Auto/Economy
5:18 pm
Wed January 19, 2011

Chrysler to build experimental hybrid minivans

There’s more than one kind of hybrid vehicle. But most people only know about electric hybrids that use batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy has poured several billion dollars into helping companies develop advanced lithium-ion batteries.  But to hear Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne describe the effort, that's tantamount to picking a technology winner, before the race is finished.

The big problem with advanced batteries, says Marchionne, is they're really expensive. A big battery can increase the cost of a vehicle by a third.  

"And I don’t think we should prejudice the discussion by saying electrics are the answer," Marchionne said at a press event held at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor.  "They may be part of the answer."

Enter hydraulic hybrids. They tap into energy stored in high pressure canisters filled with fluid and nitrogen. They’re cheaper than electric hybrids, and already used in some big rigs and garbage trucks.

Now, using technology developed by the U.S. EPA., Chrysler will build and test a set of hydraulic hybrid minivans. The company hopes to see the same improvement in fuel efficiency as battery hybrids - about 30 to 35% -  but at a much lower cost.

Don't expect to ever see a hydraulic hybrid Fiat 500, joked Marchionne. Because the systems take up so much space, they are unlikely to ever be viable in a tiny minicar, and probably could only fit in big passenger vehicles like minivans and SUVs.