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. []