How Hybrid Cars Function: An Overview

The advent of the Honda Insight and the game-changing Toyota Prius in the 1990s marked the beginning of the hybrid car era. Fast forward 25 years, and hybrid powertrains are experiencing a surge in popularity among consumers, who view the technology as a bridge to fully electric vehicles.

The marriage of an electric motor and a gasoline engine to propel the car’s wheels sparked a revolution in fuel efficiency. In 2000, there were just under 10,000 hybrid cars sold, but by 2023, hybrids and fully electric vehicles combined made up 16.3% of U.S. car sales, with hybrids and plug-in hybrids outselling pure electric vehicles. Hybrid vehicles are projected to exceed 20% of total vehicle sales in 2024, prompting automakers to ramp up production.

So, what defines a hybrid car, and why are there variations in hybrid vehicles?

Essentially, a hybrid car incorporates both an internal combustion engine (typically running on gasoline) and an electric motor that work together to power the vehicle. In most cases, the electric motor in a hybrid car is smaller than those found in fully electric vehicles, as is the battery pack that supplies electricity to the motor. Similarly, the combustion engine in a hybrid car is often optimized for efficiency rather than power, as the power from both the electric motor and engine is combined to propel the vehicle.

What is a hybrid car?

Electric cars can be costly and challenging to produce. Pure battery electric cars may also present range or charging location issues for some drivers. This is where hybrid cars shine: by merging the convenience of refueling an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle with the efficiency boost of an electric motor and battery, hybrids can help drivers achieve better fuel economy, reduce emissions, and maintain a normal driving range.

The Toyota Prius stands as the most successful hybrid vehicle to date. The latest Prius model is showcased at the beginning of this article, with images of the previous four generations below it: 2000 (top left), 2004 (top right), 2010 (bottom left), and 2016 (bottom right).

Designing and manufacturing hybrid cars is somewhat more intricate than traditional ICE vehicles or pure electric vehicles. Hybrid cars, by utilizing both ICE power and electric power, essentially blend two different types of cars into a single driving experience.

Hence, hybrid cars derive their name from the fact that they amalgamate two powertrain types. Moreover, there are various kinds of hybrid cars, including mild hybrids, parallel hybrids, serial (or range-extender) hybrids, and plug-in hybrids.

Of these categories, we will briefly touch upon mild hybrids here. Simply put, these models typically feature a small electric motor, often situated between the engine and transmission, offering a slight assist during acceleration from a stop. For instance, the eTorque mild hybrid system found in Ram trucks provides a marginal enhancement in fuel efficiency.

Serial vs. parallel hybrid cars

Hybrid cars are commonly categorized as serial or parallel hybrids. But what do these terms signify?

A parallel hybrid operates similarly to what most people envision when thinking of a hybrid vehicle. This is the setup used in the Toyota Prius, where both an ICE engine and an electric motor can work together or individually to generate power, with both capable of directly propelling the vehicle forward.

On the other hand, a serial hybrid can be likened to an electric car equipped with an onboard generator. Resembling the original Chevrolet Volt, a serial hybrid employs its ICE engine to charge the battery pack, acting like a generator, and then utilizes the stored electricity to drive the wheels through an electric motor.

To add a layer of complexity, a vehicle like the Honda Accord Hybrid can switch between parallel and series modes. While the engine can drive the front wheels under specific conditions, the car is predominantly powered by the robust electric motor – the engine’s role is primarily to replenish the battery rather than drive the vehicle.

Plug-in hybrid vs. regular hybrid cars

Lastly, the distinction between plug-in hybrids and regular hybrids warrants attention. Regardless of whether a hybrid is serial or parallel, it can be either a plug-in hybrid or not. A plug-in hybrid necessitates the ability to charge the onboard battery by plugging it in. Conversely, hybrids without this capability, relying solely on regenerative braking and the onboard ICE for charging, do not qualify as plug-in hybrids.

Plug-in hybrids bear more resemblance to electric cars than traditional ICE-only cars. Consequently, many plug-in hybrids offer an extended electric-only driving range compared to conventional hybrids.

Currently, nearly every vehicle segment offers hybrid variants, from the Toyota Prius hatchback to the Toyota RAV4 SUV, as well as the Ford F-150 hybrid pickup and Jeep Wrangler off-road vehicle.

What isn’t a hybrid car?

Cars powered solely by internal combustion engines

To comprehend what makes a car a hybrid, it’s helpful to understand what doesn’t qualify as a hybrid. Recall the first car your parents owned when you were young – if you’re older than 23, chances are it wasn’t a hybrid but a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, akin to the initial mass-produced cars at the turn of the last century.

The majority of vehicles sold today are ICE vehicles, spanning from compact cars to pickup trucks. These vehicles rely on gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or other combustion engines without incorporating any electric drive power, thus classifying them as non-hybrids.

Electric cars

With increasing concerns about emissions and environmental impact, automakers are delving into electric vehicle technologies to curb the carbon emissions linked to ICE vehicles. Electric cars eliminate the combustion engine entirely, replacing it with an electric motor, a battery pack, and advanced electronics enabling operation on electricity alone.

Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski contributed to this article.

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