Back in 2010, I was invited to an early tech workshop to better understand the powertrain that PSA Peugeot Citroën was pinning its future hopes on: Hybrid4. Unlike Toyota and Honda with their HSD and IMA gasoline-electric creations, which were finding favor with early tech adopters, environmentalists and even Hollywood stars the world over, PSA was going down its own path: diesel-electric.
Wow, I thought. Brave, not just because it was the first car maker to wade into this commercially unknown pool, but because Hybrid4 also represented a lifetime investment of over US$532m. That might be small fry for, say, Volkswagen Group with its large flexing muscles, but for PSA, at that time, this was a lot of chips at the table. Some 300 patents were filed for the world’s first diesel hybrid system; 1,500 engineers worked on the project and the technology was tested to the equivalent of 5,000,000km.
Two years later PSA launched it, first in the Peugeot 3008 and 508 and then Citroën DS5. The hope was to shift more than 40,000 units per year by 2013.
In short, they didn’t. And by 2015, PSA announced plans to kill off Hybrid4, as a change in strategy meant it would pursue gasoline hybrids and plug-ins that replace e-TDi. Shame really, because, on paper at least, a diesel hybrid makes much sense. Match one efficient, low-torque, long-lasting engine with another instant torque, zero local emissions powertrain. It was like 1 + 1 equaling 10. Except there were a few problems.
Firstly, in the real world Hybrid4 wasn’t anywhere near as refined, sophisticated or as good as HSD and IMA. And unlike those other two operating systems, this really was a powertrain just for Europe. The other pressing issue was with the technology as a whole. “The problem with diesel hybrid is you’re putting one really expensive engine technology on top of another really expensive engine technology. It’s not easy to make margins from that,” Fritz Henderson said to me back in 2008 when he was vice chairman of GM.
Since Hybrid4, a number of other car makers have dipped their toe into this pool. Volvo launched a diesel plug-in, which I was rather impressed with, but that has since been overtaken by the brilliant gasoline-hybrid Twin Engine. Mercedes-Benz also offers a diesel-hybrid option, albeit a different system to Volvo’s, in the E-Class.
It’s a shame, but I’m skeptical as to just how many more diesel powertrain developments we’ll see going forward. There are just too many (better) competing technologies that are cheaper to develop and produce.
And that leads me on to the next point. For me, this year has been a real turning point for battery electric vehicles. Car makers are now openly discussing realistic driving ranges of 480-640km (300-400 miles) for next-gen BEVs. And that’s not some sort of future vision for the rich and wealthy: the Jaguar I-Pace might boast that kind of mileage from one charge, but look at the numbers associated with, say, the revised Renault Zoe and VW e-Golf.
We’re finally entering an age where range anxiety, a term I never really grasped, shouldn’t be a thing, and where a BEV can be the main family car, not a second or third runner to the IC models also on the drive.
And this all ultimately means hybrids, in general, not just the diesel ones, could be on their way out. The 400-mile-plus BEV is here, at last, and you just know that range will get even better with time.