How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

March 18, 2013

Learn how hybrid cars differ from pure electric and gas vehicles, their benefits and drawbacks, and myths about hybrid car technology.

As hybrid cars become more and more popular it is important to understand how they work. If you are currently shopping for a hybrid or have always wanted to know how they work then here is a quick primer on hybrid vehicles.

A hybrid is exactly what the name implies, a combination or hybrid of a gas and electric motor. The two motors work together with a number of other factors to greatly increase a vehicles fuel efficiency and lower its emissions, and overcome the shortcomings that each type of engine has on its own. Hybrids use advanced technology to wring every mile out of each gallon of gas or watt of electric power. Hybrid vehicles have been around for a long time, many locomotives are diesel-electric hybrids and some cities have diesel-electric buses. However, it is only in recent years that gas-electric hybrid passenger vehicles have become popular.

All gas-electric hybrids have certain parts in common. The following list describes these common parts.

Gas Engine
This is a gas engine like most cars have except that it is smaller. Most hybrids have 3-cylinder engines that produce between 65 to 80 horsepower. These engines are usually outfitted with advanced technologies that help them run more efficiently. Hybrid cars have a fuel tank like any normal vehicle.

Electric Motor
The electric motors are very sophisticated and expend energy to get the vehicle moving but also generate and store electricity through technologies such as regenerative braking.

The generator's sole job is to produce electrical power.

The batteries in a hybrid car store the electrical energy that the vehicle produces and is needed to power the electric engine.

A transmission on a hybrid vehicle does the same thing the transmission does on a normal car, it transfers power to the wheels. There are two main types of transmissions in gas-electric hybrid vehicles, parallel or series.

  • Parallel transmission. Parallel transmission allows both the gas and electric engine to turn the transmission. Computer controls help these components work together in the most efficient way possible. The electric motor will do a lot of the work at low speeds and let the gas engine take over as speed climbs.
  • Series transmission. In series transmission, the electric motor is the only motor that is connected to the transmission. The gas engine is connected to a generator and is used to generate electrical energy. An onboard computer determines what percentage of power comes from the battery pack and how much comes from the generator.

In addition to these parts, hybrids use other tricks and technologies to improve fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

Regenerative Braking
Brakes remove energy from a moving car. A hybrid car captures some of this energy and stores it in the battery pack. The electric motor slows the car and by acting as a generator it charges the batteries.

Idle Off
A hybrid will turn the gas engine off when the car is stopped at a light or stop sign. The electric engine then powers the car as you start up again and switches to the gas engine or generator as higher speeds are reached.

Advanced Materials and Design
Hybrids use lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber to reduce the weight of vehicle. Aerodynamic designs help cut back on drag helping to increase fuel efficiency.

All of these technologies combined help produce some very impressive gas mileage statistics. As these technologies improve we will see greater increases in fuel efficiency, and advances like plug in hybrids may eventually eliminate the need for gasoline altogether for short commutes.

The Benefits of Hybrid Cars for You and the Environment

There are many benefits of hybrid cars, so it's not a surprise that they are becoming more and more popular each year. Hybrid cars can run on electricity or water. There are also some that run on a combination of gas and electric or gas and water. Hybrid autos that are known as water hybrids do not really run on water, but instead on hydrogen that has been extracted from the water. Usually a water hybrid car runs on a combination of gasoline and hydrogen. Here are some of the top benefits to owning one of these green cars.

  • Environmental concerns. Hybrid cars emit less smog into the atmosphere than a regular car. The reason they emit pollution is because they run partially on gasoline once higher speeds have been hit.
  • Increased mileage. Hybrid cars allow for increased gas mileage. Again, this is due to the fact that they run only partially on gasoline. When an electric hybrid automobile is running on electric it will not be using any gasoline. The car will instead use electrical energy to start and to operate at low speeds. This will decrease the exhaust emissions and be of great benefit to the atmosphere. As the vehicle gains speed, the gasoline engine will take over.
  • Uses clean energy. Hybrid vehicles use clean sources of energy such as hydrogen and electric. Although they still use gasoline, harmful emissions are reduced when the hydrogen or electric powered engine is running the vehicle. Hybrid cars help reduce carbon emissions in the air.
  • Reduced fuel and maintenance costs. The lesser cost of fuel is a main benefit to hybrid car owners. When driving a vehicle that doesn't always need gas to run, you can save a lot on fuel costs. Hybrid vehicles require less maintenance because there are fewer moving parts and because of the clean fuel source. This is especially true with a water hybrid vehicle. There is less buildup in the engine, resulting in less wear and tear on the motor.
  • Excellent performance. Hybrid cars work with the same level of performance as any other car. With the exception of some electric hybrid cars that don't run as well on steep uphill climbs, you can expect the same high performance that you have always experienced with your vehicle. The electric hybrid might need to be switched over to gasoline to climb steeper hills.

In large cities where pollution is at its worst, hybrid autos make the largest impact because they produce very little to no emissions at slower speeds. Most people that drive them love them and do not notice any difference in performance. The demand for hybrid vehicles continues to increase, causing automakers to struggle to keep up with the demand for them. Hybrid vehicles are not gaining popularity only with the general public, but also with police and other law enforcement agencies.

Drawbacks of Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars have steadily increased in popularity because some of the advantages they have over conventional gas powered vehicles. However there can be some downsides to going hybrid, and each consumer should know about the possible drawbacks of taking advantage of hybrid technology before making the switch. Issues that drivers of hybrid cars may face include:

  • Reduced performance. The ultra-efficient hybrid motors have been criticized by some drivers as lacking power in comparison with their conventionally powered counterparts. The battery packs which are an essential part of a hybrid car's powertrain do not function as well under extremely cold temperatures. Anyone who needs a car that is going to perform reliably during very cold winters may want to consider an alternative vehicle. Also, operating the batteries at extremely hot temperatures may reduce their life. In addition, the battery pack adds a considerable amount of weight to the car, which could be a disadvantage under some conditions.
  • Increased cost. Consumers can expect to pay up to 20% more to purchase a hybrid vehicle than they would for a conventionally powered vehicle of the same make and model. This is because the complex hybrid drive components cost more to manufacture and assemble than a conventional drivetrain, which is simple by comparison. Although it's possible to recoup this cost with the savings that a commuter may experience on gasoline, that is a point that has often been disputed.
  • Expensive parts and maintenance. Hybrid parts tend to be more expensive and hard to find than for other vehicles. Many parts for the high-output electric motors and battery storage systems are unique and high-tech. Also, most repairs on a hybrid car just can't be handled by a home mechanic. There are special safety considerations (like the danger of electrocution) when repairing a hybrid car that mean it should be left to a specialized technician. Also, if you ever leave your car sitting for long periods of time a hybrid car is probably not a good choice. The battery pack in a hybrid needs to be run through its cycle regularly to keep it working well. Parking your car and not starting it for several weeks could actually ruin the battery system.
  • Safety concerns. The NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries that are part of the hybrid drive system operate at extremely high voltages, which can represent an electrocution hazard in an accident. Toyota claims that it has addressed this potential danger to minimize this risk in newer models, but these cars can be dangerous once they have suffered severe damage. In addition, hybrids may pose an extra danger to pedestrians when operating in electric-only mode because they are very difficult to hear. In fact, a study intended to measure the danger of hybrid and electric vehicles to blind pedestrians concluded that they are almost impossible to hear in urban conditions.

Myths about Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars are steadily growing in popularity due to their fuel economy and the desire to be more sensitive to our environment. Still there is a lot of confusion surrounding these vehicles and just what type of impact they have on our world. Here are the five main myths about hybrid vehicles.

  • They're just a fad. There is extensive debate about the lifespan of hybrid vehicles. Most engineers and auto manufacturers believe that eventually hydrogen-based technology will be the long-term replacement to fossil fuels such as oil. Still hybrid cars are not going away anytime soon. Hydrogen technology is a long ways off still and the success of hybrid technology has only grown in recent years. Improved fuel economy and less dependence on oil has created a niche for these vehicles and they will be around for the long term.
  • They're costly and high-maintenance. Buyers can now purchase a hybrid vehicle for under $30,000. While there are several models that are more expensive than this, two of the most well known manufacturers, Honda and Toyota, offer reasonably priced and high quality models for consumers. In addition, there are almost 50 different models of hybrids on the market to choose from. However the cost of a slightly higher hybrid vehicle can easily be offset by the difference in fuel economy and the amount of money saved on gasoline. The most serious cause of concern regarding hybrids is the maintenance, and in particular, the replacement of the battery. Most vehicle manufacturers warranty their hybrid batteries for 8-10 years. Though in truth, there hasn't been enough time to ascertain whether these batteries will last that long, and what they will cost to replace on a regular basis.
  • They need to be plugged in. Whenever the world "electric" is tossed around, a large percentage of people assume your new car will require an outlet. Not true. Hybrid vehicles are designed by engineers to use a system called "regenerative braking". This system was originally designed and used by locomotives. As your hybrid vehicle slows down, the energy lost is reclaimed and redirected back into the batteries, recharging them.
  • They have superior fuel economy. Why this is often true for many models of hybrid vehicles it is not true for all of them. Many hybrids, particularly sport utility vehicles and pick up trucks don't have better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts. This is partially due to the amount of weight the vehicles carry and the amount of power required to tow or haul larger loads.
  • They lack power. This myth may have been true at one point in the early design of hybrid vehicles but that is no longer the case anymore. However, a sacrifice in power generally allows a vehicle to generate better gas mileage. Those hybrid vehicles that have better power make this sacrifice.

Hybrid Cars vs. Electric Vehicles

With increasing fuel prices is, and a growing concern over the pollutants and carbon emissions created by gas powered vehicles, both hybrid cars and electric vehicles are gaining in popularity these days. Both hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles offer significant improvements in fuel economy over a traditional gas-powered engine-based vehicle and are much better for the environment because they produce much less carbon emissions that are released into the air and atmosphere. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of vehicles.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles are exactly what the name implies--they are vehicles that run completely off of electricity and use rechargeable batteries. Generally speaking, electric vehicles are the cleanest type of vehicle currently manufactured because they release absolutely no harmful pollutants or carbon emissions into the air. Furthermore, once you purchase an electric vehicle, you will never be required to purchase gasoline in order to drive the car. Depending on how much you drive, you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year in fuel costs.

Although electric vehicles certainly offer many benefits to the environment and are very inexpensive to drive and operate, there are some drawbacks as well. For instance, driving range is severely limited on most electric vehicles. This is because current technology for rechargeable batteries requires that the batteries be recharged frequently in order to provide power to the vehicle. Currently, most electric vehicles can only travel short distances before the battery needs recharging. Also, it can take 10 to 12 hours to charge a dead battery cell.

Typical driving ranges on election vehicles currently vary from about 60 miles per charge up to about 200 miles per charge. While this limited range is acceptable for short-range commutes, it may not be adequate for weekend driving or if you live far from your place of employment.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hybrid Vehicles
Hybrid vehicles are a combination of electric-vehicle technology and conventional gas-powered engine technology. A hybrid vehicle sometimes uses electricity to operate, and at other times uses its standard gas engine. Generally speaking, hybrid vehicles offer fuel efficiency about 30% to 40% better than gas-engine equivalents. Hybrid vehicles allow vehicle owners to considerably reduce their investment in gasoline, and generally do a much better job of reducing carbon-based emissions into the environment.

However, hybrid vehicles are considerably more expensive than the exact same model that uses a standard gasoline engine. Typically, hybrid vehicles cost an average of about $5000 to $12,000 more than the standard gas-engine model of the same kind. Furthermore, many analysts and experts claim that the fuel cost savings afforded by hybrid vehicles is generally hard to recoup because of the increased selling price of these vehicles. Also, repair costs on hybrid vehicles can tend to be much more expensive, as many mechanics are not familiar with the electric engine component of hybrid vehicles.

As you can see, both hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles offer valuable benefits to our environment; furthermore, they can help you reduce the amount it costs each month to drive your vehicle. However, both types of vehicles have limitations associated with them that may cause you to consider if these types of vehicles are best for you or not. Therefore, when researching alternative-energy vehicles, also consider your driving habits, the distances you need to drive and how often you will need to drive the vehicle.

How to Find the Right Hybrid Car

If you are thinking of purchasing a hybrid car, it is important to know how to find the car that best fits your wants and needs. If you aren't sure of where to begin, here are a few tips to help you through the process.

Personal Taste
Above all else, the car needs to meet your needs and wants. Think about this in terms of a car in general, and not just as a hybrid. Consider appearance such as both interior and exterior color and design. Think about what you will be using it for, whether it's mainly for transportation to and from work, or if you need plenty of space in the rear for transporting large items.

Available Options
Once you know exactly what you want, you need to find out what hybrids out there will meet your needs. Everything from horse power to heavy-duty body designs to luxury cars are being offered in the form of hybrids today. Don't limit yourself to the stereotypically tiny hybrid car; today, there are more options than ever for hybrid cars, including SUV-style hybrids for those that need the extra room. Another option recently becoming available is the ability to buy a hybrid plug-in car, which boasts an average of up to 100 mpg or more.

Not every company's definition of a hybrid is exactly the same, so you should go over even the most basic hybrid choices that you might think are givens, such as gas mileage.

Online Research
To find the right hybrid that meets your needs on paper, start with an Internet search. Many car websites out there will not only compare prices for hybrids, but compare options available on various models.

Naturally, you aren't going to really know what car comfort to expect based on a list of features. Once you've narrowed down the hybrid you want, its time to go out and start test driving to see what truly fits you.

How to Find Special Deals for Hybrid Cars

Finding the right deal on hybrid cars doesn't have to be an elusive goal. In fact, if you know what you want, know where to look and what to look for, searching for the perfect deal on a hybrid car is a fairly easy process.

What You Want
As with any car purchase, take note of everything you want included in your hybrid, and what you want your hybrid to be capable of, not to mention what you want your hybrid to look like. As the world turns more and more towards going green, more options in hybrid cars become available, even for those looking for larger, SUV-style vehicles. To get a solid idea of what is available in a hybrid, just browse through a local hybrid dealership, or do a search for new hybrid cars online.

Where to Look
Where you look will depend on whether you want a new or used hybrid. Used hybrids are especially hard to find outside of going directly to an auto dealership known to have new and used hybrids. If you are lucky, you may find advertisements for a used hybrid for sale in the newspaper, or by some other local means. The two best places to look, however, are hybrid-specific dealerships, and car websites. The beauty of shopping around online, especially, is that many websites will collate all price and feature comparisons for you to spot the best deal.

What to Look For
Any dealership, whether for hybrids or any other cars, will always offer some sort of incentive for people unsure about their purchase. Be sure to look for incentives offered at dealerships, such as free or reduced maintenance that goes beyond the hybrid's warranty. Maintenance and repair is an important detail to find out about, as not every auto shop will work on hybrid cars. Also, in order to get the best deal on your new hybrid, do your car searching toward the end of the year, at which point dealerships are offering better deals so they can unload cars on the lot and make room for the newer models coming in.

Searching for a good deal on hybrid doesn't have to be a hard process, just know what you want, where to look and what to look for.

Converting Hybrid Cars to Plug In Vehicles

You've joined the craze for hybrid cars and purchased your first one. The gas mileage is great, and it feels good to be helping the environment while lightening the burden on your wallet. So what could be better than a hybrid car? How about a hybrid car you can plug into the wall and charge up to double your miles per gallon?

Is an Aftermarket Kit Worth It?
Before converting to a plug in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), determine how worth it an aftermarket conversion kit is. Everybody wants to save money at the pump, but with the average aftermarket kit running anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000, you need to be sure that you're going to save enough on gas for the duration of your car's life to make back what you put into it.

To really know how worth it the price is, first look at how much you'll spend on gas when/if your battery runs on during the day, and figure out how long it will take to make back in savings the cost of your conversion kit and installation (usually two to three years). Compare that to how much you can expect to spend on average for gas over that same period of time. Also think about how much more you will save if you plan to keep the car for even longer. Obviously, the conversion kit is more worth it for a newer car you're going to have for longer.

Purchasing a Conversion Kit
Shop around online for the best conversion kit for your money, but don't be surprised if you still have to pay a pretty penny. Be sure to check into things like expected battery life while driving and whether or not the battery is replaceable. Also, make absolutely certain that the conversion kit you purchase is made for your specific model hybrid.

Do-it-yourself kits are available, but it is recommended to have the kit installed by a dealership or auto shop that deals in hybrid plug-in cars. A point to remember, if installing yourself, is to make sure that, should the worst happen, you make it easy to replace the battery.

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