Some people are not completely sold on the idea of a completely electric car, and fair enough. Our technology isn’t quite at a point where we can realistically replace every gasoline-powered car on the road with an electric one. And performance wise, fully electric cars leave some things to be desired for many car owners.
Still, many of them still believe in reducing greenhouse gases and cutting fuel consumption and costs. Finding a happy medium between these desires is the hybrid vehicle; a reliable stepping stone on the way to a fully electric future.
How it Works
Hybrid vehicles, also called hybrid electric vehicles, combine two propulsion systems in the same chassis. Most commonly, these propulsion systems consist of a standard gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, and an electric engine powered by a battery.
The traditional engine powers the vehicle most of the time. It starts the vehicle up and propels the car when it is needed. While it is running, though, it is charging an onboard battery via a built-in generator. This functions similar to the car battery present in all internal combustion engine vehicles with the alternator, but the battery is much different.
Instead of using a Starting, Lighting and Ignition (SLI) battery which only works well when providing short, powerful bursts of current, the hybrid vehicle’s battery is strong enough to power the drive train. The battery stores enough energy and can discharge it long enough to power the vehicle in a low-performance situation like cruising. So, a hybrid vehicle operates as normal with its gasoline engine, but when the battery is charged, and the demand on the drivetrain is low enough, the battery kicks in and gives the internal combustion engine a break.
This sounds complex, and it is. A hybrid vehicle is more complex and sophisticated than a standard gasoline-powered one. But the point of all of this comes down to simple fuel economy. A hybrid vehicle uses drastically less fuel than its nonelectric counterparts. The engine only comes on when you need it and lets the much more efficient electric motor take over when it can.
Not only does this reduced fuel consumption reduce operating costs, but it also benefits the environment by significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrid vehicles have been known to get 10 miles to the gallon more than their gas-powered cousins, sometimes more. With the introduction of regenerative brake technology, which converts mechanical energy into electricity while braking, fuel efficiency has increased even more. Now the battery can be charged even while the vehicle is slowing down.
Furthermore, since less fuel is required, hybrids can be fitted with smaller gas tanks, which reduce the overall weight of the vehicle. This, in turn, lowers the work necessary to move the car and increases its aerodynamics, further improving fuel efficiency.
The Different Kinds of Hybrids
The previously described propulsion systems are used in standard hybrid vehicles for increased fuel economy, but other types of hybrid vehicle exist.
1. The Mild Hybrid
The mild hybrid uses an electric motor to assist the internal combustion engine, but the vehicle does not have an electric exclusive drive mode. The gas engine is always working. This allows the manufacturer to avoid installing the second drivetrain for the electric motor and keep the weight down, but the fuel savings are not as significant as a full hybrid.
2. The Performance Hybrid
The use of electric power to assist the gasoline engine has application beyond fuel savings. Some cars use the electric motor to increase performance. These are sports and luxury cars using the mild hybrid technology to lighten the vehicle and free up resources for the main engine.
3. Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles
These types of hybrid vehicles are fast becoming the standard and favorite of consumers everywhere. They function much like the standard hybrid electric vehicle, but they also have the option to plug into a power source to charge the battery. In this way, the vehicle is already partially or fully charged when it is started again. Less fuel is needed to charge the vehicle’s battery, and it can switch over to full electric sooner.
They require no extra infrastructure in the home; the plug-in hybrid can charge from a standard household plugin with an adapter. They also come with larger batteries to more fully take advantage of the increased charging potential, so the combustion engine is utilized even less. This reduced fuel use and focus on electricity not only cut more emissions but also reduces reliance on fossil fuels, as the electrical energy can come from any source, renewables included.
It does have a few drawbacks, however. The plug-in hybrid is more expensive than its standard hybrid predecessor due to its larger battery pack and more complex technology. Weight also becomes an issue, which can limit the car’s performance.
Hybrid Vs. Full Electric
If the benefits of an electric motor are so great, why not go all the way and get a fully electric vehicle? There are good reasons to go electric, and many people have, but at the moment there are also some good reasons to stick with the hybrid.
- Range: The hybrid car, thanks to its increased fuel efficiency, can go for exceptionally long distances without needing to refuel. However, even the most cutting-edge electric car can only manage 300 or so miles, and that ability doesn’t come cheap. With two propulsion systems, one feeding the other, and boosts from plugins and regenerative braking, hybrids can go much further without the need to stop.
- Refueling: Fueling a hybrid is as simple as putting in gas like a standard internal combustion vehicle. It takes minutes. An electric car needs at least 30 minutes to get back into working order, and that’s with a quick charge system, not a standard trickle plugin that comes from the home. So not only can the hybrid go further, it can get back on the road quicker.
- Infrastructure: In addition to this refueling advantage, hybrids have the option of fueling anywhere an internal combustion vehicle can, which is most of the developed world. Electric car charging stations are found only sparingly and only in select areas at the moment. Until electric car charging, or battery replacement infrastructure is built up to a comparable level, hybrid’s will continue to go farther, anywhere they choose.
- Performance: Only recently have electric cars even approached the power and torque achieved by traditional vehicles. Even still, most electric models still fall short with the exception of some of the more expensive models. The gas engine in a hybrid allows it to perform closer to that of a standard vehicle.
- Model Choice: Since the performance remains largely unchanged, hybrids can be any type of vehicle available to consumers. They can purchase a hybrid SUV, truck or even larger vehicle. As of yet, there are very few options for electric vehicles bigger than a sedan, and none of them are cheap.
Even the best hybrid vehicles aren’t perfect. There are still some areas where hybrid vehicles fall short of what they attempt to accomplish.
- Environmental Impact: Despite lowering fuel consumption, hybrid cars can still have a negative impact on the earth and atmosphere. The batteries used in hybrids require a lot of energy to make, which may come from fossil fuels. Additionally, the cells used also contain toxic substances that must be recycled properly, another energy-intensive procedure.
- Price: Hybrids are still quite expensive, even as they have become more widespread. Also, since the technology behind them is quite complex, they require more specialized and expensive maintenance, beyond that of a standard gas-powered car. Still, fuel savings and government incentives may offset the price.
- Safety: The presence of a large battery pack alone adds some extra risk when the car is involved in a collision. But coupled with the presence of an internal combustion engine, the risk goes up even further. Safety advances have made them safer, but the possibility is there.
The Happy Medium
Ideally, humanity would be able to kick its dependence on fossil fuels. But, realistically, we are not quite there yet. We are not fully equipped to build an infrastructure conducive to complete electrification of our cars, and the technology isn’t quite at the level to replicate the internal combustion engines performance and price.
However, in the meantime, hybrid cars offer a good compromise that protects the environment, saves the operator money of fuel costs, and works close enough to a standard gas-powered car, you could forget you were driving one.