Understanding Hybrid Cars – A Comprehensive Guide to Hybrid Cars

The very mention of “Hybrid Cars” and these days everyone thinks of the Toyota Prius. But did you know that the Prius wasn’t the first Hybrid Car? And that even though we have become familiar with the concept of Hybrid Vehicle thanks to it, the first hybrid car was designed by Porsche?

Hybrid Cars – A brief history

Jacob Lohner – a coach builder from Vienna – is widely considered to be the pioneer of Hybrid Vehicles. In the early 20th century, hybridization of vehicles wasn’t to gain more fuel economy. Rather their invention was pushed by the fact that traditional cars with their internal-combustion engine were quickly becoming disliked owing to their foul-smelling emissions.

Lohner, at that time, reached out to a very young engineer in the automotive industry – Ferdinand Porsche. At the young age of 21, Porsche created an electric motor that fit inside the hub of the wheel, and was completely battery operated. Lohner loved the design and asked Porsche to fit his motor inside one of the coaches that Lohner was already manufacturing. The outcome was what is the first Electric car – The Elektromobil.

Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil made its first public appearance at the Paris Exposition in the year 1900. This was almost a century before we ever heard the name Prius.

Initially, the Elektromobil was completely powered by the electric wheel hubs that Porsche had built. But keeping the battery charged was quickly becoming a major challenge. To mitigate this issue, Porsche went ahead and built a gasoline powered internal combustion engine that ran a generator, which in turn charged the battery. Effectively, building the world’s first Hybrid.

As per estimates, Lohner and Porsche sold roughly 300 units of their Elektromobil. Post that, their work and the idea of Hybrid cars faded into the books of history.

Even after that, barring a few automotive experts, the concept of a “Hybrid Cars” was hitherto unheard of. People had no idea what a hybrid car was or that such a mode of transport even existed. And no car company was considering a hybrid to be a viable business model.

Prius makes an entrance

In the year 1997, Toyota took the reigns by launching the Prius in Japan. Widely considered the pioneering hybrid car, that took the concept of Hybridization to the mainstream. Four years later, in 2001, Prius saw a worldwide launch and car owners around the world wanted to own one. In just 6 years following that, by 2007,  Toyota surpassed one-million units in Prius sales around the world. This made it the most widely accepted Hybrid in history.

What are Hybrid Cars?

Traditional cars have an internal combustion engine that is powered by gasoline or diesel. Hybrid cars have an internal combustion engine as well that are powered by the above mentioned fuels, but over and above that – they have at least one electric motor and use both of these to move the vehicle.

The car’s movement is sometimes powered by the Electric motor alone, in which case no fuel is used. At other times, the movement is powered by the internal combustion engine alone, in which case fuel is burnt. And at other times, both engines work in conjunction to move the car.

The overall result is less burning of fuel, thereby resulting in better fuel economy for the driver.

The term “hybrid” literally means – “a certain thing built by the combination of two different things”. In this case, the two different things are the traditional internal combustion engine and the modern electric motor. Hence the term, Hybrid Cars.

Electricity in a hybrid car comes from a high voltage battery pack in the car (this is separate from the traditional 12-volt battery that comes with every car). Hybrid cars also employ a system called “regenerative braking” – this charges the battery every time the brakes are applied by processing the energy/heat generated during braking. The gas engine also recharges the battery in many cases.

What are the different types of Hybrid Cars?

Though “Hybrid Cars” is an umbrella term for any vehicle that sports a gas engine and an electric engine together – not every car is built alike. Various manufacturers build hybrid cars to satiate varying requirements – some are built to increase the fuel economy to the maximum possible level, while others are built to bring down the cost of the vehicle.

Let’s take a look at the various types of Hybrid Cars in the market today –

Plug-in Hybrids

Hybrid Car Charging

This is the closest Hybrid cars get to full electric vehicles in terms of recharging/refueling. A Plug-in Hybrid as the name suggests is the kind of car wherein the engine can be charged through an electric socket.

Plug-in Hybrids sport the biggest battery pack out of all kinds of Hybrid cars and can be charged at your home, office or even at a public charging station.

Think of it like having a bigger tank of gas. Once recharged, these cars can give you a decent mileage per charge that can range from 25 to 55 miles per full charge.

These cars work exceptionally well for people with a short daily commute. Since, if recharged every night, the car is almost always powered by electric charge and never touches the fuel in the tank.

In the event that the electric charge is depleted completely, the car reverts to becoming a standard “Parallel Hybrid”, a form of Hybrid Cars explained below. However, there are some Plug-in Hybrids that are “Series Hybrids” as well – another form, explained below.

Most Common Examples of Plug-in Hybrids are the Mitsubishi Outlander P-HEV, Chevrolet Volt cars and the Toyota Prius PHV.

Parallel Hybrids

This is the most common for Hybrid Cars available on the market. Parallel Hybrids, as the name suggests, boast of a design, where the electric motor and the gas engine connect to a single transmission. This moves the car by blending the two sources of power.

The kind of transmission employed by the vehicle and the size of its gas engines determines the acceleration, look & feel and even the sound of the vehicle.

Most Common Examples of Parallel Hybrids are the Toyota Prius, Lexus RX 400 and the Toyota Highlander.

Series Hybrid

In this form of Hybrid Cars, the electric motor powers the car entirely and the gasoline engine never comes in contact with the wheels. The sole purpose of the gasoline engine in a Series Hybrid car is to recharge the batteries, in order for the electric engine to power the car.

Since the electric engine powers the driving almost entirely – the driving experience is very similar to that of an all-electric car.

The only known issue is the unintentional revving of the engine. This is known to make some users uncomfortable.

The car does have an internal-combustion engine, even if only for charging the battery. And when the battery needs to be recharged, the engine begins revving on its own. So you might hear it rev, even when you’re cruising at medium speed, thereby making you uncomfortable.

Most Common Example of Series Hybrids is the Fisker Karma.

Uncategorized Hybrid Cars

The Hybrid Cars industry has had over two decades of research, engineering and development. As a result of this, there are cars that don’t conform to a particular bracket of hybrids. It’s almost impossible to classify them as a Series or a Parallel Hybrid.

Honda, for instance, has a unique design that makes it both a Series Hybrid and a Parallel Hybrid. Like a Series Hybrid, the gas engine in their design keeps on recharging the battery. However, like a Parallel Hybrid, the gasoline engine can also power the car.

Volvo, on the other hand, has a range of plug-in hybrids that use the traditional gas engine to power the front wheels. While the car’s rear axle is powered by an electric engine.

Mild Hybrids

Then there are Mild Hybrids – which are not complete hybrids. In the case of Mild Hybrids, the electric engine doesn’t power the wheels at all, it, however, assists the main internal-combustion engine to help improve the fuel economy and performance of the vehicle.

The fuel economy benefits of Mild Hybrids is nothing in comparison to other Hybrid cars. Owing to this reason, they failed to achieve mainstream popularity. However, in recent months, they’re making a comeback of sorts – with cars like Audi A6, A7 and A8 and even the Mercedes-Benz E-Class adopting a 48-volt electrical sub-system to compliment their traditional high powered internal combustion engine.

Essentially, some or the other form of hybridization is now evident in almost every new model of cars.

Features and Benefits of owning a Hybrid Car

The electric battery powering a Hybrid Car not only helps with the fuel economy. But with additional performance and energy saving features as well.

Idle-Off

This is arguably one of the best features of a Hybrid Car. Think of the small sensor located at the top of the front side of your phone, right besides the camera. When you’re in a call, as soon as you hold the phone to your ears, the sensor shuts off the screen, thereby preserving battery. Similarly, the screen turns back on almost immediately when you remove the phone from your ears. During this entire time, the phone is on and you won’t miss a text or another call or an email.

Hybrid cars have a similar feature called “Idle-off”. When the car is idle for a certain duration of time, the main engine shuts off, automatically. Such as when stuck in traffic, or when at a stoplight or waiting for someone.

The other features such as the air-conditioner and the screen or dashboard lights keep working, thanks to the electric engine. The electric motor can restart the car almost seamlessly when moving and even engage the conventional engine when needed. This results in huge fuel savings.

Regenerative Braking

This is yet another fuel-saving feature. When applying brakes in a traditional car, it almost entirely relies on friction. This results in the vehicle’s kinetic energy turning into heat and gradually dissipating in the air.

However, in Hybrid cars, some of these energy recharges the batteries. This, in turn, can power the car’s various components and even start or move the car when needed.

Power Assist

Another feature that essentially assists the traditional gas engine. This results in the load on the gas engine to become greatly reduced. Thereby, allowing a reduction in its size.

Smaller gasoline engines produce less power on their own. However, in conjunction with electric engines, their capability fairly increases. These Hybrid Engines are capable of producing power that can equal or even exceed traditional gas only vehicles.

Electric-Only Drive and Electric Assist

Hybrids that sport a larger battery-pack (such as plug-in hybrids) can allow their users to enjoy extended drives. That too at relatively higher speeds on electricity alone without using the gasoline engine at all.

In Hybrids that are not be plug-in, the electric engine starts the car and can even drive at low speeds.

In either case, this results in far less fuel utilization..

On a final note

Hybrid cars have the potential to protect the environment and the climate. Not only this, it is also capable of protecting the consumer.

Reduced fuel usage is the need of the hour. And Hybrid cars are a great solution. They also rank very highly on the maintenance scale and require very little maintenance.

As a car owner, when owning a Hybrid, you gain from the enormous fuel saving benefits of Hybrid Cars. While at the same time doing your part for the planet.

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