Semper Vivus: The hybrid car you’ve never heard of

I have always had an interest in alternatively styled and alternatively fueled vehicles, which is probably due, in part at least, to the wide variety of cars my father owned during my childhood. Eventhough they were the normal family cars, they were always at least one generation behind the current model. So we had station wagons with rear-facing seats (69 or 70 Chevy Impala), a 1964 Ford Fairlane station wagon — still one of my favorite cars — but we also had Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Opels, Mazdas and Datsuns.

But, my all-time favorite car to drive as a teen — was the ugly, green box-shaped Fiat. I think it was a 1973 model, but its defining feature was its 4-speed on the floor — with a second gear that did not work. Eventually, third gear would give way and the driving challenge was shifting from 1st to 4th without either: a.) blowing up the engine or b.) causing it to stall out when the car went into 4th gear at too low of a speed.When the hybrid car was first introduced in the U.S., I looked at one (Toyota Prius), but the technology was new (I would later learn in fact the technology was old), so I opted for a conventional car. But a couple of years ago, I purchased my first hybrid — a 2012 Toyota Camry. Overall I am pleased with the car — and it has consistently delivered the advertised gas mileage (41/39). [Click here if you want to read my in-depth review of the car].

The first hybrid — which used technology that today’s Chevrolet Volt mirrors — was a Porche. In 1900, Prof. Ferdinand Porsche introduced the Semper Vivus — a vehicle that combined electric powered wheels and a gasoline engine to recharge the vehicles battieries. The vehicle was in some ways an extension of a previous electric model he had perfected, the Lohner Porsche. The Lohner Porsche was an all-wheel drive vehicle with each wheel powered by an electric motor.

Prof. Ferdinand Porsche realized his electric vehicle would travel further if he used a gasoline (which they always seemed to call petrol back then) generator to charge the batteries. The vehicle never realized any serious sales, though, since it was nearly twice the price of comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. Only 11 were sold.

What I found interesting, though, were some of the challenges Prof. Ferdinand Porsche faced still exists today — the two primary ones being vehicle weight and battery storage capabilities. Of course, great strides have been made since his era. We now build cars from lighter weight materials and battery technology continues to improve as modern hybrids shift from nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Tesla has even created vehicles with swappable batteries packs — and they can be switched out in the same amount of time it takes to fuel a gasoline car.

1900 Pieper Hybrid

1900 Pieper Hybrid

The hybrid style that mimics most current hybrids — like the Prius for example — came a few years later and was patented by Henri Pieper. He applied for a U.S. Patent for a parallel hybrid system in 1905 and received it in 1909. The design uses both the gasoline engine and the electric motor to power the vehicle as needed. In the case of the Pieper vehicle, it had an electric motor that charged a battery pack. The battery pack was used to give the gasoline engine a boost when climbing steep hills — or other situations when more power was required.

Today’s hybrids continue to push the technology envelope. The Ford C-Max Energi concept car is even using solar power to keep the electric battery charged. But, they have a twist since solar panels on a car currently can’t produce enough electricity to warrant their inclusion — Ford’s version includes a portable charging station that utilizes a Fresnel lens to intensify the effectiveness of the panels. They assert, the sun could power as much as 75 percent of all trips made by the driver.

If that turns out to be true — that is impressive.

Categories: American History | Tags: , ,

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