Ten years ago there was very little discussion about electric or hybrid vehicles. The technology was far from perfected and no low level consumer was able to purchase it. Throughout this past decade our economy, natural resources, and priorities have shifted towards conserving the environment and our funds. This has helped the renewable and green energy proponents to make large discoveries that are moving the industry forward faster than ever.
Americans tend to be very stubborn and change can rub us the wrong way all too easily. Most of the negative sentiments about electric and hybrid vehicles are based around ignorance. Quite simply, most people could not tell you the difference between a hybrid car and a full electric vehicle. Come to think of it, most people could not tell the difference between a diesel and a petrol engine besides the fact that they would have to use the green pump at the gas station. For the hybrid automakers to start selling these vehicles in larger quantities, the public must be educated about their benefits and potential pitfalls.
Several basic types of low emissions vehicles exist and are currently being marketed by the major auto manufacturers. The biggest seller of these is Toyota with their Prius model, which is a hybrid vehicle. Making distinctions between the different cars available will be helpful to a potential buyer by allowing them to get a vehicle that best suits their respective uses and needs.
Hit the jump for more details on Hybrid Vehicles
Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)
One of the first iterations to hit the market was the Hybrid Electric Vehicle or HEV. These vehicles consist of a normal internal combustion engine and a battery that stores energy for the electric motors. The car mainly uses its gasoline engine, but calls upon electric motors to help when the engine is inefficient. When climbing a hill, your car struggles more than on a flat surface and thus the engine works harder and uses more fuel. By using the engine in combination (hybrid) with electric motors the fuel economy can be increased.
Contrary to popular belief, these cars do not have to be plugged in to a power source. As the engine runs power is converted into the batteries for storage and later used by the electric motor. Regenerative braking can also help to provide the batteries with energy. Some of these vehicles will even shut off the gasoline engine completely while the car is at a stop in order to conserve the most gasoline. These are the most popular of all low emissions vehicles because they provide a compromise between full electricity and normal gasoline. By having the gasoline engine available it ensures that you will be able to make it wherever you are going without the battery simply dying and leaving you stranded.
Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV)
The newest models on the market are full-electric vehicles. These have no gasoline engine and run solely off of battery power. In order to charge these batteries you have to plug them into a power source. Some can be charged through a normal household outlet and others need a higher voltage. In general, higher voltage will charge the vehicle faster than 120v. Charge time is often around 8 hours to get completely full and provide the maximum travel distance. The main complaint towards these vehicles is the limited range, which has been increased in recent years.
The Nissan Leaf is the newest player in this game and can travel over 100 miles on a single charge. This may not seem like much, but for most city drivers this can be the perfect solution. Climate control, speed, driving style, and topography can all affect the range of these vehicles and judging how much further you can truly travel is difficult.
Other sports car players have begun to enter this segment as well, finding the use of four independent electric motors as a highly efficient way of achieving speed. Tesla was the first fully electric sports car to come out and can reach 125mph and set the distance record of 311miles on a single charge. These lithium-ion batteries are becoming more powerful every year and the longer the distance these cars can travel, the more clientele will show up to buy them.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles PHEV
Now, things begin to get a little confusing because companies have begun to produce what is considered the best of all three worlds. These vehicles have gasoline engines as well as battery powered motors much like normal hybrids. The main difference is that they can also be plugged-in to external power sources as well as power the car under full electric power. This can increase the effective range greatly as well as make each specific driver’s trip the most efficient. Some cars allow the driver to manually switch between full electric, hybrid, and gasoline modes. That way if you are driving thirty miles into the city on the highway you could use the gasoline engine while it is at its most efficient point and switch to full electric mode while in the city sitting in stop and go traffic.
The biggest news in this segment was the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt. It is the first mass-produced model in the segment and has been able to achieve astonishing figures. According to General Motors, the Volt can travel 25 to 50 miles on a 16 kWh lithium-ion battery. The all-electric range averages 35 miles, with an energy consumption of 36 kWh per 100 miles, and the total range (using battery power first then electricity generated by the on-board gasoline-power generator) is 379 miles. The Volt’s combined city/highway fuel economy is rated at 93mpg in full electric mode and at 37mpg in gasoline-only mode. This makes the Chevrolet Volt and the PHEV segment the most efficient on the market today.
Gas is a term used to describe many different liquids that can have completely different applications. Natural Gas is used throughout the country and is fed by long pipelines to municipal utilities and larger hubs. Its chemical makeup is different than that of the typical gas, but it burns in much the same way. It is combustible inside the engine, but requires some modifications. CNG is stored in a pressurized tank and therefore has to enter a regulator on its way to the engine in order to lower that pressure correctly. At this point the gas is injected into the chamber where it will be ignited by a spark, but in order for natural gas to burn efficiently and provide power, the air/gas mixture that is sprayed into the chamber will have to be adjusted. A few other minor modifications may be required for everything to work in unison for extended mileage, but the basics remain the same.
Some companies, like Honda, already offer CNG powered vehicles for personal use. An adapter and pump can be placed on your home’s natural gas line to allow refueling at home which is much more convenient than a typical gas station. Regular gas pumps offering ethanol and diesel fuel throughout the country are now also offering CNG, thousands have already done so. With oil recently reaching $100 barrel again in the United States, CNG provides a clean and cheap alternative.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
When it comes to buying a new car, consumers should consider all of the options available to them. With gas prices reaching and exceeding the $4.00 per gallon mark, hybrid vehicles make more sense than ever. The government even offers tax deductions for such vehicles which help to make them even more practical. Making the decision between which kind of low emissions vehicle to buy is really one of personal preference and need. If you travel long distances in a given day, than a hybrid might make more sense than a full electric vehicle. Conversely, if you only travel a few miles to work every day then not having to buy gas ever again might be enticing. In the end, the ever expanding availability and choices within these segments provides plenty of options to fit your lifestyle. All you have to do is be informed and educated about your choices.