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

Why the gasoline engine is on the way out

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Denis Balibouse / Reuters

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 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?