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Q: What is a Hybrid?

December 17, 2013 12:53 PM

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As you look at the automobile market in the last decade, you may notice that there is a growing popularity around hybrid electric vehicles (often shortened to "hybrid"). As gasoline prices rise at the pump every year, more and more consumers are seeking vehicles with higher fuel efficiency. Others, concerned with their vehicle's impact on the environment have begun gravitating toward hybrids. However, not all hybrid vehicles are the same, nor do they confer the same benefits.

To understand what a hybrid is, it is important for you to have a basic understanding of automobile propulsion. Since motorized vehicles have become mainstays, they have been powered by internal combustion engines. Through many tiny controlled explosions of gasoline or diesel fuel, engines generate the power for your vehicle's drivetrain, which then turns the wheels. A hybrid vehicle, then, is simply one that combines this traditional internal combustion engine method with an electrical motor, which draws its energy from batteries.

Several different configurations of hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles exist, classified by the way their engines and electric motors work together to power your vehicle's drivetrain. Differences in the hybrid drivetrain systems amount to three major categories. The first, parallel hybrids, has both the internal combustion engine and the electric motor working together to simultaneously power your hybrid. Many, but not all, parallel hybrids can also be powered by the engine or motor alone. A second type of system is the series hybrid. In this configuration, the drivetrain is powered only by the electrical motor. A smaller combustion engine is present and functions as a small generator, either powering your electric motor directly or recharging the batteries that power the motor. The final style is the power-split (also known as "series-parallel") hybrid, which combines the benefits and capabilities of both parallel and series systems.

All hybrids contain batteries, but storage capacity may vary. Battery charge method for your hybrid may differ based on the model, and can include "plug-in" charging of the batteries. Virtually all hybrids (as well as electric vehicles) use regenerative braking (where the energy created from braking is converted into battery-charging electricity, rather than wasted as excess heat.

Trials have shown that the benefits and efficiency of the different hybrid configurations depend on your typical driving practices. Parallel hybrids are best for high-speed driving, such as on highways. Series hybrids tend to be ideal for city and stop-and-go driving where, among other things, frequent braking will reduce the need for the electric motor to draw power from the engine. Naturally, power-split hybrids have the benefits of both, having the lowest MPG (or miles per gallon) consumption, but, as such, they are usually the most expensive of the three types.

Regardless of whether you are interested in cutting back on your fuel expenses or just want to reduce your environmental footprint, hybrids consistently outperform internal-combustion-only vehicles in terms of MPG MPG and toxic emissions. Now that you know how hybrids work and how they differ, you can make a wise and informed choice on your future vehicles and pick the hybrid that's best for you and your lifestyle.

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