Ferrari hybrid marks the beginning of the end for gas-powered automobiles

Why the gasoline engine is on the way out


Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Hybrid cars, so the cliché goes, are the tree hugger’s favourite indulgence—both as a fuel-saving device and as a conspicuous sign of ecological superiority. The Ferrari driver is a cliché unto himself: a rich petrol-head dangerously addicted to the noise and power of burning fuel in Italian cylinders. They are each other’s bogeymen.

Strange, then, that hybrid technology is suddenly key to the Italian supercar maker’s long-term future. In March, 15 years after the first commercial gasoline-electric car came out—the Toyota Prius—Ferrari introduced the company’s first hybrid. LaFerrari boasts a 160-horsepower electric engine strapped to a 12-cylinder, 800-horsepower gasoline engine.

All 499 of the limited-edition LaFerrari production run sold out before the car was even shown publicly. Though it hardly has the gas-sipping credentials of a Toyota Prius (the first mass-produced and most successful hybrid with nearly four million units sold), the use of an electric motor to supplement Ferrari’s trademark overkill is an indication of just how pervasive gasoline-electric hybrid technology has become—and how the era of the gasoline-only engine may be running on fumes.

In December, Porsche will begin selling the 918, a similarly outsized hybrid supercar; it comes on the heels of the German automaker’s hybrid versions of its 911 GT3 sports car, the Cayenne SUV and Panamera four-door sedan. Britain’s McLaren, meanwhile, recently unveiled its own $1.8-million hybrid car, while Nissan’s ZEOD RC (which stands for Zero Emission on Demand Racing Car) will be the first hybrid supercar with available “all electric” mode to race in LeMans, the historic 24-hour endurance race and new-car proving ground. Range Rover’s diesel-electric hybrid SUV will be introduced next year. And the Tesla Model S electric car has, by one recent estimate, captured 8.4 per cent of the luxury market in the U.S. and is now the third-bestselling luxury car in California.

Strapping a comparatively miniscule electric engine to a handful of $1.4-million Ferrari hybrids won’t do much for the environment. Yet, far from being a one-off, Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo says hybrid technology will be used in a number of models in the coming years—and will be a key revenue driver for the already-flush company. (Ferrari sold a record 7,300 cars last year and recorded a profit of $330 million.) “I don’t believe in the electric cars, but I strongly believe in hybrids,” di Montezemolo told Bloomberg Television recently.

What is good for the rarefied race cars of the world is often good for the automotive hoi polloi. Though often viewed as an expensive waste of carbon, automotive racing is actually the source for many of the fuel-saving technologies on today’s regular road cars. Regenerative braking, by which a battery recoups and stores the kinetic energy resulting from braking, was developed on the track. So was fuel-saving tire technology, flywheel-based energy-storing systems and electric energy management technology.

As the technology advances, there has been a not-coincidental increase in the number of available hybrid cars. Every major car brand now has a hybrid model in the offing, extending even to the gas-guzzling and high-margin truck segment: Both Dodge and Chevrolet now offer full-sized hybrid pickup models.

There are caveats to the supercar-sourced green revolution. Skeptics such as author David Owen have argued that increases in fuel efficiency actually increase greenhouse gases, because more people buy the technology as it becomes cheaper, offsetting any efficiency gains. For now, at least, hybrid technology relies on expensive batteries chock full of toxic chemicals and rare earth metals often mined in environmentally sensitive and/or politically dodgy areas.

Yet the increased fuel efficiency of hybrid cars can go a long way in curbing global energy demand, according to a recent report by Citi, the American bank. Roughly 60 per cent of the world’s oil ends up in the gas tanks of cars, of which there are in excess of a billion worldwide. Demand for oil will peak at 92 million barrels a day within a decade if fuel efficiency in cars increases 2.5 per cent every year, according to the report.

There are notable holdouts on hybrid technology. Eternal Ferrari foil Lamborghini has kiboshed the idea of a hybrid model, at least in the short term, according to a recent Motor Trend report. And Harald Wester of Maserati, owned by the same parent company as Ferrari, recently called electric vehicles “nonsense” and a product of government regulation.

There’s also the long-held apprehension over the durability of hybrid batteries, which were plagued by diminishing storage capacity in many first- and second-generation hybrid models. Within the industry, the worry was that hybrid cars would get a bad reputation similar to diesel engines in the ’70s and ’80s—with similar diminished sales. Yet Toyota, for one, projects a 65 per cent sales increase in formerly skeptical Europe for 2013. The head of the automaker’s European division, Didier Leroy, told the Financial Times this week that Europe has reached a “tipping point” in favour of hybrids. In Canada, sales of Toyota’s hybrid vehicles have increased by 250 per cent since 2011, according to hybridcars.com. Meanwhile, Martin Winterkorn, the chairman of Volkswagen, a relative hybrid laggard, said this week his company will have 14 electric and hybrid models on the market by the end of the year.

Maserati and Lamborghini (which is owned, incidentally, by Volkswagen) are now the auto industry’s anomalies. And the question on the minds of gear heads isn’t who killed the electric car, but who is going to kill the good, old-fashioned gasoline engine?


Ferrari hybrid marks the beginning of the end for gas-powered automobiles

  1. Unless you live in a city I don’t see anything attractive about hybrids. I doubt very much that the hybrid ferrari is a game changer.

    • You are completely right, hybrids only benefit those who live in a city and need to drive around that city due to a lack of public transportation like a bus or subway system. Once you hit the highway and go over the speed where the fuel engine has to take over, there goes your fuel efficiency.

      Until we go fully electric, there’s not point. Hybrids are nice, I’ve driven one for while now but it’s not the solution. Now if we could ever find out what happened to that hydrogen tech where the car could run on water that I can get out of my kitchen sink tap… whoops! Disregard!


    • Yep, as until battery longevity, capacity and charging issues are resolved, its a rich mans sport. $8000 is factory cost for a Volt, I can only imagine the cost for a Ferrari. But then, if you have the money for one, whats $40k for a full set of batteries every 3 years?

      Ferrari isn’t going to set any main stream trends.

      But I know of one company that will. It is working on a car where each wheel has its own motor, no transmissions, all standard parts to be fully services in a Walmart like situation. Built with economics in mind.

  2. Electric cars can easily be destined to go faster than gas engines. One huge problem though, batteries. Not only do they not hold a charge for range, they deteriorate and become very expensive not only to purchase, but to replace.

    If you do a long term TCO cost comparison of F150 versus say Volt, F150 with a working A/C and working heat for winter is a massive savings as Volts depreciate fast, batteries deteriorate and they are not cheap to replace.

    Electric for auto does make sense once battery costs become competitive, but until then, a fad for those willing to dump lots of cash.

  3. Worst headline ever.

  4. For all of you that think battery prices will eventually drop due to competition, availability, longevity, you have to think like a battery maker, not a “starry-eyed” electric car customer.

    First, I see battery prices going up as demand rises, like every other commodity, simply because it is a mature technology and nothing else is easily available to take its place.

    Second, car battery makers are keenly aware that batteries are the key to powering an electric car. No batteries, no car. Guess where they’re going to set their prices?

    Third, have prices of batteries for small computing devices dropped at the same rate as the prices of the devices themselves? As far as I know, they haven’t. Batteries for laptops are disgustingly expensive. Don’t get fooled by the price of alkaline batteries that Costco, for example, sells at such a good price. We’re not talking the same thing.

    Fourth, guess how much work it takes to recycle car batteries? It isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy. It’s also dangerous. It’s not like recycling glass. All that cost will be built into – and stay in – the price of batteries.

    So, I don’t see car battery prices falling at all. If anything, I see their prices going up.

    But, hey, in spite of all these problems, we’ll eventually have governments passing legislation to ban internal combustion engines as they did incandescent light-bulbs followed by the same elephant dung mess and sky-high costs that compact florescent light-bulbs brought us for lighting our homes.

    Anyone seen the price of an LED light-bulb lately?

    • Well Gary, it seems as though there is a Santa Clause after all… Um battery costs have indeed fallen. Nickle metal hydride batteries were the highest power density in a battery for a long time, powering laptops and cellphones. Today, they are about as cheap as dirt. Lithium Ion batteries are the new leader, and are much smaller and lighter for the power they hold. Yes, they are more expensive than nickle metal hydride batteries, but the cost is coming down all the time. If you need a replacement battery for your phone or laptop, they are available online at very, very low prices directly from the battery manufacturers. Yes, battery technology is mature, yet constantly evolving.

      There is a principle called economy of scale, which means as volumes go up, costs go down. If there were only 100 car tires being sold a year, the things would go for $10,000 apiece. I hear all the time how crazily expensive replacing a car battery is. But replaced a gasoline car engine is not cheap either. And by the way, Lithium Ion batteries are not particularly toxic, relatively easy to recycle, and it is safe to do so. It is easier than recycling most consumer electronics.

      I may have have a little more of a clue than the average bear on the subject, given that one of my siblings is a world-leading authority on rechargable electric battery technology, with dozens of patents to his name, several electric car prototypes and hybrid systems developed for major car manufacturers like GM, Honda, and Toyota. He also created the battery management system for the EV1. Later he went on to oversee the opening of several factories in the large-format battery industry. Saying that electric cars are not on the way, when Tesla Motors is now out-selling Porsche in California, is like saying it is not about to get dark out as the sun dips below the horizon. It is happening. The economics work. Deal with it. The transition is underway. In 20 years, gasoline-powered cars will be a nice classic bit of nostalgia.

      • So, you have skin in the game. Nice bit of objectivity there.

        As a consequence, your attempt to convince me has pushed me to be more unconvinced than ever, especially since I will be the one paying one of your siblings for his presumed “authority” and his investment and for the “sun dip[ping] below the horizon.”

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