All About Hybrid Cars

A leading automotive tech expert provides the basics about how hybrid cars work and tells how to choose the best hybrid vehicle for your driving needs.

| GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012

More than a dozen years after the first hybrid cars arrived in the United States, shoppers now can choose among 33 different gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles from every major automaker, with more to come. The best of these high-mpg cars offer a compelling combination of features: high fuel efficiency, long-term affordability and long driving range. The technology of these fuel-efficient cars is proven and here to stay, with more than 2.1 million hybrids on U.S. roads. Though that represents only about 1 percent of all our vehicles, it’s the first “green” alternative that has reached this level of adoption.

Hybrids have become so common — in California, the Toyota Prius outsells the longtime best-selling gasoline-powered Camry family sedan — it’s easy to forget the drastic measures previous generations took to get phenomenal gas mileage.

For example, there was the Arkansas man in the late 1970s who ripped out the gas engine of his Opel GT coupe and replaced it with an electric motor, 5-horsepower lawn mower engine and four 12-volt batteries. When he was finished, David Arthurs had a homemade hybrid car that could go 75 miles on just 1 gallon of gasoline. He published his blueprints in the July/August 1979 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. (Go to Electric Car Conversion: The Amazing 75-MPG Hybrid Car to read the original article.)

For the adventurous DIY crowd, the mileage was great, but reliability and durability were another matter. The level of sophistication and computerization of today’s hybrids is a far cry from Arthurs’ lawn mower hybrid, but the basic idea of a hybrid hasn’t changed. In fact, the inner workings of the first known hybrid — produced in 1898 by then unknown 23-year-old engineer Ferdinand Porsche — were similar to today’s systems. Instead of solely relying on a gasoline internal-combustion engine to power the wheels, an electric motor and batteries are also called into service — especially during moments when either pure electricity or a gasoline-electric combo can maximize efficiency.

How Hybrids Work

The availability of the electric motor for propulsion enables the hybrid to burn less gasoline. Today’s hybrids — the ones that don’t plug in — use sophisticated onboard computers to decide which source of power to use when, and how much and when to blend the two.

Toyota’s hybrids, the Ford Fusion and several others on the market are considered full hybrids, meaning that the vehicles can drive at low speeds solely using electric power. Most full hybrid systems have two electric motors — one to supply traction to the wheels, and the other to turn the gas engine on and off smoothly. On the other hand, a “mild” hybrid — most notably the single-motor system from Honda — can move from a standstill only if the internal-combustion engine is engaged. It uses the electric motor primarily to assist the gas engine to improve efficiency. Some of the newer hybrid systems — from Hyundai and Volkswagen, for example — have only one motor, but use a clutch to automatically disengage the gas engine so only the electric motor moves the wheels at low speeds.

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