COMMENT: German industry needs to meet hybrid challenge

Arjen Bongard is editor of Automotive News Europe, and acting editor for Automobilwoche

In the beginning there was the particle filter: With a slick advertising campaign, Peugeot took the lead on the issue and eventually forced Germany's hesitant automakers to begin offering this technology.

Now it seems as though the whole thing will be repeated with the hybrid drive. Only this time the leading manufacturer is Toyota. With the second-generation Prius, Toyota has already established itself as the trailblazer for one of the most interesting technical innovations in recent years.

And once again German auto manufacturers are grudgingly following suit. At the Frankfurt auto show, for example, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen displayed their hybrid concept vehicles and diligently discussed the prospects for this technology. Unfortunately, it was a couple of years too late.

Guilty conscience?

The feeling that they were playing catch-up has even brought competitors BMW, Mercedes and General Motors together in a hybrid alliance. "The entire industry has a guilty conscience on this," ventured the newsmagazine Focus on its Internet pages.

But this certainly isn't a question of having a bad conscience. Rather it's that automakers are realizing, to their amazement, that the market expects more than the choice between a gasoline engine and a diesel.

At the same time, it is not at all clear right now whether hybrid powertrains are a lasting solution or just a temporary phenomenon on the road to hydrogen engines or fuel cells.

The current focus on hybrid technology can be explained by high fuel prices and Germany's difficulties with particulate emissions. Not to mention the fact that Toyota has managed to position hybrid drives as the first choice for customers who especially care about the environment.

Market demand

But how great, really, is the hybrid advantage? It is almost exclusively in stop-and-go city traffic that hybrids save appreciable amounts of fuel. And, compared to gasoline or diesel powertrains, there are significantly higher costs for hybrid development and production.

But, from now on, mere argument counts for little. The market is demanding hybrid vehicles because they have a clean image and are something completely new.

All of this has nothing to do with technology. But market-oriented companies now have to align themselves with their customers' wishes or they run the risk that competitors will reap the rewards.

But the whole hybrid story doesn't only have a downside for the German auto industry. That's because automakers are being forced to develop alternatives more quickly. For example, VW wants to distinguish itself with super-efficient direct injection for gasoline engines, and competitor Opel is increasingly betting on natural-gas vehicles.

Although it now looks as though German manufacturers jumped on board the hybrid train too late, they may have the last laugh in the end. That would be the case if they counter that current trailblazer with absolutely industry-leading hybrid drives, using their proverbial competence at generating the highest possible technological performance.

Otherwise, one can only hope that they won't sleep through the next trend.

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