Toyota did not invent the hybrid car. In fact, the very first hybrid came to life 37 years before Toyota Motor Company was even founded.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ferdinand Porsche (who else?) came up with one of the first hybrids, and it was a race car. Porsche actually began by building pure battery electric vehicles, but 19th century battery technology prompted the addition of internal combustion assistance. The result was a series hybrid not far removed in concept from today’s Chevrolet Volt.
The Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus sounds like an infection, but was a car featuring a pair of hub motors driving the front wheels. Later variants included two more motors on the rear wheels to create the first all-wheel drive car. While a single example of the electric carriage survives today, none of the original hybrids exist.
For four years, technicians and craftsmen at the Porsche museum in Stuttgart having been working to re-create that first hybrid. Work has been painstaking, using surviving photos, drawings and information derived from the surviving EV as source material. The product of their efforts will be publicly revealed for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show next week alongside the new Panamera S hybrid.
So what did Toyota invent? The successful combination of ideas and hardware, strung together with modern technology that’s finally good enough to make the driving experience mostly seamless. They may have popularized the hell out of it, but the power-split parallel hybrid concept made so famous by the Prius was the work of a group of engineers from TRW who patented the idea back in the late 1960s. At that time prior to the advent of the nickel metal hydride battery, oil was so cheap that there wasn’t really much demand for the idea of a hybrid powertrain.
Toyota does deserve credit for was pulling all of the ideas together and developing a practical and reliable power-split transmission. By subsidizing the cost of those early Priuses, Toyota helped keep the idea going long enough to build some volume and drive down the cost of the system allowing it to be produced profitably. Hybrids still account for less than three percent of the U.S. auto market, but the price of crude is up and so is volatility. If that keeps up, hybrids will be selling out again.