The growth of hybrid cars in the automotive industry has skyrocketed over the last two decades. From selling 17 units in 1999 to over 5.8 million units by 2020 in the U.S. alone, it speaks volumes to their popularity.
But hybrids weren’t always popular. And neither were they anything new. So what changed? What made hybrids so appealing? And, Why are hybrids suddenly the new norms of the automotive industry?
To answer this question, let’s first understand hybrid technology and how it came to be.
Hybrid vehicles are cars with a hybrid power plant. As the name sounds, a hybrid power plant is a mix of electric and gasoline power sources. In simple terms, a hybrid engine combines an internal combustion engine (ICE) with an electric motor. Both of which are either used individually or together to power the drivetrain.
While the combustion engine is powered by fuel, the electric motor is run by battery packs. The batteries are charged by using regenerative technology, which uses the car’s deceleration to produce energy.
As a result, we get a highly fuel-efficient power plant, scoring mileage up to 50-60 mpg. Causes less emission, runs quieter, and uses electricity to boost performance and save energy.
Today, a hybrid sits between traditional combustion cars and fully electric vehicles, offering the best of both worlds. Thanks to modern development, hybrids are more affordable and provide better value.
But as mentioned before, hybrids aren’t a new technology. In fact, they are over 100 years old, but it was only in the 21st century that they were able to show their real value.
Now, why is that?
Electric motors were developed way back in 1834. A few years later, we got out our very first automobile that was powered by electricity. In 1866, the first gas-powered car was built, and 33 years later, we got our very first hybrid from Ferdinand Porsche.
But rather than using batteries like today, Porsche relied on a gasoline-powered engine as a power supply to an electric motor that spun the wheels. Known as the Mixte hybrid, Porsche produced 300 units of it. The hybrid was received well, and plans for mass production were put into action.
However, the introduction of the assembly line by Ford in 1904 decreased the production time and cost of their gas-powered cars. Their low prices and easier availability faded all the hybrid hype, and it was forgotten until 1973.
When the oil crisis hit the U.S. in 1973, the largest car market was greatly affected. 85% of the Americans relied on their cars for daily commutes, and suddenly they had limited or no fuel to travel. The higher gas prices and reduced supply showed the vulnerability of the automotive industry forcing manufacturers to find an alternative.
For the next 25 years, manufacturers put tremendous resources into researching hybrid and EV technology. Besides tackling the dependency on fuel, automakers also had to comply with stricter emission regulations; hybrid/EVs proved a perfect solution.
While certain manufacturers managed to produce a few EV vehicles like the General Motors EV1 and Toyota RAV-4 EV. It wasn’t until 1997 when Toyota introduced the Prius to the Japanese market did a hybrid start getting noticed. Then came Honda with the Honda Insight in 1999, becoming the first mass-produced hybrid in the U.S. Yes, Honda beat Toyota in selling the first hybrid in America.
The Prius was launched in the U.S. in 2000, and hybrid vehicles were back in the game. However, unlike before, the new hybrid was powered by the combustion engine and the electric motor. And the way the system functions is entirely different.
There are multiple types of hybrid engines, with each version working slightly differently.
However, all hybrids have an ICE with electric motors and battery packs. The way they work is straightforward. While the combustion engine works as a primary power source, the electric motor helps in between.
Like in some hybrids, the car would first run on electric power and then switch to gas. When the vehicle is stopped, the car goes completely electric, keeping the engine idling to a minimum.
Further, an electric motor can help during initial acceleration or in-between transmission shifts.
As a result, the internal combustion engines in many hybrid systems are smaller due to reduced loads.
Everything is powered by the engine itself in a conventional ICE setup, including electronic components and air conditioning. However, in a hybrid, all those loads are taken up by the battery, continuously being charged by an electric generator. The generator generates power from the wheel or the motor using regenerative technology.
This way, hybrids save fuel by not charging the battery using the engine and powering the electronics from the batteries, but the reduced load also adds to their fuel efficiency.
Hybrids save fuel (gas) by not using the engine to always charge the battery and reducing the overload placed on the ICE. The amount of load reduction, however, is decided by the type of hybrid you are driving.
There are mainly three types of hybrid available in the market. The mild-hybrid (MHEV), plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and full-hybrid(HEV). Additionally, you also have a hybrid system used by sports cars and in Formula 1 racing.
Let’s understand them one by one.
As the name sounds, a mild hybrid is a gas-powered vehicle that uses a small electric generator to modestly support the car. The electric generator replaces both the starter motor and alternator and uses a small Li-ion battery as a power source.
What differentiates the mild hybrid from others is its inability to work separately. Meaning a mild hybrid doesn’t have enough juice to run the car purely on electricity. The electric generator can only charge the battery pack, so the power can aid the engine.
Working on a 48-volt electrical system, the electric generator assists the engine under heavy acceleration or at instances of ignition or acceleration from a stationary position. The additional support enables the system to be about 15% more economical than conventional engines.
A plug-in hybrid is a hybrid car that needs to be plugged in. These are the cars that are closest to a full EV that runs purely on battery.
In a plug-in hybrid, you have electric motors along with an ICE setup. The electric motors are powered by large battery packs that can drive your car purely on electric power, just like a standard EV.
When the batteries discharge, the car will switch to gasoline and continue driving. You can also operate a PHEV by combining both power sources and enjoying better fuel economy.
Since the battery packs used on PHEVs are a lot bigger than with a mild or full hybrid, they must charge separately through an electric charger. Thanks to this, you can enjoy an extended range of 30-40 miles purely on electricity. This can be ideal for short distances traveled in urban and suburban use, while the addition of a gas engine is ideal for long-distance travel.
Among many PHEVs, the BMW i3 is one with the longest electric range of 126 miles. Whereas the Panamera S E-hybrid is the fastest.
A full-hybrid is the most common hybrid system used in vehicles like the Toyota Corolla, RAV-4, and Yaris. It sits in between mild and plug-in hybrid and offers benefits common to both. Like the PHEV, it is a hybrid system that combines both a combustion engine and an electric motor.
A full-hybrid can completely ride in electric form or use both power systems simultaneously, depending on the mode. However, unlike the PHEV, the batteries don’t need to charge separately.
Instead, the batteries on a full-hybrid are charged just like the mild hybrid by using regenerative technology. As the batteries are smaller than the PHEV, they can be charged more easily by the onboard generator.
Their smaller size also makes the full-hybrid comparatively lighter than the PHEV. But smaller batteries also mean less power, so full hybrids have a limited electric range and slower speed.
On the plus side, you get additional range, better fuel efficiency, and a performance boost from the installed electric motor.
Check out the latest collection of hybrid and zero-emission cars at Trust Auto. Please note that all vehicles are subject to prior sale.
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