Electric Cars versus Hybrid Cars

photo of Scott Baker and Charlie Cichetti
Scott Baker drives a Toyota Prius and Charlie Cichetti drives a Nissan Leaf.

With their relative newness and variety of configurations, a hybrid electric vehicle can become easily confused with an electric car. In simplest terms, electric vehicles rely only on electricity for power while hybrids combine battery-stored power with energy from gasoline. Because of this dual power source, hybrids can be more complicated than pure electric vehicles and always contain two motors under the hood. The differences go beyond this, though.

4 types of Hybrid Power Train Configurations
Hybrid vehicles first entered the market with the introduction of the Toyota Prius (1997) and Honda Insight (1999). Originally, these cars relied solely on gasoline for power with the electric motor to be used together or individually. This power train used in the Insight is referred to as a parallel hybrid. It took ten years for either of these brands to reach mass appeal in 2009.

Mild parallel power trains, used in the Honda Civic hybrid, Mercedes Benz, and BMW, utilize energy that would normally be wasted and assist the gas engine. Activities like braking or coasting downhill can be used to generate electricity that’s stored and accessed by an electric motor to provide extra power in acceleration.

The most popular design is a power-split or series parallel hybrid. Depending on the particular model, the electric motor might do all the work in city traffic or assist the gas in climbing hills. These types of hybrids are referred to as ‘full’ hybrids. Learn more about hybrids, here. Examples include the Prius, Ford, and Lexus models.

To complicate things, series hybrids like the Chevy Volt completely separate the gas engine from the wheels and only use it to charge the battery bank or provide electricity directly to the motor the way diesel locomotives have worked for decades. This model is also referred to as extended range electric vehicle (EREV).

Furthermore, most current hybrids have included the ability to charge the battery bank directly, reducing gas consumption even further. There is the possibility of hybrids – in the future – that use a hydraulic accumulator to pressurize air instead of electric batteries. Already used in heavy construction equipment, it’s more efficient but expensive and bulky.

All Electric Power Trains
Unlike the hybrid car, the electric car contains no gas engine. Using just an electric motor and batteries makes them easier to maintain and repair. On the other hand, their range is more limited and they can only run when the battery bank is at least 80% recharged, taking anywhere from 26 minutes to 8 hours, depending on the degree of recharge and the voltage of the power source. Learn more about electric cars, here. Consumer examples include the Nissan Leaf and newer models of the Prius.

Also, since features like heating and air conditioning are also powered by the batteries, their use can greatly reduce the car’s range. With their increased popularity, more public charging stations are becoming available, making them even more attractive. As with the hybrid car, the technology that allows current versions to operate up to 138 miles on a charge but also limits them is the lithium-ion battery. With its lighter weight, larger storage capacity, and longer life, this type of battery is a considerable improvement over the lead-acid battery.

In order for electric vehicles to become even more practical, researchers and developers need to continue to both improve lithium-ion technology and develop potential alternatives like lithium-air-carbon or lithium-silicon batteries. Even improvements in photovoltaic cells can better supply auxiliary power for these vehicles.

User Reviews
Four Sustainable Investment Group (SIG) staff members drive hybrid cars and have shared their personal experiences in the real world.

Scott Baker, new Prius owner:

  • I average 53 miles per gallon on average by driving in the right lane, and leaving plenty of room behind the car in front of me to avoid braking. Driving in traffic does not cause stress anymore.
  • Max distance so far is 627.3 miles on 1 tank of gas (using only 11.4 gallons of gas out of the 12 gallon capacity). Cost = 6.1¢ per mile… Not bad!
  • The battery in a Toyota Prius has stood the test of time quite well. Based on a 2013 Consumer Report survey, only 5% of batteries from 2002 Prius’s have been replaced. That drops to less than 1% from 2007 and later models.

Charlie Cichetti, new Leaf owner:

  • Leaf is quick and sporty.
  • It gets a little under 100 miles on a charge.
  • Theoretical calculations estimate that it’s around $3 to fully charge the leaf. Traveling the same distance in a gas powered car would cost around $15. Learn more about electric vehicle charging costs, here.
  • State of Georgia gives a $5,000 tax credit, it makes economical sense as well as environmental sense.

Charlie Cichetti, previous Volt owner:

  • 40 miles electricity but gas kicks in to recharge the vehicle.
photo of Candice Groves and Eileen Gohr in front of their cars
Candice Groves drives a 2004 Toyota Prius and Eileen drives a 2002 Prius.

Candice Grove, 10 year Prius owner

  • I have 167,000 miles on mine and I’m still going strong on my original hybrid battery.
  • My best tank was 50 mile per gallon of highway driving.
  • More regularly – it’s in the low 40s.  42 m.p.g. is a good average for my car historically.  It used to be mid 40s, but as it’s aged, it’s in the low 40s.
  • Especially when the car is new, it’s like a game to see how good of gas mileage you can get.  I once got “100 mpg” on the dashboard meter in stop and go traffic. It makes driving fun again and makes you pay attention to your driving habits.

Eileen Gohr, seven year Prius owner:

  • Averages around 40 mile per gallon.
  • I enjoy driving it and take it on long trips with no problems.
  • Only buy gas about once a month when having a short commute.
  • When idling the car gets extremely quiet and passengers tend to think the car died when the electric motor takes over.
  • Only maintenance mishap was a 9-volt battery in the trunk that operates the starter and interior lights. Basically a simple item that needed to be replaced at the dealer because independent mechanics did not want to do anything with it since it is a hybrid car.

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