Driving habits and fuel prices will be the significant drivers determining volume production of hybrid-powered vehicles, says John Wormald of autoPOLIS at the recent Hybrid 2000 Conference in Windsor, Ont.

A simple formula indicates U.S. citizens drive twice as much as Europeans - and Europeans, in turn, drive twice the number of kilometers as Japanese.

This is the kind of work autoPOLIS does - it's the business of knowing the automotive business - and Mr. Wormald's driving distance/fuel price formula suggests the following:

North America's relatively low fuel prices and high-mileage driving behaviors are "disincentives" for any near-term adoption of hybrids - perhaps this is why neither General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. nor DaimlerChrysler AG has yet brought a hybrid into mass production.

In addition, with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Insight and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s new Tino, Japanese automakers clearly have the stand-alone lead in hybrid markets. Japan, however, doesn't actually have the demographics for a hybrid boom. With a low average number of miles driven per year and semi-reasonable gasoline prices, it seems Japan has no immediate demand for mass-producing its hybrids for anything but export. However, there is a "technology for technology's sake" interest in hybrids, says Mr. Wormald.

Clearly, with skyrocketing fuel prices and moderate driving ranges, Europe seems to retain the ideal market conditions for a deep penetration of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), based on Mr. Wormald's model.

Another factor, presented to conference attendees by John M. DeCicco of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, has to do with macroeconomics: supply and demand versus cost and value.

Mr. DeCicco addresses these issues, as well as how government subsidies would affect various volume-production models.

Mr. DeCicco says that cost will remain a major obstacle to HEVs for at least the next decade, adding that even mature, high-volume electric drive componentry will involve a significant cost increment over conventional technology. Competition from improved-performance internal combustion engines (ICEs) and lack of pressure to improve fuel economy also will continue to mitigate against widespread HEV applications in the U.S., he says.

Mr. DeCicco says regulatory programs or tax incentives will raise the value curve of the hybrid, while research and development and production experience will lower the cost curve - and that both work to make a better business case for hybridization.

More than 110 industry experts attend Hybrid Vehicles 2000 to address technical, financial, market and environmental issues concerning the adoption of hybrid vehicles.

Conference director Charles Spear tells Ward's, "There is no consensus on the exact way to go with technologies or marketing strategies (for hybrids). Everyone is sort of groping."

Mr. Spear suggests automotive hybrids need clearer differentiation to begin more directed application strategies.

Mr. Spear says it will be critical for automakers to insert the "proper" hybrid into the proper market - by evaluating the demographics for passenger car/light-truck, delivery truck/fleet or mass transit and how they will work in a region.

Many in the industry currently developing mainstream hybrid vehicles believe that if initial efforts fall short in any measure of current customers expectations, the market will be "soured" as it was for pure electric vehicles, which were too expensive and range-limited.

The potential for HEVs to serve as mobile power generation units - like that obtained now from portable generators - also would give hybrid owners independence not associated with ICE vehicles. Mr. Spear envisions a contractor using his hybrid truck's drivetrain to supply electricity for his power tools.

Emerging technologies such as the solid-oxide auxiliary power unit (APU) fuel cell and 36/42-volt battery configurations may be the extra boost hybrids need to make it to mass market.