How many people would pay what price for a car that provides two weeks of average driving less than 10 gallons of gasoline and 50 miles operation on a charge of household electricity?
Potential manufacturers of that kind of automobile are asking just that question. If the answer comes up "a considerable number," the hybrid passenger car will reach the market.
Although most efforts to supplement gasoline- and diesel-engine vehicles with alternative power involves "pure" electrics, hybrids are emerging as stronger candidates , it seems, with every passing day.
At a recent technical conference, G. G. Harding, general manager of special projects for England's Lucas Industries Ltd., a major automotive-components supplier, said he believes "hybrid vehicles will be part of the longer-term automobile scene when fuel costs are very much higher than today."
The hybrid is attracting attention because of the soaring cost of petroleum fuel and the gnawing feeling that the pure battery-run car -- even those using the new generation of super batteries now under development -- will be too limited in performance and driving range to attract any great number of buyers.
The hybrid, on the other hand, is an automobile that can be driven on electricity for city driving and short hops, but also can run on normal gasoline or diesel fuel at high speed on long journeys.
One of the most advanced hybrid developments involves General Electric Company. Before the end of 1982 GE will deliver the first electric/gasoline-engine car built under contract to the Department of Energy. The gas power plant is a 40-horsepower Volkswagen engine. But principal propulsion comes from a battery-operated 40-hp. GE traction motor. The 12-volt batteries are supplied by Globe Union Inc.
Since the VW engine operates mostly at highway speeds, gasoline savings are high in that type of driving. The electric motor functions in city modes. Both systems operate in tandem during quick acceleration and hill climbing.
Dr. James M. Lafferty, manager of GE's power electronics laboratory, estimates the midsize car will have a range of 250 miles without refueling or battery recharging. Acceleration of zero to 50 m.p.h. in 12 seconds approximates conventional cars.
Fuel savings, he says, will be around 65 percent in city driving, 40 percent for typical city-highway operation.
At a Society of Automobile Engineers meeting here last month, Joel J. Sandberg of the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported that results of five hybrid-vehicle studes suggest "production of a hybrid passenger vehicle capable of performing a general-purpose family vehicle mission may be entirely feasible within a mid- 1980s time frame."
The hybrid, says Mr. Sandberg, could be competitive with a conventional internal-combustion-engine car in performance, driveability, comfort, and convenience, and be able to save 40 to 80 percent of the petroleum fuel used by the conventional vehicle.
But there is a price penalty estimated at $2,000 which, says Mr. Sandberg, "might be recovered by the hybrid owner in reduced operating expenses -- primarily fuel savings."
The key question is: How many people are willing to pay that price difference on the chance of making up the cost on fuel savings?
Mr. Sandberg adds: "When a manufacturer perceives the answer is 'many' and is confident its engineering staff can handle the development, we'll have commercially available hybrid passenger vehicles. "