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What Is a Hybrid Car?


Published March 14, 2007

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How do they work?
Hybrid vehicles have two types of engines working together, a standard gas powered engine, and an electric motor assist powered by a rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. In theory, this environmentally friendly combination of gas and electric hybrid technology gives you higher gas mileage, and lower engine exhaust emissions, we'll explain how in a moment. Hybrids are not to be confused with electric vehicles. Hybrid cars are primarily gas powered cars with electrical motor assist. Some hybrid cars are qualified as "Clean Fuel Property" by the IRS. Some hybrid SUVs like the Lexus RX400h are even SULEV rated (Super-Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicle), appealing to the environmentally conscious new car buyer. Many hybrid vehicles are coming to market in the form of hybrid cars, hybrid trucks, and hybrid SUVs. Here are some examples of hybrid autos: Lexus RX 400h hybrid, Lexus GS 450h Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Honda Insight Hybrid, Toyota Prius, 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid, Toyota Highlander, and Ford Escape Hybrid.
If you live in a big congested city or do a lot of city driving you are a prime candidate for a hybrid car. In times of peak demand, selling prices could be full MSRP or higher. In 2005, with fuel prices spiraling out of control over the $3 mark, SUV sales plummeted as new car buyers embraced hybrid vehicles, causing waiting lists, and selling prices over MSRP on some hybrid models.

How Much Better is Hybrid Car Gas Mileage?
In certain driving modes, hybrid electric gas cars offer you no better fuel efficiency than standard cars. Also the fuel efficiency of Hybrid cars and SUVs works counter intuitive to what you would expect. Your gas mileage could be more volatile with a hybrid vehicle due to the way it operates in different driving modes, and how much time you spend in each driving mode. In some driving modes, your fuel efficiency can be better, and in some modes your fuel efficiency can offer you no benefit at all. We will give you enough information here to help you decide if a hybrid vehicle is right for you. But first, let's clear the air on the common myths and misconceptions of hybrid vehicles.

Hybrid Myths:

Hybrid Car Myth #1: Hybrid cars need to be plugged in to charge them. You'll hear this one a lot. It is an old wives tale repeated by people who have no idea what they are talking about. Maybe they are just trying to justify the fact that they can't afford a hybrid.

Hybrid Car Myth #2: Hybrid cars get over 70 MPG! Again, this is false, most hybrids have EPA mile per gallon city ESTIMATES in the 30's to 50's best case. The fuel economy ratings for hybrid cars on the highway is slightly worse than the standard fuel only counterparts.

Hybrid Car Myth #3: The Hybrid's rechargeable battery only lasts for 2 years! Thank you for playing! Unlike standard 12 V lead acid car batteries, the eco-friendly rechargeable NiMH hybrid batteries usually come with 8 year warranties, and are designed to last that long too.

Hybrid Car Myth #4: If I run out of gas, I can keep driving on the electric motor! Nice try. Hybrid cars rely on the gas engine most of the time, and their electric motors MIGHT function for a short time if you run out of gas, but unless the gas engine is on and charging your hybrid electric battery, it will totally discharge. This could result in a catastrophic loss of your hybrid battery. But on the flip side, if your electric motor quits working, your gas motor will run on its own and still allow you to drive the car as a normal car. If your hybrid runs out of gas, and you really want to be foolish enough to try driving it anyway, call me first so I can come shoot video to send into what not to do tv.

Hybrid Vehicle Technology: Theory Of Operation Through 5 Driving Modes
Welcome to Hybrid theory 101. Hybrid cars operate differently depending on your current driving modes. We can divide your typical driving into 5 different modes. Your hybrid car acts differently in each of these 5 driving modes, in some modes the electric motor is operating, and some modes the gasoline engine is operating, and sometimes both are operating. Knowing how your hybrid vehicle operates under each mode is crucial to getting the most gas mileage, and minimizing emissions output. Of course the car makers don't tell you this, they just make it sound like you always get super high gas mileage like a Bingo free spot, no matter how you drive, but that may not be the case. Here are the 5 hybrid vehicle driving modes and their theory of operation:

1) Full Stop: At a full stop, like at a red traffic light or stop sign, the gas engine usually shuts off to eliminate idling, and reduce emissions. The electric motor is now ready to propel the car when push on the gas pedal. This is usually pretty seamless, and you might not even notice without seeing it on the power monitor indicator. In crowded cities with lots of stop and go traffic like the opening scene of Office Space, this can save you a lot of fuel.

2) Low Speed/Initial acceleration from a stop: Starting from a stop, and driving in a normal sane, just-like-your-grandmother acceleration from the stop line, the electric motor usually propels your car, powered by the electric motor's battery pack. This type of downtown stop and go traffic is where you save the most fuel with hybrids, counter intuitive to normal gas engines, where you burn the most fuel. The electric motor works up until about 15 MPH without any help from the gas engine. The gas engine turns on and off as needed while you drive. If you have a life to live and a lead foot, your hybrid will be less efficient in this mode, because flooring the accelerator will demand extra power, causing the gas engine to kick in. This eliminates the fuel savings potential offered to you by your electric motor during this driving mode. Also, if you spend all day in stop and go traffic, the constantly used electric motor battery may discharge quicker, causing the gas engine to turn back on to charge the battery. So your fuel economy savings for hybrids may really only benefit you in a much more narrower range of operating conditions than the car makers will admit. Moral of the story: If you don't drive your hybrid car like you are supposed to, don't expect to get the advertised fuel economy.

3) Heavy Acceleration: Here your power comes from both the gas engine, AND the high torque electric motor, typically through some type of power splitting device. During this mode, you probably will not be saving as much fuel as you expect from all the advertising.

4) Highway Driving: This is where the fuel efficiency of Hybrid cars and SUVs works counter intuitive to what you would expect. The reason is that in this driving mode, the car is typically powered only by the gas engine, which may be charging your electric motor battery pack at the same time. So the electric motor is not typically contributing during highway driving, meaning your hybrid vehicle is just another gas guzzling, car at highway speeds. If you are a highway commuter that drives an hour to work each way on the open highway with no stop and go traffic, a hybrid vehicle will probably offer you little fuel savings.

5) Braking, Coasting and Deceleration: When you brake or coast, forward kinetic energy that in standard car normally gets dissipated as heat is instead converted to electric energy. This is accomplished by using the old reliable spinning electrical motor in it's other role, now as a generator to charge the battery pack. This is why hybrid cars never need to be plugged in, despite old wives tales you might hear. This process of charging the battery is known as regenerative braking.

6) Backing Up: Ok I lied, there's a sixth mode, but who really counts going in reverse as a driving mode? In reverse the gas engine does not operate, the electric motor does all the work. Not that this will add huge amounts of fuel savings for you. I drive about 50 feet max in reverse on a daily basis.

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