It Was Never About the Mileage

2009 GMC Sierra Hybrid Crew Cab

I was dismayed and slightly infu­ri­ated to find that the GMC Sierra Hybrid has been axed for 20141, but wasn’t at all surprised.

The prob­lem with the Sierra Hybrid, a full-size pickup truck (and its nearly iden­ti­cal brother, the Yukon SUV), was that it was created for Amer­i­cans and appre­ci­ated only by engi­neers. When you think about how little pickup-need­ing construc­tion work most engi­neers do, that already-minus­cule inter­sec­tion makes for an pretty nonex­is­tent market. In fact, consid­er­ing GM vehi­cles are designed by Amer­i­can engi­neers2, I’m surprised this kind of market­ing disas­ter doesn’t happen more often3.

Let me demon­strate. What’s the ques­tion that’s been been on your mind since you found out about this hybrid pickup truck?

Yeah, “what kind of miles do you get to the gallon?”

But actu­ally consider the Yukon Hybrid. Compared to a stan­dard simi­larly-equipped good ol’ inter­nal-combus­tion Yukon, it’s some­where between $3000–$6000 more and weighs 262lb. On top of a ~$50,000 sticker and 5694lb curb weight, those are noth­ing. Here’s what you get in return:

  • Two 60kW elec­tric motors, which produce maxi­mum torque at a dead stop (no clutch needed, unlike the IC engine which produces peak torque at 4100RPM)
  • A NiMH battery pack that fits under the rear seats, taking up no addi­tional space, and which can provide enough juice to get to 30mph under pure silent elec­tric power
  • A contin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion (CVT) that juggles the torques from the motors to opti­mize the output of the 6.0L V8

It’s an engineer’s wet dream; the hybrid system truly enhances the vehi­cle perfor­mance in areas that matter to people who buy trucks and SUVs: accel­er­a­tion (torque) and towing capac­ity (torque, but also power), with­out compro­mise. Heck, older versions of the Sierra even had 120VAC outlets, which is hilar­i­ously like having the reverse of a plug-in hybrid system, but seems genuinely useful for e.g. a contrac­tor with corded power tools or some­body living in a remote area with flakey power.

HEV charging a BEV... wait, what?

Sadly, consumers and jour­nal­ists remain strapped to the myth that hybrids must be slow and small, and that their only reason to exist is to save gas, forc­ing carmak­ers to pander to that fiction. People simply don’t stop think why you’d build a second trac­tion system into a car; instead, they file away hybrids as it were some expen­sive, heavy gadget that magi­cally (and only) reduces the amount of gas used.

For exam­ple, people expect hybridiz­ing to be appro­pri­ate only for vehi­cles small and light. I mean, if you’re buying a hybrid, you must only want to save gas, and to have extra capac­ity obvi­ously ruins the entire vehi­cle. Truth is, it’s actu­ally more diffi­cult and less effec­tive to hybridize a light vehicle—one of the reasons why you don’t see any motor­cy­cles sport­ing extra batter­ies and motors—while throw­ing even a ton (1000 pounds) of batter­ies, motors, and motor controllers onto anything in our “light truck” cate­gory won’t really make a huge differ­ence in weight and space.

My first knowl­edge of hybrid trucks was when I spoke to Jerry Meisel, who had advised the Geor­gia Tech FutureTruck team. For what­ever reason, the Depart­ment of Energy (DOE) decided more than a decade ago4 to invite univer­sity teams to build the most eco-friendly vehi­cles possi­ble, given a toolkit consist­ing of a Ford Explorer5 and $10,000.

FT03

Three years after the compe­ti­tion began, the GT team began to miss the point completely6 and had instead crammed150kW motor onto the front of their Explorer, then chose the “largest V6 that would fit” to power the rear axle. Although the “FutureWreck” showed it was capa­ble of “takin’ off like greased light­nin'” at the Michi­gan prov­ing grounds, it took no higher than fourth place. I’ll let Jerry himself explain why:

“Even though [our entry] really performed better than any other power­train, [the judges] were look­ing for designs that had some combi­na­tion of a diesel engine, the use of an alter­nate fuel to gaso­line and some aggres­sive weight reduc­tion by replac­ing the stock steel frame,” said Profes­sor Jerry Meisel. “We more than met the competition’s stated goals in actual oper­a­tion, but had none of these unstated approaches in our design.”

At least it took home the award for accel­er­a­tion.

Georgia Tech stirs up the precision portion of the off-road event

Why the market remains convinced that hybrid systems are for ugly feath­er­weight cars with rubbish names is a mystery to me. Consider this: modern elec­tric trac­tion systems are so power­ful, Jaguar built a £1 million super­car where they were the only source of propul­sion. General Dynam­ics and BAE are build­ing armored mili­tary vehi­cles, includ­ing even battle tanks, propelled by elec­tric power. Their appli­ca­tions in the mili­tary espe­cially high­light the subtler auxil­iary bene­fits of modern motors beyond their unholy torque ratings: flex­i­ble power rout­ing, whis­per-quiet oper­a­tion, low parts count, and solid reli­a­bil­ity.

Power Up GCV Infographic

In fact, I should note that some­body involved with the General Dynam­ics project was who had first filled me in on the Yukon. You know who you are—thanks man and sorry for ripping you off. Doing research on this was hard!

The knee-jerk confla­tion between “hybrid” and “fuel effi­ciency,” along with “weak perfor­mance” and “sissy,” lead almost directly to the down­fall of every past hybrid or elec­tric high-perfor­mance vehi­cle. It even plagues cham­pi­onship-winning Le Mans cars, where the advan­tage of the elec­tric half isn’t one of fuel effi­ciency (though increased endurance obvi­ously helps), but is in fact an incred­i­ble advan­tage in any race: the abil­ity to absorb energy other­wise lost to brak­ing, then use it as a boost say, at the exit of a corner. This use even has a name: kinetic energy recov­ery system (KERS), other­wise known as “regen­er­a­tive brak­ing.”

Yet the jour­nal­ists and the media jumps on the hybrid bit like it’s all about saving the planet. Liter­ally:

Engad­get: Audi’s e-Tron becomes the first hybrid to win Le Mans, saves the planet at the same time

Guys, I think you still missed the part where they won the race with this tech. They didn’t throw a motor in there to wave their engi­neer­ing penis around, prov­ing they can win “despite” using a hybrid—even if they are Audi—it was there because it made their car go faster.

The sooner we embrace elec­tric as the future of auto perfor­mance, whether on the race­track or at the work­site, the sooner their other goal can be met: actu­ally saving the planet. No matter how parsi­mo­nious Volts are with emis­sions, it won’t matter if BEVs and PHEVs are only 5% of the market by 2040. We need people to drive hybrids and then electrics in every sector of the market, from people-carrier commuters to hatch­back hoon­mo­biles to soccer mom armored child deliv­ery systems.

Light Duty Vehicle Sales & Efficiency

And that’s accord­ing to Exxon­Mo­bil.

  1. By the way, how did we get to the point where cars are announced two years ahead of their model years? []
  2. A species becom­ing steadily endan­gered, as any current tech school student can attest to. []
  3. As an aside, the vehi­cles in ques­tion are not only Amer­i­can, but USAian too: the hybrid contin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion (CVT) is produced in Balti­more, the Sierra is assem­bled at Fort Wayne and Flint, while the Yukon is assem­bled at Arling­ton. []
  4. When Hummer, then newly owned by GM, was all the rage. []
  5. At first a Chevy Subur­ban, to be fair. By the way, I’m not really a GM fan, beyond hoping (as a taxpayer) that they do well enough in the next 12–15 months that we don’t take a full $10 billion loss on the bailout. []
  6. As is fitting to tradi­tion; I’m pretty sure the whole point of the school is to miss it. I’m proud of that. []