My recent article on the OverDrive flying car design, triggered some debate about the practicality of hybrid designs. The comments were primarily focused on flying cars and floating cars, but all aspects of modern civilization teem with examples of hybrids. It seems an inescapable human desire to combine two good things in an effort to make one great thing. Some amalgams have achieved stellar results, perhaps even becoming a defining cultural element (think cameraphones). Others fade into a purgatory of ridicule and obscurity.
The conversation made me question why some hybrid ideas flourish when others fail, even if the base components are individually successful. It is not something that I had ever given much thought to, but I began to wonder if there is a common link between the failed hybrid attempts. Today, I want to compare a handful of successful and failed hybrid concepts and attempt to determine why their relative outcomes were so varied.
What is a Hybrid?
The first question to be answered is how to define a hybrid, and there are many meanings. In its simplest form, a hybrid can be two or more widgets combined into a single unit. Perhaps each part is still intended to perform tasks independent of the other parts (ex. Swiss Army knife), or maybe the parts work in unison (ex. eraser-tipped pencil). Either way, it is the combining of these otherwise discrete tools that creates the selling point of the item.
In examining these types of hybrids, I think it is important to differentiate whether an aspect of a design is a fundamental element or just a feature. For example, most cars have clocks. We don’t call them clock-cars simply because the clock is a feature rather than a core facet of the design. It’s just a car, not a hybrid…unless it also has wings, or a hull, or two types of engines.
Another form of hybrid is the combination of two different tools that are used for similar jobs. The point is to utilize the best attributes from each tool to improve some aspect of the end item’s overall performance, such as efficiency, power output, reliability, or dependability. In this column we find things such as the diesel-electric locomotive and turboprop engine. We could even include mules (yes, the animals) and genetically-engineered seeds.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that hybrids of all types saturate our world. For the purposes of this examination (and at the risk of excluding pertinent data), I will focus on nuts and bolts machines. More specifically, I will stick to legacy military hardware, since such items tend to have well-documented requirements as well as performance data.