General Motors Corp. will announce today plans to begin producing as many as 1 million gas-electric hybrid cars and trucks a year -- a challenge to the leadership role that Japanese carmakers have held in the race to bring such technology to the marketplace.
GM's strategy is to offer hybrids in its most popular models, including gas-guzzling trucks and sport utilities, to pump up sales volume and quickly amortize development costs.
The company says that it doesn't expect its hybrids, after federal and state tax incentives are applied, to cost much more than traditional vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.
California, with its strict air pollution laws, is a huge target market for hybrids.
Some analysts suggest that the world's biggest automaker is coming late to the party, noting that the Southern California-based U.S. units of Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. have sold gas-electric hybrids for two years.
GM "is clearly responding to the early lead that the Asians have held," said Thad Malesh, director of the Alternate Power Technologies Practice at J.D. Power and Associates, a Westlake Village automotive market research firm.
But GM says its timing is just right.
"None of these new technologies matter if they don't sell in high volumes," said Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research, development and planning, during an interview Sunday at the Detroit Auto Show.
Toyota and Honda each sell about 20,000 of their five-passenger compact hybrids annually, many of them in the Golden State. But Burns considers the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic and Insight hybrids to be cars that fill a tiny niche rather than appeal to the broad mass of consumers.
He also maintains that GM will be doing more for the environment by improving fuel economy on tens of thousands of fuel-gulping trucks and SUVs than the import brands are doing by increasing mileage on already fuel-efficient small cars.
Hybrids use two or more power sources, usually a gasoline engine augmented by one or more electric motors. Some, called "mild" hybrids, use the electric motors for auxiliary power and to restart the gas engines that shut down when the vehicle stops.
Beefier "full" hybrids also use the electric drive to provide extra power, when climbing hills or passing other vehicles, for example. The Toyota Prius also can provide low-speed propulsion in an all-electric mode.
GM will be the first U.S. automaker to hit the market with "mild" hybrid models of its GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups available late this year as 2004 models.
Initially the systems are expected to improve fuel economy by about 12%. But Burns said that the company later will add its "displacement on demand" engine management system, which shuts down half the cylinders on V-8 and V-6 engines at highway cruising speeds. That will bring total fuel savings on the hybrid pickups to 20%, he said.
Ford Motor Co. has said it will begin selling a hybrid version of its Escape small SUV in 2005, and DaimlerChrysler is planning a hybrid Dodge Ram pickup at about the same time. Toyota is expected to unveil plans this week for a hybrid SUV that would sell in 2006 or later.
By then, however, GM will have launched a "full" hybrid model of its Saturn Vue compact SUV, featuring a dual electric motor system designed to improve the sport utility vehicle's mileage by 50%, to about 40 miles per gallon.
GM also will include a "mild" hybrid option with about 15% fuel savings on its forthcoming Chevy Equinox SUV in 2006 and its Chevy Malibu sedan in 2007.
"We want to make the hybrid just one more powertrain option for consumers," Burns said.
The proliferation of large trucks and SUVs in the last decade has increased average fuel consumption, and that, in turn, has created demand for the auto industry to improve fuel efficiency while continuing to reduce emissions.
Burns said GM considers hybrid technology an economically viable bridge to the fuel-cell power plants that major automakers see as the ultimate replacement for the internal combustion engine. Fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen and, depending on its source, can be the key to a zero-emission vehicle.
Burns on Sunday reiterated GM's promise to have fuel-cell vehicles ready for the market by 2010 if there is a fuel supply system in place to support them.