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Hybrid Cars – Are We Being Sold Down The River?

Over the last two decades there has been much discussion about motor vehicles and their environmental impacts. In the past cars were seen as big polluters, however recent technological advances have seen a marked reduction in the amount of emissions that are produced by the modern car. Whilst this has been moderately successful, another big issue is the imminent effects of peak oil and the increase in both the price and availability of oil worldwide. This threat prompted designers and inventors to take the next step in this process, which is the advent of the motor vehicle that can run using battery power. In recent years we have seen a steady increase in these types of vehicles, with stiff competition between car manufacturers. However the question needs to be asked, are there really benefits to be gained by purchasing and driving an electric or hybrid car, or is this just another marketing ploy by car manufacturers in order to gain a bigger slice of the consumer pie. This article will look at such issues as the history of electric or hybrid cars, what is involved in the manufacturing process and a cost/benefit analysis in comparison to modern petrol powered motor vehicles.

History of Electric and Hybrid Motor Vehicles

When asked about the history electric or hybrid motor vehicles, most people will automatically tell you about the Toyota Prius, which has been around for some 20 odd years. What it amazing is that electric motor vehicles have been around almost as long as petrol powered vehicles. There are even prototypes of electric trains dating back to the 1830's, and by the late 1800's there were up to 30 different companies who were trying out different variations of the electric motor vehicle. A company called Detroit Electric was the most prominent, and produced electric cars between the years 1907 to 1939, making it the company who lasted the longest out of these 30 manufacturers. The company also had plans to make pure electric vehicles and market them worldwide, in conjunction with a Chinese manufacturer.

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1919 Detroit Electric Car

The Baker Motor Company was another manufacturer who made electric motor vehicles in the early 1900's, and it was their vehicle, the Atom Racer which was the first car to ever break the 100 miles per hour mark due it's superior aerodynamic design, which was considered to be well ahead of it's time. The Baker cars were equipped not with the standard alkaline batteries, they used a slightly different battery that was designed by Thomas Edison, which used iron and nickel plates instead of the standard lead, and replaces sulphuric acid with a mixture of potassium hydroxide. This combination ensured that there was more power being created from a battery that was similar in size to conventional ones 1).

With the advent of big oil, electric motor vehicle production took a bit of a hiatus. The next wave of electric vehicles were seen by most people on earth – NASA developed a vehicle which was used to explore the moon, which were used during the Apollo missions. These moon rovers were equipped with similar batteries to which were used in Baker's vehicles, and the vehicle was designed to be able to operate in areas of low gravity. The next attempt at mass produced electric motor vehicles came from a company called Sebring-Vanguard who designed a motor vehicle which could seat two people and ran on only battery power. The car could go no more than 30 miles per hour with a range of 40 miles, and proved to be unpopular more for it's look and design that it's lack of speed 2).

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Sebring-Vanguard Citicar3).

After several more prototypes came and went, larger companies such as Toyota and Ford started to develop electric or hybrid motor vehicles, with product design and marketing still continuing today.

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Toyota Prius4)

The Manufacturing Process

The typical hybrid cars that we see manufactured today are put together in a similar fashion to conventional petrol powered vehicles. The main difference is the hybrid vehicle is the extra space that they require extra space for the batteries. Until recently, hybrid cars used nickel metal hydride batteries, however most companies have now switched to lithium ion batteries, due to higher power output and smaller size.

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Hyundai Car Production Line5)

There is also a second, motor fitted which is the electric motor. The vehicles computer system calculates the optimum times for making the switch between petrol and electric mode, and the batteries are continually recharged during the petrol motor phase. Most hybrid cars require components which are lighter than which are used in petrol cars due to the extra weight of the electric motor and batteries, thus the component manufacturing process can be more energy intensive for hybrid vehicles.

There are also several types of purely electric, plug in cars (BEV), which are recharged from home power outlets. These vehicles are considered to be strictly driven around cities, as they have limited ranges. These vehicles are also manufactured on production lines, with there being no weight issues due to the lack of a petrol powered motor 6).

How it Works

As mentioned above, hybrid motor vehicles have two engines. A petrol powered engine, and a smaller electric engine which is run by batteries. The way these engines cooperate and when each one is used can differ depending on the model, however they are generally split into two categories.

Standard Hybrid

This is the typical type of system that you will find on many common vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius. On start up, the petrol motor runs at a low idle, and the electric motor will drive the car until it hits 25 miles per hour. Once this speed is reached, the petrol motor will start to run at normal capacity and continue to propel the vehicle. This system helps reduce the amount of fuel wastage that occurs at start ups, slowing down and driving at low speeds.

Electric Assist Engines

Electric assist engines are also configured in a similar fashion, however these vehicles will use the petrol engine in most instances, with the electric engine only used in instances when more power is required, hence reducing petrol consumption at time when extra power is needed. Both of these systems aim to save fuel use, but do it at different ends of the spectrum 7).

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Hybrid Engine8)

Cost vs Benefit vs Petrol Powered Cars

Like most vehicles, hybrid cars have pros and cons. Some of the benefits are -

  • Reduced fuel consumption and dependence on foreign fuel
  • Less emissions and reduced carbon footprint
  • Less noise pollution during electric motor operation
  • Energy efficiency due to better energy conversion in electric engines

Whilst the benefits are quite substantial, there are also some cons with hybrid motor vehicles, such as -

  • The cost of batteries can be substantial, and hybrid vehicles cost more than their petrol only counterparts
  • Hybrid vehicles weigh more than conventional motor vehicles
  • Extra energy is required to produce lightweight components for hybrid vehicles
  • The battery life on most hybrid vehicles is not known, although most manufacturers say their batteries will last the life of the vehicle. There are concerns about the disposal of these batteries and the environmental challenges that may produce.

When comparing hybrid motor vehicles to conventional petrol powered motor vehicles, there are a number of factors that need to be considered. Whilst there are the obvious differences, such as fuel costs and manufacturing costs, some governments will pay incentives and subsidies for the purchasing of hybrid or electric motor vehicles. The comparison below does not take into consideration any of these subsidies. This comparison is made as accurately as possible, and is based on Australian models and prices. Please note that information may vary depending on which country you live in.

The two vehicles that are compared are the Toyota Prius ZVW30-R and the Toyota Corolla Levin ZRE182 R, both vehicles have a 1.8 litre engine, both are 5 door hatchbacks and both have automatic transmissions and are based on the 2013 model 9).

Cost

Prius: $45,990

Levin: $25,990

Power

Prius: 73kw @ 5200 rpm

Levin: 103kw @ 6400 rpm

Fuel Consumption

Prius: 3.9L / 100KM

Levin: 6.6L / 100KM

Fuel Capacity

Prius: 45L Premium Unleaded

Levin: 50L Premium Unleaded

Tank Range

Prius: 1154 KM

Levin: 758 KM

Safety Rating

Prius: Ancap 5 star rated, 7 airbags

Levin: Ancap 5 star rated, 7 airbags

Weight

Prius: 1425 KG

Levin: 1310 KG

There are some significant differences in the above comparison. The Prius is significantly more expensive to buy, however has a much superior fuel consumption. So the question that needs to be asked is if the fuel consumption savings are worth the initial price difference. At current Australian fuel prices, and driving an average distance of 500 kilometres per week (26,000 km per year), this is how they stack up.

Price difference: $20,000 AUD

Yearly fuel costs Prius: $1622.40 @ $1.60 per litre

Yearly fuel costs Levin: $2745.60 @ $1.60 per litre

Going by the figures above, it will take 17.8 years for the hybrid vehicle to break even with it's petrol counterpart in fuel costs. This does not take into consideration the battery life, and whether the battery will continue to give the maximum outputs for its entirety.

Conclusion

The benefits of hybrid vehicles are undoubted. They use less fuel, put out fewer emissions, and reduce the carbon footprint of each vehicle. Unfortunately the difference in the prices of hybrid vehicles in comparison to petrol powered vehicles makes the decision financially difficult. One could argue that only the most environmentally conscious consumer would most likely be willing to pay such a price discrepancy. This is the reason that some governments are willing to pay a subsidy for the purchase of hybrid and electric cars.

Only when the price gap is narrowed between hybrid and petrol powered vehicles are we likely to see greater adoption in this technology. We must also consider that fuel prices are more likely to go up rather than down as the demand for oil continues to outstrip supply. This may also prove to be a factor in which we can see more of these vehicles in production.


Alternative Energy | Environment | Cars

1) Kraft, T.E, 2012, 'Electric Vehicles: A Historical Snapshot', Tech Directions, vol.72, no.4, pp. 16-19
2) Cairns, E. J, & Albertus, P, 2010, 'Batteries For Electric and Hybrid-Electric Vehicles', Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, vol.1, pp.299-320
3) Sebring-Vanguard Citicar by sillydog licence CC 2.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Citicar_front-angle.jpg
4) Toyota Prius by Thomas Doerfer licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toyota_Prius_III.JPG
5) Car Production Line by Taneli Rajala, licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hyundai_car_assembly_line.jpg
6) Deal,Walter F., I.,II, 2010, 'Going Green With Electric Vehicles', Technology and Engineering Teacher, vol.70, no.3, pp.5-11
7) Bitsche, O, & Gutmann, G, 2004, 'Systems for Hybrid Cars', Journal of Power Sources, vol.127, no.1, pp.8-15
8) Hybrid Engine by Sfoskett licence CC 2.5, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2006_GMC_Sierra_Hybrid_engine.jpg

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