How Hybrid Cars Work

By Owen Jones

In essence, hybrid electric cars have two engines: a conventional petrol or diesel engine (the same as you would find in any contemporary car and an electric, battery powered engine, as you may see in a milk float or a forklift truck. The magical difference is that the car's on board computer judges which engine is necessary to provide the power needed by the driver and switches it on.

Therefore, if you are accelerating to cruising speed for motorway driving; going up hill or overtaking, the car will probably use its liquid fuel engine but then as you ease off the accelerator to, say, cruise down the motorway; go down the other side of the hill or to drive in slow traffic, the computer will turn off the liquid fuel engine and turn on the electric engine.

The electric engine can be regarded as free to run, because it runs off batteries which are recharged by the car when it is using petrol or diesel and at some other times, such as when it is braking (and the alternators are recharging in both modes). You should never have to recharge your car's batteries overnight as they do with forklift trucks.

There are in essence two kinds of hybrid cars: the semi hybrids and the full hybrids.

The semi hybrids have the same sort of set up: two engines, one running on liquid fuel and the other running on batteries, yet the electric motor is not capable of running the car on its own. It is there to 'assist' the petrol or diesel engine.

In this sort of hybrid, the electric motor is known as an 'assist'. These semi hybrids will save money on fuel, but while the car is moving, you are burning fuel all the time.

The main difference when it comes to the full hybrid is that both engines are capable of powering the car independently. When you are running on electricity, you are running at zero cost to your wallet and at zero cost to the environment, unless you are actually pushing the car and then both engines might start working in unison.

This switching of power sources is done robotically without any intrusion from the driver. In the case of the Prius, for example, this extraordinary achievement is accomplished by what Ford calls its Hybrid Synergy Drive. Other businesses have their equivalent to the HSD.

In order to gain the most out of these full hybrids, you really have to be doing an 'average amount' of driving under 'average' or 'mixed' circumstances. For instance, if you are driving in traffic, the car will try to use the electric engine, but if all you do is drive in inner city traffic jams the batteries will soon become depleted and you will be driving on liquid fuel all the time, which sort of negates the foremost reason for spending a great deal extra on a hybrid in the first place.

The car needs to travel on open motorways in order to recharge its batteries so that it can utilize them once it gets back into town. If you just drive in town traffic, you may be better off buying a little run around instead.

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