In 1999 Honda introduced the first Insight to the U.S. market and at that time the race began. The race was obviously not a very fast one since we are talking about hybrids which are not very fast. The race was a race to develop new technology that would make cars go farther on less fuel, and create less pollution. Both of these things amount to greater energy efficiency. Of all of the alternative fuel systems that are on the market right now, none have experienced the kind of growth over the last decade that the hybrid vehicle has.
|2011 Toyota Prius|
|1999 Honda Insight|
A hybrid vehicle is one that runs on more than one power source. Hybrid vehicles use a gasoline engine and an electric motor for propulsion. Depending on the design it may be able to run on gasoline only, electric motor only, or a combination of the two. Examples of hybrid vehicles are things such the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid ever, the Honda Insight, and the Chevrolet Volt. Often you hear the Volt described as an electric car but the fact of the matter is that the Volt has a gasoline engine that will come on to assist the electric motor to propel the vehicle down the road, or to generate electricity for the electric motor the use. A true electric car such as the Nissan leaf has no gasoline engine at all, more on the Volt in a minute.
The gas/electric hybrids that are on the market now will always have the following components: Gasoline engine, one or two electric motor/generators, a high-voltage battery, and some kind of power inverter. All of these systems use complex computer controls to keep everything running nicely. Depending on the hybrid setup they may not have a transmission like we are used to on normal cars, or they may have one that is just like those found on normal cars. Hybrid drivetrain designs vary.
|2000 Toyota Prius|
Some hybrids have more complex systems that allow the vehicle to function more in electric mode only. These are what are known as series/parallel hybrids. With this design the electric motor or motors, are the primary drive units and the gas engine is there to assist and turn generators to produce electricity. Some hybrid designs cannot function at all in electric mode only. These are called parallel hybrids. A parallel hybrid uses the gas engine for the majority of the drive and the electric motor is there to assist. A design known as a series hybrid also exists but none of the hybrids currently on the market fall into this category. The series design has no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. All drive is accomplished by the electric motors and the gasoline engine is there only to turn a generator. This is essentially the way modern diesel electric locomotives run.
|An A/C compressor with no pulley|
|Engine and transmission removed from a hybrid vehicle. The big orange cables carry the high-voltage.|
|The rotor of of a brushless motor |
from a hybrid. Notice how well the scraper
sticks to the permanent magnets
|The field windings of a brushless motor from a hybrid|
A complex computer control system is used to monitor and control the state of charge of the HV battery. State of charge is never allowed to be higher than 80% of its actual capacity and it’s never allowed to drop below 20% of its actual capacity. The instrumentation that the driver sees may display that the HV battery is fully charged or fully depleted but it always stays within the middle 60% limits when things are operating normally. Because of these precise controls HV battery service life has proved to be much better than originally predicted.
Just like any other rechargeable battery, it was believed that the hybrid HV batteries would have a definite service life. The average life of your run of the mill car battery is between 3 and 5 years, maybe 6 at the most, and cell phone batteries usually go bad before the rest of the phone does. With hybrids first being introduced 13 years ago by Honda and Toyota, many of these first hybrids have well over 100k miles on the odometer and they are still running around on their original batteries. Eventually they can still degrade to the point where they don’t hold a charge and need to be replaced, but if they last for 15 years and 150k miles, or more, it may not matter if they need to be replaced.
So how do they drive?
Very well, actually. Despite what people say, most hybrid vehicles drive very nicely and have plenty of pep. The amount of power is usually not any different from a similarly sized vehicle. Some of the ways in which a hybrid functions might be very different and require some time to get used to. Every time you pull up to a stop the engine will shut off if it has been running. This is the idle stop function and it helps to save fuel. When you are waiting to turn left across traffic and the engine isn’t running it may seem a bit unnerving at first, but as soon as you lift your foot off the brake pedal to hit the accelerator the vehicle will move and the engine will start up right away if it is required.
Some hybrids such as the Honda Civic Hybrid or Ford Escape Hybrid feel very much like a normal car. All of the controls are familiar and no special instruction is needed to get the car started and moving down the road. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt are a bit different and may require a new driving lesson. Once you are moving down the road however, all hybrids handle well and drive nicely.
Weighing the Cost
One of the great debates surrounding hybrid vehicles is whether or not the owner of a hybrid will actually save enough money on fuel to make up the extra cost involved in buying a hybrid, versus buying a normal gasoline powered car. All of this depends on how many miles the vehicle is driven in a year. Using the Civic hybrid for an example we can look at some numbers to figure this out. The reason that the Civic Hybrid is a good example is because we can compare the exact same car in hybrid form, regular form, a high fuel economy HF version, and just for the fun of it, we can look at the natural gas powered Civics as well.
|2012 Civic Hybrid|
- 2012 Civic EX (the normal gas powered Civic) $21,505 39 mpg
- 2012 Civic Hybrid $24,505 44 mpg
- 2012 Civic HF (the high fuel economy model) $19,455 41 mpg
- 2012 Civic GX (natural gas powered) $26,155 38 mpg
|A civic that runs on natural gas is more practical than the hybrid.|
Plug-In to Better Fuel Economy
Plug-in hybrids represent the next evolution of the hybrid vehicle, and this feature may be the thing that allows hybrids to become a very legitimate alternative. The thing that makes a plug-in hybrid different is the fact that they can typically run much faster and much farther on electric motors only. The Chevy Volt for example can go about 40 miles at speeds up to 40 or 50 mph on the electric motor only. This means that the gasoline engine would never come on. If your daily compute is 20 or 30 miles round trip, you could drive to work and back, maybe run a few errands along the way, and never use any gasoline. When you get home you could plug your car in for the night and in the morning it would be all charged up and ready to go.
|The Chevrolet Volt is actually a hybrid and not a true electric.|
Currently the Volt is the only plug-in hybrid on the market but Toyota will be releasing a plug-in Prius, and Ford will release a plug-in Fusion Hybrid sometime in 2012. Most other manufacturers that currently offer hybrids will be adapting a plug-in feature to their models at some point.
The Volt carries an MSRP of about $41,000 which is pretty steep for a small sedan, and makes regular hybrids look like a good deal. Chevy released the car to market after the federal government had taken over the bankrupt GM. The Feds will give you a $7500 tax credit if you buy a Volt. That only brings the cost of a new Volt down to $33500 which is still a lot of money for this type of car. Having U.S. tax payers fund a certain percentage of your new car purchase also seems somewhat immoral. If you are wealthy enough to spend over 30k on a new car what entitles you to receive another $7500 from your neighbors?
plug-in has not yet been announced.
Plug-in hybrids sound great but considering the cost it’s hard to justify buying one as well. Whne they bring the cost down then maybe we will have something worthwhile. The other thing to consider is that the electric power charged to the batteries when the car is plugged in has to come from somewhere and still has to be paid for.
What about the Horse and Buggy?
While it seems fairly obvious that hybrid vehicles are probably still impractical for the most part it helps if we put things into perspective. Imagine the year is 1900. It has been 14 years since Karl Benz built his motorwagen, which is considered to be the first modern car powered by an internal combustion engine. Other upstarts have been around for just a few years and Henry Ford is doing a lot of experimentation, but the Model T is still 8 years away. Some of the wealthy are just beginning to run around town in these noisy little horseless carriages from names such as Ransom E. Olds and David Buick.
At this point, many say that these might be the future, but such a thing is hard to imagine and here are some of the reasons why. These little motor cars are slow, expensive, reliability is dubious, and no real practicality can be seen in owning one. When they break down and you take it to the blacksmith shop they aren’t going to know how to work on them. They are so complicated compared to what we are used to that it makes no sense to say that this will one day be the standard. Those that currently own them are trying to make a statement about themselves, or they are just trying to show off and act like they are ultra-modern. Some might say, “Just give me a good team of horses and a sturdy wagon or buggy and I can get around just fine for the rest of my life.”
Now reread the above paragraph and substitute the word blacksmith with mechanic, and the words, team of horses and a sturdy wagon or buggy, with normal car, and you could apply the message to some of the negative viewpoints surrounding hybrids today. The bottom line on hybrids is that this technology is new and still unproven, and still needs to develop further. Current hybrids are not good enough to be the future of transportation, but a future hybrid that is much better and much cheaper might be. Let’s sit back and see what happens.
|Porsche Cayenne Hybrid|