How Infiniti's 'gas-generated EV' isn't the jumbo shrimp of powertrains

James Riswick
Autoblog

LOS ANGELES — Infiniti recently introduced the concept of what it's calling "gas-generated EV" powertrain technology. At first read, and perhaps everyone thereafter, the term seems contradictory, not unlike "jumbo shrimp." How can an electric vehicle use gasoline?

The answer to that is both a technological one and a marketing one. Technologically speaking, Infiniti's electrified powertrain concept is a series hybrid, most comparable to what Honda employs in its Insight, Accord Hybrid and new CR-V Hybrid. In the most basic of terms, the car's electric motor powers the wheels, the battery pack powers the electric motor, and the gasoline engine recharges the battery pack along with regenerative braking. By contrast, a parallel hybrid system as used by Toyota and others can power the wheels with the electric motor, the engine or, most frequently, both simultaneously. The result of a series hybrid is a powertrain that performs and feels more like an electric vehicle, while the engine generally whirs away, often not in step with what your right foot is doing.

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The Infiniti system is comparable to this, albeit with more powerful motors resulting in a more performance-oriented bent. Here's where things diverge, however. Under certain constant cruise conditions, say on the highway, the Honda system directly connects the engine with the drive wheels for greater efficiency. The Infiniti "gas-generated EV" concept will not, which frees engineers and designers to package the gasoline engine someplace other than under a front hood. In that way, it benefits from the sort of packaging advantages associated with electric vehicles. The closest comparable in this way is the BMW i3, which locates its tiny gasoline engine under the cargo area and does not attach it mechanically to the drive wheels.

That's a range extender for an electric vehicle, though, which Infiniti is quick to insist is not what's going on here. There is no plug. This is a hybrid.

So what's the deal with that name? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck …

Talking with Infiniti Group VP Jeff Pope, "gas-generated EV" is definitely a work in progress or at least a placeholder for something catchier and perhaps less contradictory in the future.

"Why we're using 'gas-generated EV' is to get away from 'hybrid,' because 'hybrid' is associated with a parallel hybrid system, which has a gas engine and an electric motor that both run the powertrain. In our execution, it's more of a series hybrid" that will perform like an EV but offer the extended range benefits of a hybrid.

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Basically, Infiniti wants to highlight the fact that its powertrain is different than the hybrids offered by everyone not named Honda (and the discontinued Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, which basically used a plug-less Volt powertrain), in addition to being greater in terms of performance. Yet, good luck trying to neatly advertise to folks what a "series hybrid" is and why it might be better. Some sort of marketing-friendly term is needed. It's not entirely different than Ford trotting out "EcoBoost" when really all it did was start selling turbocharged downsized engines.  

So, would such a hybrid powertrain really be better? Well, having extensively experienced Honda's system, it's easy to prefer its power delivery and what feels like a greater reliance on the hybrid battery. The noise generated by the engine can be an issue, especially with the less-powerful Insight, but Pope says that "encompassing" the engine to greatly reduce (if nearly eliminate) engine noise will be a key priority for the powertrain. It shouldn't sound like a sewing machine is whirring away somewhere in the trunk, as in the BMW i3. If that can be pulled off, in addition to producing more power, this powertrain has the potential to be superior in a number of ways to other hybrids – no matter what it's called.

"We bet on the future of the 'gas-generated EV' (concept) because we believe we can separate ourselves," Pope said. "If we can give you power, performance and range confidence, we've put ourselves in a whole different world."

So how close is this technology? Pope says that the series hybrid concept will be a part of the five electrified models Infiniti is planning to launch between 2021 and 2022. By 2025, 50% of Infinitis will be electrified in some way. However, those five models won't include the fully realized execution, one where a new model on a new platform would offer both a "gas-generated EV" powertrain and an all-electric car. That would be something akin to the Infiniti QS Inspiration Concept shown in the photos above.

"A sedan, or a new interpretation of a sedan," Pope said. "A little bigger, raised a little higher, not an SUV, but can have the implementation of this electrified platform (or gas-generated EV and full EV). That's what we're talking about within the next three years."

There is one major question, though: why not a plug-in hybrid? It would add all-electric range, improve efficiency and also offer the EV performance with extended gasoline range Infiniti touts with the "gas-generated EV" concept. After all, most plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt and Honda Clarity, basically become series hybrids once their plug-in range is depleted. The Polestar 1 certainly proves that the concept can be applied to performance-oriented vehicles. 

"From our standpoint, we're looking at what in the future everyone else is doing in the space as well," Pope said. "And what I think Infiniti does at its best in the past, and will do best in the future, is how do we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the industry. And when we look at what's coming out in the marketplace, this does just that. It's not that we don't want to have a plug-in hybrid, it's that going down this direction symbolizes better what Infiniti is and what we can bring to the table. It's what excites me the most, quite frankly. This type of technology can be what we've always been in the past: segment challenging and industry challenging."

So that's the answer. Does it make sense? We're not so sure. Perhaps the missing piece of the answer is the lower cost of having fewer batteries than a plug-in model. Yet, if being different is indeed the goal, then at least finding a name that's catchier, and less contradictory, than "gas-generated EV" would seem to be a good idea. Stay tuned on that front, because even if the technological concept is more than sound, the name could use a rethink.  

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