In the ongoing quest to rid America of its oil dependency, the hybrid has emerged as the current leading option. Although the term “hybrid” suggests the melding of two or more technologies, the current automotive definition pertains to the mating of a gasoline engine with a combination of an electric motor and a series of batteries.
Gas / Electric Hybrids
The basic principle is that the gasoline-powered engine is used to power the car through the more demanding actions such as acceleration and operating under heavy loads. The electric motor (powered by the batteries) is used to power the electric devices (such as lights, air conditioning, and audio components) when the vehicle is at idle. In addition, the electric motor is used when the vehicle is operating at a steady speed (such as when driving on the highway).
One of the more interesting aspects of the hybrids is how the batteries are charged. Traditionally, cars that used electric motors had to be plugged in and go through a long charging process to give the batteries enough power to propel the vehicle for any reasonable distance. The charging systems used by hybrids “recapture” what is considered wasted energy on modern cars. This energy is captured from the braking system.
For decades cars have relied on friction brakes to slow down. The friction is turned to heat that is vented away and essentially dissipates into the air. The recapture system employs a variety of applications (depending on the manufacturer) that use generators to place resistance on the drive train that, instead of producing heat, produce electricity. This electricity charges the batteries that power the electric motor.
Although all others are still in their infancy or in development, many of these other methods make sense and could be seen in showrooms in the not-too-distant future. An interesting technology being developed by BMW recaptures the heat from the exhaust of the engine to heat a water-based system that turns a turbine to generate electricity. A new take on an old method is also being researched — solar energy. With new materials and processes, capturing battery-charging electricity from the sun could become quite practical. One of the biggest upsides to much of these additional hybrid technologies is that most can be used with the existing gas-electric hybrid technology.
Popularity of Hybrids
The early days of modern hybrid vehicles left little for consumers in the area of variety. They were small with little cargo and passenger room, and they lacked the power many commuters required to get in and out of traffic. But as it became evident that the demand existed, manufacturers began making them bigger and more powerful, and they implemented the technology into a variety of body styles ranging from sedans to SUVs.
One of the biggest testimonials to the popularity of hybrids has not just been that manufacturers have been selling all they produce, but that quite often there are waiting lists more than double the production. In some instances, used models sell for more than what they sold for as new. News from the manufactures makes it clear that they are hearing the consumers’ needs (with proposed models ranging from much larger models and body styles not traditionally associated with economy [e.g., trucks]).
Finally, the biggest driving factor for hybrids is lower fuel consumption. In many cases justifying the cost of a hybrid can be difficult, as the additional purchase price can offset the savings from lower gas consumption. But as more and more consumers tire of pollution and dependency on foreign oil, they are found to be willing to pay the difference to contribute to a solution to these issues.
Besides the aforementioned consumption and foreign dependency contributions, there are many other rewards to purchasing a hybrid (and in some cases, other variations of fuel-efficient vehicles). The federal government, as well as some state and local governments, have chipped in by offering tax breaks on the purchase of hybrid vehicles. In addition, many insurance companies reward their customers for making conscientious vehicle selections.
HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) or carpool lanes have also been opened to hybrid vehicles wherein a driver of a hybrid can travel in these lanes without having any passengers.
Even with the increases in the cost of gasoline, it can take years to offset the additional cost of purchasing a hybrid (even with the tax breaks and value of the other perks). Considering the average car owner only holds onto a vehicle for three to five years, it can often be the more intangible benefits that make it worth owning one of these fuel-efficient vehicles.
Having the advanced technology maintained has been a challenge for many (parts availability, finding trained service technicians, and just having faith in how dependably these new functions would hold up). But as the popularity has grown, so have the parts network, the training of mechanics, and results from in-depth studies and testing that show this new variation of automobile stands a good chance of being embraced by the automotive consumer.
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