in its hybrid program that it's competing with Toyota to hire engineers from the software and aerospace industries. The stakes are high: Ford and GM announced third-quarter losses of nearly $2 billion combined last week, thanks in part to plunging sales of SUVs.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. economist to figure out why that's happening--just a stop at the gas station, where prices are roughly 25% higher than they were a year ago, and where, despite a slight easing as the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita recede, they will probably go higher still before too long. Home heating oil is 50% higher than last year too, and natural gas will probably jump similarly. Those dramatic increases, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in a speech last week, will create a significant drag on economic growth "from now on."
The silver lining, said Greenspan, is that as oil gets more expensive, other energy sources and technologies that use less oil will become more competitive. And that's exactly what's happening. Says Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize, the 1991 best seller about the history of oil: "There's a lot of technological innovation kind of bubbling that really has captured the imagination and obsession of a lot of people." The question is, Are we moving fast enough?
The good news is that as the price of crude has headed steadily upward, technological innovation has driven down the cost of alternative energy sources. Wind farms cover hillsides near Palm Springs and Altamont Pass in California and are springing up in the breezy Midwest and on the Atlantic Coast too. Solar cells can churn out electricity at around 25¢ to 35¢ per kilowatt-hour, falling but still a multiple of the cost of energy from coal-fired power plants. Canada is extracting oil from the tar sands of Alberta for an amazingly efficient price of $15 to $20 per bbl., and the technology exists to convert the U.S.'s huge supply of coal into petroleum. This process, called coal liquefaction, creates a fuel that could power cars and is starting to look economically feasible. Conservation, too, benefits from technology: auto companies are suddenly getting more serious about boosting mileage by replacing steel components with materials like strong, lightweight carbon fiber.