Final Inspection

Don’t Shoot; the Messenger’s Really an Environmentalist

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Johan de Nysschen may not be anti-hybrid, but he has been saddled with that reputation.

More than once the Audi of America chief has been featured as the counterpoint voice in stories touting the potential growth of hybrids and the promising future for electric vehicles.

But de Nysschen says he doesn’t really have anything against battery power. Nor does the company he works for, which is planning a slate of electrified vehicles and seeking to lead the sector by 2018.

In fact, later this year, Audi will roll out its first hybrid, a version of the Q5, and its top U.S. executive no doubt will be singing the new model’s high-mileage virtues as soon as it hits showrooms. An all-electric rendition of the R8 sports car is due in 2012.

So in a recent interview, de Nysschen jumped at the chance to explain his seemingly conflicted position. And while it may be a tough message for EV zealots to accept, it’s hard to argue with the Audi chief’s stance, as firmly grounded in reality as it is.

“That annoys me,” de Nysschen says of his anti-hybrid label. “There is no simple answer (to the future of hybrids and EVs). And when you selectively isolate part of the reply, then it is easy to continue to reinforce this position that I’m anti-hybrid or that Audi is anti-hybrid.

“For us, if we look to find a solution in the long term where we can all have zero-emission vehicles, then electrically powered cars will feature very prominently in that solution.”

The problem, de Nysschen says, is that many EV advocates are ignoring current marketplace realities, and government policy that promotes battery-powered cars without considering where the electricity will come from is just a lot of smoke and mirrors.

“An electrically powered car is zero emissions only if your source of the energy is zero emissions,” he says. “It’s no good we develop cars and say we’re going to sell several million and now the emissions is someone else’s (namely the utility companies’) problem. That would be socially irresponsible. And so we have to convey this information; people need to realize it.”

Technical hurdles also remain. A recent Boston Consulting study indicates battery range and cost will continue to limit EV volumes through the next decade, and buyers who choose battery-powered cars may find they never recoup their initial investment with the money they save on fuel.

De Nysschen agrees, advocating more dollars get funneled into other fuel-efficiency initiatives with better near-term prospects.

“I have no doubt we will find a solution way beyond lithium-ion. But the solution is not five years away; it is probably 20 years away. And the real question is: What do we do (environmentally) between now and 20 years when we’ve found the solution?”

In openly discussing his skepticism, de Nysschen says he simply is trying to cast light on a business case he believes favor diesel engines and other conventional technologies over battery power in any near-term quest to go green.

“The majority of consumers, in my opinion, are driven by rational economic considerations,” he says. “There may indeed to be those that may be happy to pay the premium for a pure environmental impact. For the majority of people, (the economics) probably wouldn’t work.

“And that’s the point I was trying to make, it just doesn’t gel.”

Government subsidies, such as the $7,500 U.S. tax credit on EV purchases, will help sway some consumers, but de Nysschen says that’s probably not the best use of public funds or the most efficient way to drive EV development.

“We should be incentivizing R&D to overcome a lot of these challenges in battery technology,” he says. “(But) that’s different than just incentivizing one particular product.”

So there you have it. An anti-hybrid rant or simply the unvarnished truth?

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