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Hybrid car innovation

Today, a hybrid car is generally viewed as a modern innovation. However, in fact, America’s gasoline-electric hybrid was born over 117 years ago. On April 25, 1898, the Munson Company of La Porte, Indiana, is recognized as the first to produce a workable gasoline-electric car in America.

Munson Buggy photo
Copyright © 1898
The Munson Company of La Porte, IN

In reviewing Munson’s 1898 promotional brochure, the company’s approach to improving gasoline engine and electric car technology is noteworthy.

The Munson had many unique benefits.
• It combined the good points of both the gasoline engine and electric motor.
• 10 gallons of gasoline would furnish power to propel the vehicle 100 miles or more over ordinary, well-traveled roads at the rate of five to fifteen miles per hour, according to the conditions and gradients of the roads.
• No manual starting apparatus was required because starting was automatically controlled from the driver’s seat. This predates self-starters on gasoline engine autos by 14 years.
• The electric machine automatically supplied the extra power required when the engine was taxed beyond its normal speed by driving conditions and acted as a speed limiter when descending hills.
• The required storage battery was 50 percent lighter in weight and, because it was almost constantly charged, would outlast the battery in conventional electric auto.
• All of these features were accomplished mechanically, long before the advent of computerized controls.

Munson Factory
Munson Factory

Interestingly, Munson’s brochure illustrates the problem the company faced by quoting Thomas A. Edison on the benefits of the gasoline engine car over an electric auto. “I believe in ten years a horse will be a rare sight. The automobile carriage is here to stay. It is now practicable, and will soon be cheap enough for general use. Gasoline will be the motive power, for it is more economical and a large supply of it can be carried. Electric storage batteries are too heavy, and besides they are not practicable.”

Today’s gasoline-electric hybrids are engineered for efficiency. Thanks to the continuing development of electric vehicle batteries, the size, weight, and cost of the battery pack have been greatly reduced. In a hybrid car, a computer calculates when to let the gasoline engine do all the work and how much of an assist is required from the electric motor.

It is interesting to think that it has taken over 100 years for this technology to be efficiently packaged into a hybrid at an attractive price. We’re left to ponder if Munson would have survived to the present, if it could have designed an efficient valued vehicle?