A Brief History Of Hybrid Cars

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, - March 10, 2022
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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.

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 the 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

An increasing number of automakers now offer hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of their vehicles. For example, the Toyota RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid capable of 42 miles of driving on electric power, with a total combined range of 600 miles. It's even rated at 94 MPGe with over 300 horsepower and happens to be one of Toyota's fastest models.

By 2030, many major automakers expect to be almost completely electric. As a result, there may be more choices than ever before for eliminating one's reliance on fossil fuels and embracing a zero-emissions future. Due to economies of scale, these vehicles could become more affordable as the cost of EV batteries falls closer to widespread adoption.

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The CarsDirect editorial team is dedicated to providing our readers with the latest on new and used cars, expert opinions on which vehicles make the grade, and all the fun stuff in between.


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