Commonly Asked Questions about Hybrid Cars

March 7, 2012

A look at the two main hybrid car technologies (parallel and series), the origin of hybrid cars, and how hybrid vehicles fare against conventional cars.

The hybrid car is a result of attempts to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels like gasoline. It is called a hybrid because it is part gasoline and part electric. There is an electric motor as well as an internal combustion engine powering the vehicle. When the car is traveling below a certain speed, the electric motor drives the wheels. When it travels over a certain speed, the gasoline engine drives the wheels. On many hybrids, the gasoline engine is also used to recharge the battery that powers the electric motor.

Hybrid cars also include technologies that help to regenerate energy and conserve it. For example, many of these vehicles have what is called regenerative braking. This technology converts the energy generated by the brakes into electric energy that replenishes the battery. There is also a start-stop feature that shuts the engine off when the vehicle is idling. The driver needs only to step on the gas pedal to turn the engine back on.

Are There Different Kinds of Hybrids?

In auto industry talk, there are two types of hybrids: a Parallel Hybrid and a Series Parallel Hybrid. The simplest and least costly of the two is the Parallel Hybrid. In this configuration the engine and the electric motor are blended together prior to the transmission. The gasoline engine propels the vehicle and the electric motor provides an extra boost or takes control at slower speeds. The gasoline engine does not recharge the battery. Instead regenerative braking is the only source of recharge power.

The configuration of the Series-Parallel Hybrid has the engine and the electric motor feeding into the transmission from independent paths. This allows full power to be achieved by either the gasoline engine or the electric motor. The gasoline engine can both power the vehicle and charge the battery. In this configuration, the electric motor is used more to propel the vehicle.

When Does One Motor Take over for the Other?

For the most part, a hybrid vehicle traveling in the congested roads of a city will probably be running on electric power. A hybrid vehicle that travels the speedy highways and interstates will probably run on the gasoline engine.

When Was the First Hybrid Introduced?

Believe it or not, the first gasoline-electric hybrid was introduced in 1917. However, it was a commercial failure because it was too slow and too difficult to service. The hybrid did not again become a viable concept until the late 1990's when Toyota Motor Company introduced the Prius in Japan in 1997. Honda became the second auto manufacturer to offer a hybrid with the introduction of the Insight in 1999.

Why Are Hybrids More Expensive than Conventional Vehicles?

There are two major reasons that hybrids are more expensive than conventional cars. One is that conventional cars have been around for longer than hybrids, which means that manufacturers more or less have the kinks ironed out. The risk of having to do a widespread recall is much lower on cars that use conventional and proven technologies. For example, Toyota was required to recall 75,000 Prius model hybrids sold in 2004 and 2005 after a problem with the hybrid drivetrain. Because hybrid cars are new on the marketplace, manufacturers have to raise the cost a bit to make up for this risk. Also, the hybrid drive system is much more expensive than a conventional gasoline motor. Hybrid vehicles require not only a gas motor but also an electric motor, battery storage system, as well as systems to generate and reclaim the energy to be stored in the battery. On top of that, hybrids require additional systems to manage and operate all these extra parts.

What Sort of Reliability Issues Might Hybrids Have?

This is a complex question that is a big worry for consumers that have become used to the excellent reliability of modern gasoline cars. However, current hybrid cars have actually demonstrated excellent reliability. Consumer Reports included several hybrid cars among those to receive top marks for reliability in 2009. However, the long term reliability of hybrids really hasn't been established in concrete terms because they haven't been around long enough to know. As first generation hybrids from earlier this decade age a bit more, we'll have a good idea how well they do when it comes to long-term stamina.

In the meantime, many states have passed laws requiring that hybrid systems in these vehicles be covered by a 10 year/150,000 mile warranty. This is known as the "California Standard" when it comes to hybrid laws, (California was the first to pass such regulations), and many states have adopted it as their own. Current areas that use the California Standard are Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, the District of Columbia and Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

Are There Safety Risks with Hybrid Cars?

Under most conditions, hybrid cars have proven to be just as safe as conventional vehicles. However there are several exceptions to this rule. When operating at low speeds in "electric only" mode, hybrids are very quiet and may pose an increased risk to pedestrians, especially the blind. Studies have shown that a hybrid car can be virtually impossible to hear under urban conditions. Also, hybrids may pose increased risk of fatality in the most severe accidents for a couple of reasons. One is that hybrid cars tend to be built lighter in order to help them achieve their greater mileage. Another is that the hybrid components, especially the high-voltage NiCad battery pack may pose an electrocution hazard if it is damaged in an accident, although manufacturers like Toyota claim that they have addressed this problem.

Are There Any Consumers Who Definitely Shouldn't Buy a Hybrid?

There are consumers who should stick with a non-hybrid when buying a new vehicle, specifically, people who don't drive their cars all that often. The hybrid battery packs must be charged by consistent use, or they will not function correctly and may go bad. Even after sitting for just a week or more, a hybrid's batteries will be affected. If you're not a consistent driver or you travel often and have to let your car sit, a hybrid is not the right choice for you.

Is There a Hybrid Smart Car?

Although Daimler Benz, the company that owns the Smart Car brand, does not manufacture a true hybrid Smart Four Two, there are companies that will modify a Smart Four Two and to a hybrid car. For example, companies like Lithium Technology Corporation and Zytek Systems convert Smart Four Two cars into plug-in hybrid vehicles. Instead of the standard Smart Car engine, the plug in hybrid versions uses a 1.5 L engine capable of propelling the vehicle to 84 mph.

While Smart does not currently have a hybrid vehicle available in the United States, it is offering one in the United Kingdom and other European countries. In Europe, Smart has released the Smart Micro Four Two micro hybrid. Also, there is an all electric version of the vehicle available in Europe. The company has made no announcements about plans to bring either all electric Smart vehicles or the micro hybrid vehicles to America at this time.

How Do Hybrid Cars Differ from Electric Cars?

Hybrid cars are actually a different class of cars from electric cars. A hybrid utilizes two motors, one that uses gasoline, and another that runs on a battery. A gasoline powered hybrid allows the car to use its battery for short distances, and on longer distance trips it runs like a normal car. These hybrid vehicles have very good fuel efficiency. The top in the class is the Toyota Prius, at more than 50 miles per gallon. Most hybrids range from 30 to 45 miles per gallon. Hybrid technology has been out there for almost a decade now, and there are many hybrids on the market.

Electric cars on the other hand are run 100 percent on electric batteries. These batteries are very expensive because they can travel great distances. Electric cars are measured by their electric range, which is their equivalent to miles per gallon. There are not that many electric cars on the market. Some of the notable ones are high end cars made by Tesla Motors, which includes their Roadster and the Model S. These are the top electric cars and have 250 to 300 mile electric ranges. The Chevy Volt is a mass produced electric car that has an electric range of 50 miles. Hybrid and electric cars work on similar and some of the same technologies, however they are two separate car classes that both have high fuel efficiencies.

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