Carey

SELF-CHARGING HYPERBOLE

“‘SELF-CHARGING HYBRID’ IS A USELESS AND BAFFLING TERM THAT RICHLY DESERVES TO BE IGNORED TO DEATH”

ORDINARY DAY in the Wheels office, sometime in the early 1990s. Phone rings. It’s a reader inquiry. “Please, can you tell me what is the ‘O2 advantage’?” the man asks, in an accent that’s from one of Asia’s cricket-playing nations. India maybe.

Whatever his origin, I understood perfectly why he was calling for clarification...

At the time, Toyota Australia’s marketing department was doing memorable work. Led by smart, outspoken and sometimes hot-tempered exec Bob Miller, they’d come up with the long-lived ‘Oh what a feeling!’ slogan and were using an animated chicken to sell the Camry as a brave choice.

Less memorable was the ‘O2 Advantage’ campaign with its ‘Breathe better, perform better’ tagline, designed to persuade potential purchasers that Toyotas packed something superior beneath their bonnets.

The ads implied Toyotas had access to extra oxygen, but didn’t explain how. Were they equipped with a tank of the gas to boost the normal 21 percent oxygen content of air sucked into their engines? Or was it something else?

It certainly was…

Four-valves-per-cylinder engines weren’t exactly common in mainstream cars back then, but they weren’t unknown either. Toyota hadn’t created something unique, or even innovative. What they certainly made was at least one baffled would-be buyer.

Marketing’s mission isn’t to explain technology, but stimulating sales shouldn’t also sow confusion about how stuff works. Which is why Toyota’s recent and concerted ‘selfcharging push to encourage adoption of the term hybrid’ for its growing family of petrol-electric models bugs me even more than the ‘O2 Advantage’ ever did.

Why? Because it implies that ‘self-charging’ is an advantage (that word again!) of Toyota’s tech, when it’s nothing of the sort. All hybrids are self-charging. That’s why they’re efficient.

Here’s how. When you buy a litre of fuel, your car’s engine burns it and turns it into motion. So far, so familiar. Slowing a non-hybrid car means reconverting that motion back into heat. That’s why brakes get hot. Slowing hybrids instead convert at least some of their kinetic energy into electricity which... charges the battery.

The key point here is that hybrids can recycle energy and conventional cars can’t. This superpower isn’t confined to hybrids. Anything that’s propelled full-time or part-time by electricity can do it. This includes hydrogen fuel-cell electric cars, as well as battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

I’m not the only one to be annoyed. Here’s what Chris Hall of UK-based tech news and reviews website Pocket-lint wrote in a hybrid explainer in January: “In reality, a self-charging hybrid is a normal hybrid. In the advert below (Toyota-owned) Lexus seems to boast ‘no plugs’ as a benefit, but in reality, all hybrids are self-charging (as are electric vehicles) to a degree.” Exactly.

Toyota Australia knows the ‘self-charging hybrid’ spiel is confusing. Why else would you find this at the bottom of their list of Hybrid FAQs?

“Can a Hybrid run on electricity when it runs out of fuel?” “No. A Toyota Hybrid can only operate in electric mode when petrol is in the tank.”

‘Self-charging hybrid’ is a useless and baffling term that richly deserves to be ignored to death. Still, you can’t accuse Toyota of not making progress.

In 30 years of constant improvement the Japanese giant has pared oxygenmoron down to oxymoron.