Five years ago, most motorists viewed hybrid cars somewhere between unknown commodity and contraption. Today vehicles powered by a combination of gasoline and electricity are all the rage. Like any new technology, until you get your hands on it—in this case, on the steering wheel—it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.
Having a tough time separating hybrid truth from reality? You’re not alone. The warp-speed adoption of hybrids into popular culture—and into hundreds of thousands of American driveways—has produced more than a little confusion and misinformation. Most industry analysts predict the continued growth of gas-electric vehicles, with estimates ranging from 600,000 to 800,000 hybrid sales in the United States by 2013, so this is a good time to debunk the 10 most prevalent myths about hybrid cars.
1. You need to plug in a hybrid car.
As soon as the word “electricity” is spoken, you think of plugs, cords, and wall sockets. But today’s hybrid cars don’t need to be plugged in. Auto engineers have developed an ingenious system known as regenerative braking. (Actually, they borrowed the concept from locomotive technology.) Energy usually lost when a vehicle is slowing down or stopping is reclaimed and routed to the hybrid’s rechargeable batteries. The gas engine is also used to transfer energy to the batteries. The process is automatic, so no special requirements are placed on the driver.
Ironically, while car companies used to spend time and money explaining that hybrids need not be plugged in, a growing number of the major automakers are now introducing plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars. The ability to plug a hybrid into the electric grid overnight to charge a larger set of batteries would mean that most city driving could be done without burning a single drop of gasoline.
2. Hybrid batteries need to be replaced.
Worries about an expensive replacement of a hybrid car’s batteries continue to nag many potential buyers. Those worries are unfounded. By keeping the charge between 40 percent and 60 percent—never fully charged, yet never fully drained—carmakers have greatly extended the longevity of nickel metal hydride batteries.
The standard warranty on hybrid batteries and other components is between 80,000 and 100,000 miles, depending on the manufacturer and your location. But that doesn’t mean the batteries will die at 100,000 miles. The U.S. Department of Energy stopped its tests of hybrid battery packs—when the capacity remained almost like new—after 160,000 miles. A taxi driver in Vancouver drove his Toyota Prius more than 200,000 miles in 25 months, and after that time and mileage the batteries remained strong.
3. Hybrids are a new phenomenon.
In 1900, American car companies produced steam, electric, and gasoline cars in almost equal numbers. It wasn’t long before enterprising engineers figured out that multiple sources of power could be combined. A young Ferdinand Porsche produced the first known hybrid gas-electric prototypes…in 1900. In 1905 American engineer H. Piper filed the first patent for a gas-electric hybrid vehicle.
4. People buy hybrids only to save money on gas.
Hybrid cars top the list of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Going farther on a gallon of gas—and thus reducing a car owner’s tab at the pump—is a logical advantage of a hybrid car. But car shoppers seldom buy based purely on a logical economic equation. Besides, as critics of hybrid technology frequently point out, those savings seldom add up to the extra cost of buying a hybrid over a comparable conventional vehicle.
So, if it’s not to save money, why are more and more shoppers going hybrid? Many reasons: To minimize their impact on the environment, to help reduce the world’s addiction to oil, and to earn technology bragging rights.
5. Hybrids are expensive.
Hybrids are currently available in 25 different models ranging in price from $22,000 to $103,000. The most efficient models—the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius—are available well below $30,000. By the middle of this decade, more than 50 models are expected. By that point, hybrids will represent the full range of sizes, shapes, and costs.
Rechargeable batteries, electric motors, and sophisticated computer controls do add to the cost of producing a hybrid car. However, as production numbers increase, economies of scale are expected to reduce those costs. Toyota plans to offer hybrid versions of all its most popular models and thus cut in half the incremental cost of hybrids.
6. Hybrids are small and underpowered.
The Lexus Rx400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid share the same 270 horsepower system. The Lexus GS 450h hybrid sedan exceeds 300 horsepower and will go from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds.
These vehicles prove that adding an electric motor and batteries to the drivetrain does not intrinsically mean diminished performance. Combining a gasoline engine and electric motors gives engineers more control to emphasize fuel parsimony or speed, urban driving or highway cruising, large vehicles or small.
7. Only liberals buy hybrids.
The list of celebrity hybrid drivers is long. They zip around Hollywood in their Priuses and appear on talk shows extolling the virtues of hybrid vehicles. These celebrities, and other early adopters of hybrid technology, were primarily motivated by the environmental benefits. As a result, they created an easy target for naysayers to brand all hybrid drivers as tree-huggers.
In the ensuing years, Americans of all political stripes have become more aware of the economic and political costs of oil dependency. Conservative pundits claim that our petrodollars end up in the hands of repressive Middle East regimes and their patrons. As a result, we fund both sides of the war on terror. In addition, autoworkers have grown more interested in fuel-saving technologies, recognizing that they bear the brunt of Detroit’s reluctance to abandon once-profitable SUVs.
8. Hybrids pose a threat to first responders.
Now that hundreds more hybrid cars take to our roads each day, some critics have wondered if public safety agencies should be concerned about all those high-voltage battery packs zipping along at freeway speeds. Yes and no.
A first responder is often in a mad race to save the lives of accident victims. In that rush, the responder has to make dozens of rapid technical decisions about how to safely remove the passengers from the vehicle. Adding the complication of unfamiliar hybrid technology can slow things down. So, it’s the worry about potential dangers—primarily when and where to cut power—rather than the system itself that can cause a problem.
Turns out that a good amount of training—and, in case of fire, lots of water—should be most of what a first responder needs upon arriving at an accident involving a hybrid. Firefighters have coped with advancing automotive technologies for years, and they will skillfully deal with hybrid cars.
See our list of other unfounded health risks posed by hybrids.
9. Hybrids will solve all our transportation, energy, and environmental problems.
The hybrid car market is ramping up. Hybrid sales in the US grew exponentially, from 9,500 in 2000 to 350,000 in 2007.
The numbers are encouraging but must be viewed in the context of the overall car market. The 350,000 hybrid car sales in 2007 represent only 2.5 percent of the 17 million new cars sold last year. If every new hybrid driver doubled fuel economy from 20 mpg to 40 mpg for 40 miles of daily driving—an optimistic estimate—then a gallon per hybrid car would be saved every day. That’s a whopping 350,000 gallons per day saved by hybrid car drivers. But we’ve only reduced our daily US consumption from 400 million gallons to 399,650,000 gallons. Hybrid cars can only be viewed as a partial solution.
10. Hybrid technology is only a fad.
Hybrid technology is often pitted against fuel cells, diesel engines, pure electric cars and/or hydrogen as the silver bullet approach to sustainable mobility. Sustainable mobility advocates don’t see these approaches as an either-or proposition. It’s all of the above.
The ability for automotive engineers to combine systems and fuels in a single hybrid vehicle gives great flexibility in finding the greatest efficiencies at the lowest cost.