All about hybrid vehicles

By James Raia

The first hybrid to arrive in the US market was the 2000 model year Honda Insight. Fast forward 19 years, and gasoline-electric hybrids now represent a 3.6% production share* of emerging engine technology for vehicles available in the US. Hybrids were relatively show to take off; it took five years before production share cracked 1%.

* 2018 Environmental Protection Agency Automotive Trends Report: Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Fuel Economy, and Technology since 1975, released March 2019.

There’s a sizeable choice of hybrid technology available. Whereas gasoline hybrids have the market share, those powered by electricity and utilizing fuel cells are slowly gathering steam.


The push for hybrids

The increase in hybrid vehicles has occurred for several reasons, but the interest in this technology is mostly due to federal regulation for improved gas mileage and additional environmental awareness among consumers. The auto industry in 2019 was awaiting final word whether the federal fuel economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for automaker fleets by the year 2025 would instead be frozen at the 2020 standard of 37 mpg.* Along with being more fuel efficient, hybrid, electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles can help reduce emissions.

*Regulations for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Passenger Cars and Trucks, rulemaking announced August 2018.


The history

Hybrid vehicles that operate on a combination of gas and electricity debuted in the United States in 1999 with the subcompact Honda Insight. The Insight won numerous innovation awards and it achieved EPA averages of 61 mpg in city driving and 70 mpg on the highway.

The original Insight, which went out of production in 2006, was eventually overshadowed by the introduction of the 2000 Toyota Prius, a hybrid sedan. The Prius had already been successful in Japan for four years, and its momentum continued in the U.S. and prompted the current trend. Since the success of the Prius, every major and niche manufacturer has incorporated hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles into their lineups.


The hybrid compromise

Despite all the benefits, there are a couple trade-offs to hybrid technology. For car buyers seeking superior cargo space, hybrid engines typically require large battery packs that restrict trunk space. And although electric vehicle range has improved, many plug-in electric vehicles require frequent charging, resulting in some driver hesitancy to embrace hybrid technology because of "range anxiety."


Different types of hybrids

When buying a hybrid car, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the options. Here are the main terms in the hybrid world:


  • Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs): In HEVs, the engine combines the use of gasoline and electricity to achieve improved gas mileage. The most common current technologies include regenerative braking, electric motor assist and automatic engine start and shutoff.

  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs): Similar to the design of HEVs, this engine technology also combines the use of gasoline and electricity to achieve improved gas mileage. However, the main difference here is that owners of PHEVs can not only charge their car’s battery by plugging into an outlet, but their car can also fully substitute electricity for gasoline, allowing them to drive for miles without using any gas at all.

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEVs): BEVs are plug-in, battery-powered automobiles propelled by an electric motor. The engine derives power from lithium-ion batteries (Nissan Leaf®) or battery packs (Tesla). The batteries are recharged via commercial or home charging units.

  • Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs): Hydrogen is used in an internal combustion engine or mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell to run electric motors. The 2019 Hyundai Nexo Fuel Cell lays claim† to being the first dedicated hydrogen-powered SUV. *

  • Biodiesel fuel vehicles: Renewable sources, such as vegetable oil from cooking or soybeans, animal fats or algae are used to operate a diesel engine.

  • Alternative fuel vehicles: Cars that operate on fuels other than gasoline. In addition to hydrogen and biodiesel, other alternate fuels include non-fossil natural gas, bio-alcohol, non-fossil methane, ethanol and propane.

† Hyundai.com

The hybrid for you

With so many choices out there, it may be hard to pick your first hybrid car. Just remember that, overall, these engine designs continue to get better. They’re engineered to conserve energy, emit fewer greenhouse gases and allow you to stay out on the road longer. Plus, now you’ll be prepared with a little more hybrid knowledge when you’re making your next car purchase.

James Raia, editor/publisher at TheWeeklyDriver.com, is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California.

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