A Brief History of Hybrid Cars

November 8, 2013

Hybrids seem like an overnight sensation, but the history of hybrid cars actually goes back to the eve of the 20th Century, beginning with Porche.

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The history of hybrid cars stretches back over 100 years. Hybrid cars are defined as any car that runs on two sources of power. The most common hybrid powertrain combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor. These cars are known as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). While it may seem that hybrids are a recent phenomenon, the technology has been around since the creation of the automobile. In fact, auto manufacturers have been developing and building hybrids since the beginning of the auto industry.

See our list of Top 2013 Hybrid Cars >>

The Beginning
The first hybrid car was built in the year 1899 by engineer Ferdinand Porsche. Called the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte, it used a gasoline engine to supply power to an electric motor that drove the car's front wheels. The Mixte was well-received, and over 300 were produced. The demand for hybrids began to wane, however, when Henry Ford started the first automobile assembly line in 1904. Ford's ability to produce gasoline-powered cars and offer them at low prices dramatically shrunk the hybrid vehicle market. While hybrids were produced well into the 1910s using the Mixte's technology, most sold poorly because they had higher prices and less power than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Hybrids soon became a thing of the past, beginning a nearly 50-year period where they were merely an afterthought.

Renewed Interest
In the 1960s, the United States congress introduced legislation that encouraged greater use of electric vehicles in an attempt to reduce air pollution. While the government tried to garner support for hybrids, renewed public interest didn't gain momentum until the Arab oil embargo of 1973. This oil crisis caused the price of gasoline to soar while supply fell dramatically. In those days, nearly 85 percent of all American workers drove to work, so soaring gas prices and declining supplies were a major concern.

Over the next 25 years, auto manufacturers spent billions of dollars on research and development of hybrid technologies. In spite of this, very few vehicles were produced that could both reduce the world's dependence on oil and compete with gasoline vehicles on price and performance. In the late 1990s, a handful of all-electric vehicles were introduced, the GM EV1 and Toyota RAV-4 EV being two examples. These all-electric vehicles failed to attract widespread interest, and were soon dropped from production. It wasn't until Toyota released the Prius in Japan in 1997 that a viable alternative to gas powered vehicles was introduced.

The Rebirth
In 1999, the Honda Insight became the first mass-production HEV released in the United States. The two-door, two-seat Insight may have been first, but it was the Toyota Prius sedan, released in the United States in 2000, that gave hybrid technology the foothold it was looking for. In the years since its United States introduction, the Prius has become synonymous with the term "hybrid." It is the most popular HEV ever produced, and auto manufacturers around the world have used its technology as a basis for countless other vehicles.

In this era of ever-increasing environmental awareness, the Prius may be in for some stiff competition. Honda released the second-generation Insight, and Chevrolet introduced of the Volt. As hybrid technology continues to improve, it will continue developing an even stronger foothold in the world's auto market. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain, auto manufacturers will keep developing and building hybrids, just as they have all along.

The Future
Here is what to look for hybrid vehicles to offer in the next 10 years, and what effect it should have on your mpg.

Plug-In Hybrid Introduction
The next change that consumers should expect to see in the next few years is automakers producing plug-in versions of hybrid vehicles that are able to operate at an extended range in all-electric mode. While consumers have modified current versions of hybrid vehicles to be plug in models, there are currently no commercially available hybrid cars in a plug-in configuration. Expect the first generation of plug in hybrids to have a 40 to 70 mile range in electric-only mode at speeds of up to 50 mph.

See the Best Plug-In Hybrids for 2013 >>

NiCad Phase Out
Currently, virtually every hybrid vehicle on the market operates using a Nickel-Cadmium battery pack to store power for its electric motor. While it is a great, durable, proven technology, NiCad has some pretty serious drawbacks. It doesn't charge as well or as fast as other battery types, and because nickel is very heavy, NiCad batteries are heavy too. In the near future, look for reduced weight battery packs that use nano-texturing to increase efficiency, as well as the possibility of an overall switch to lithium-ion type batteries. There are plenty of benefits of lithium-ion technology, such as lighter weight and faster charging time. Looking farther into the future there is the possibility of improved nano-textured lithium ion battery packs becoming available as well as yet another switch away from batteries completely to a newer technology called high-discharge capacitors.

Diesel-Hybrid Development
Another significant change to look for is the mating of the positive attributes of the clean diesel powerplant with hybrid technology to create a vehicle with even more striking fuel mileage potential. The one-two-punch of clean diesel and hybrid together may make it possible for automakers to stretch towards the 100 mpg mark in coming years. Although there are no major automakers with a diesel hybrid in the works for a passenger car, this combination has been popular on passenger buses and railway locomotives for over a decade.

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