What are Hybrid Cars?

History provides many examples that the path of development chosen by humans had always held an inverse relation between growth and ecological imbalance. But by the end of the last century, the ill effects of these unsustainable development model began to show up in the form of global warming, pollution and other natural hazards.

One of the major culprits in this regard was the CO2 (carbon- di-oxide) emitted from vehicles running on gas. With increasing concern about pollution and depletion of fossil fuels, the society demanded a shift to some cleaner source of energy for vehicles. The equally responsible Auto Industry came up with brilliant ideas of Solar Vehicles, Electric Vehicles and Bio fuel Vehicles. But such models could never compete with the highly efficient energy of fossil fuels, which delivered more power per pound than any other source. The people were not ready to compromise with the speed and mileage of their vehicle for the sake of environment.

We needed a system that maintains equilibrium between the pace of development and the ecological balance. We needed to shift from the awareness mode to the action mode. It was a challenge to the Car Manufacturers and they responded with the idea of the Hybrid Vehicles – to combine the efficiency of fossil fuels with the cleanliness of non-conventional sources.

What are Hybrid Vehicles?

The hybrid vehicle can be defined as a vehicle that combines more than one power source to provide propulsion power, directly or indirectly. Since amongst the entire hybrid models proposed, the Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) is the only one which has reached the conveyor belt from the conceptual stage, hence all further discussions will relate to HEVs.

It is true that the by-products of electric powered car are harmless to the environment, but they take a lot of time to recharge and are also unable to deliver high speeds. Moreover, their price is beyond the limit of common man. On the other hand, the gas powered cars are efficient and affordable, but, their by-products are hazardous. So the aim of the hybrid vehicle is to combine the strengths of these two types of engines and eliminates the negativities. The HEVs are the perfect answer. They are more powerful than electric cars and produce less pollution than gas cars. This is the equilibrium that is required.

History of Hybrid Vehicles

Although its popularity has risen only in the last decade, but the hybrids have been around for more than hundred years. The first electric-powered car in the 19th century was created in Scotland. Designed by Robert Anderson, the invention got off the drawing board but could not be successful since the vehicle had limited range and a battery power that was difficult to recharge. The first patent for a petrol-electric-hybrid car was filed by H.Piper in 1905 with an ambitious goal to combine an inte. combustion engine with an electric one to achieve 25 miles per gallon, but even it could not be a commercial success. The first breakthrough came by when, Porsche developed an electric and internal combustion engine in which the electric batteries were located in the wheel hubs.
With the increasing success of gas powered vehicles, the idea of hybrid vehicles got off the limelight. It was not until the end of the 20th century, when the concept of HEVs again entered into the mainstream, this time, with a goal to achieve 190 miles per gallon and defeat its counterparts in all other aspects. The environmentalists hope that this time, it is here to stay.

Technology behind Hybrid Vehicles

We all have a basic idea about the hybrid vehicles, especially those who have has a ride on mo-ped (motorized – pedal bike), which combines the power of the gas engine with the pedal power of the rider. Also, most of the trains today are diesel-electric hybrids. But to understand the technology in a better way, we must concentrate over Hybrid Electric Cars.

Hybrid Electric Cars (HEV)

Almost every HEV uses a power-train combination which consists of a standard gas engine and an electric motor which uses energyhybrid electric vehicle from a nickel-metal hydride battery. The engine constitutes the fuel propulsion system while the electric motor and the battery constitute a rechargeable energy storage system (RESS). Small engines, obviously, use less fuel. Hence, hybrid vehicles have a relatively smaller and more efficient gas engine and a larger electric motor.

  • Electric Motor Assistance : The instant torque required to accelerate from the stationary state is provided by the electric motor and the vehicle runs on electric power until a specific speed. It is so programmed that the supply shifts to internal combustion engine when required. This transition is managed by a Power-Split device.
  • Auto Start/Shutoff : When the vehicle stops, both the engines shut down and it restarts when the accelerator is pressed, automatically. This saves a lot of fuel.
  • Regenerative Braking : HEVs extend battery charge by using the Kinetic Energy of the wheels when electric motor applies resistance during application of brakes. At this moment, the regenerative circuit converts the motor into a generator, and converts the wasted energy into electrical energy stored in the battery.

Improved fuel economy, stiffer tires, aerodynamic design, circuits and programming make the hybrid vehicles more efficient than standard cars.

Ethanol Hybrid Cars

Ethanol is a biological fuel obtained from crops like corn. Ethanol has a high octane value and hence can be used very efficiently as a fuel in vehicles. Ethanol is mixed with gasoline to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of the fuel. Almost all vehicles use ethanol in small amounts in their fuel. But the vehicles which can use higher percentages of ethanol in fuel are termed as Ethanol Hybrid Vehicles.

Hydrogen Hybrid Cars

Hydrogen contains a lot of energy which can be used in fuels for vehicles but the problem is that hydrogen is not easily available. Some cars use a metal hydride fuel tank while the others use methanol. In both types there is a reforming device that converts metal hydride or methanol to hydrogen. But the most developed fuel cell will contain a hydrogen gas tank that mixes with oxygen in the air to generate electricity producing steam as waste product. Thus Hydrogen is a very clean fuel with a high efficiency but such cars are still in the development stage.

Benefits and Limitations of Hybrid Cars

Today, hybrid cars are entering into the main arena with more and more people accepting the concept of a green tomorrow. Hybrid cars are much cleaner and quieter than standard cars. Unlike other eco-friendly concepts, the hybrid model can boast of an exceptionally high mileage. So, while saving money, one can do his bit for the environment. For people, who are extensively using their vehicles, hybrid vehicle saves money per mile covered. Though the rates of these cars may initially be a bit high, they are very much worth it in the long run during its lifespan.

But there is a not-so-sunny picture when considering certain factors. One deterrent for buying a hybrid is that the initial investment is more than what the people can afford. Although hybrids save money in the long run, but the payback time, for some customers, may be more than what they can afford.

The best part is that the hybrid industry is developing at a rapid rate to hurdle across all obstacles in its path and emerge as a leading technology.

Limitations of Hybrid Cars

  • The efficiency of a hybrid shares an inverse relation with the driving experience as they lack the sporty nature of conventional vehicles.
  • Hybrid Vehicles cost more than regular cars because they make use of an electric motor. Moreover, their spare parts and maintenance is rare and therefore, costly.
  • The hybrid car makers try to increase the efficiency by using lightweight material which in turn poses safety threats. Also there is a less chance for rescuers to protect the driver in case of an accident, due to electric motor and increased risk of electrocution. Due to high voltage in wires, there is an increased chance of short-circuit.
  • Because of uncommon vehicle parts like the regulator between battery and electric motor, in case of a new glitch, it might take more time to come up with a solution. But it should not stop the buyer from using these hybrids as it is a trial  phase which won’t last long.

The Hybrid Car Market

The leading car manufacturers are leaving no chance to target the environment friendly customers. Moreover, the people are also seeing the hybrid cars as a long term investment, that will return benefits in the years to come. The car companies are struggling to fix their spots in the market of the coming years. It would be an injustice to justify the growing market of hybrid vehicles only with the rise in fuel prices. Credit should be given to the auto industry for investing in hybrid vehicles and realizing its importance ahead of time.

Today the market is crowded with a wide variety of hybrid models to choose from. As per the data of April 2012, Toyota leads the market in term of number of units sold. Its model – Prius commands more than 60% of total market in terms of number of cars sold in April. The hybrid car sales statistics clearly indicates that Toyota Prius is the top selling hybrid and that too, by a large margin. Although Honda Insight was the first hybrid released (in 1999), but still Prius (released in 2000) has emerged as a great commercial hit. The Toyota Prius continues to earn favorable reviews and rightly so, because of the highest mileage delivered by it as shown below:

                                                 Mileage comparison between popular hybrid models (in MPG)

hybrid car mileage

From 3 hybrid vehicle options in 2004 to more than 30 in 2011, the hybrid vehicle market is expanding at a rapid rate. And this is just the beginning, the statistics show a steep rise in the sales of hybrid cars in last 3 years which is estimated to grow drastically in the next few years. Even the view of achieving 100% independence from fossil fuels, does not seem utopian now.

Is it worth the money?

There cannot be a general answer to that question as each customer has different parameters to judge from. It cannot be denied that the price of a hybrid is more than its non-hybrid counterpart. Although the hybrids are sure to save money in the long run, especially with the rising prices of gasoline, but still not everyone has the financial means to pay the initial price. The tentative prices of the major hybrid companies have been analyzed below:

                                                        Price comparison of popular hybrid car models (in '000 USD)
hybrid car prices

Before taking any decision, the customer must research the market properly and do the necessary mathematics to find out which hybrid will suit his personal requirements. He must estimate whether the hybrid will prove to be a cost-saver or in how much time will he be able to extract the extra money he had put into it.

It is better to look at it is as an investment for the future of our planet, which will also deliver personal benefits in the long run. With ecological concerns coming to the forefront, personal interest must be combined with the greater good of the planet before taking a decision. Whatever decision is taken, there is no doubt that a hybrid vehicle will show its worth in the future.