Friday, May 31, 2024

Hybrids, Plug-In Hybrids, and EVs - Not the Same Thing! (Not Even Close!)

Hybrids are nothing like EVs and don't operate like you think they would.

There is a misconception about hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.  A lot of people think a hybrid car is an "electric car" that has an IC range extender, or is an electric car that recharges its batteries using an IC engine.

False and sort-of false.

As we learned at GMI, a car traveling along a level highway at 60 MPH uses very little energy.  An engine of less than 20 HP would push a Buick at that speed, and I'm talking old-school Roadmasters, too.  It is only in climbing hills or by accelerating that you actually use more energy.  "An object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to remain at rest" - you remember old Sir Issac Newton, right?  And if you know anything about physics, accelerating is like climbing a hill, in a manner of speaking.

So a car on a flat highway, travelling at constant speed needs only that 20HP (or less!) to overcome aerodynamic drag, tire friction, driveline friction, and other parasitic losses.  That's why the guy who weaves in and out of traffic, slamming on his brakes and then flooring it, is not only not making time (and is also endangering all of us) but is wasting a lot of gas.

There are little savings to be had in optimizing a car for highway travel, other than reducing frictional losses and making the car more aerodynamic.  We've done both, with low-rolling-resistance tires and even doing things like putting ATF in the differential to reduce friction - as well as rounding our cars (but not our trucks!) to reduce wind resistance.

It is in the city where gas really gets wasted. Going from stoplight to stoplight involves accelerating (the big gas waster). You hit the throttle to accelerate and the gas consumption goes way up. You step on the brakes to stop at the next stoplight and that energy is converted into heat by the service brakes - wasted into the atmosphere in a cloud of brake dust.

Sure, you can optimize this too, by making the car lighter (F=ma, remember?) or making the engine smaller to limit acceleration.  But that only goes so far and there is so much waste in city driving.

Enter the hybrid.  Not an "electric car" but a way of recovering energy from braking.  A small IC engine is used to propel the car, and when accelerating, an electric motor kicks in to provide the additional energy needed.  When coming to a stoplight or stop sign - and this is key - if you let up on the gas, the electric motor becomes a generator, recharging the battery with the energy ordinarily wasted by the friction service brakes.

The problem is, of course, if you slam on the brakes at the last minute, or accelerate too quickly, the fuel economy goes to hell as the entire plan is foiled.  Accelerate too quickly and instead of using stored electricity to accelerate, you are also using the IC engine.  Wait until the crosswalk to start braking, and the service brake takes over and all that energy gets wasted as heat.

When we lived in Politically Correct Ithaca New York, I met people who had Toyota Priuses (Prii?) as poliitcal statements more than anything else. When I asked them what kind of mileage they were getting, one girl giggled and said, "It'll get 45 but the way I drive, I only get 30!"  Just changing driving habits would increase fuel mileage by 50% and fulfill her PC ambitions - but Nah!  Too busy driving to the environmental protest - right?

A lady sued Honda a few years back, claiming that her Honda hybrid didn't get the advertised gas mileage.  And some stupid judge went along with this and they settled in small claims court.  The truth of the matter is that with any car and in particular with hybrids, your mileage may vary considerably based on how you drive.  You can make a hybrid get 10 MPG by driving like a total ass - that is not the fault of Honda or Toyota.  The defect lies in the nut behind the wheel.

Now a plug-in hybrid is somewhat closer to an electric car, but again is not an electric car with a "range extender" or an electric car that is recharged by its IC engine (although it does do that, of course).  As you might expect, there is no efficiency gained by using an IC engine to charge a battery and then use that energy to run an electric motor.  Maybe that works for locomotives (diesel-electric) where you have to harness thousands of horsepower that an ordinary transmission can't handle.  But for a car, well, it would just make it less efficient as there are losses in every step.

UPDATE:  When the Chevy Volt came out, enthusiasts wrongly thought it was a "series hybrid" - that is to say, it was driven by an electric motor, powered by a battery which was charged by an IC engine.  That was incorrect.  Such an arrangement could work but the efficiency would be horrible, as energy would be lost at each stage of conversion from mechanical to electrical, to chemical, back to electrical, and then back to mechanical. The Volt, like the plug-in Prius was a parallel hybrid, using electrical power to assist in acceleration and then recapturing that energy in regenerative braking (as well as providing a small range through excess battery capacity).  A series hybrid, in retrospect, really would make no sense, outside of railroad locomotives.

A plug-in hybrid functions like a hybrid as discussed above - recapturing energy lost to braking and then adding it when accelerating (which is why hybrids get better mileage in the city than on the highway).  But in addition, you sort of have a little bit of an electric car thrown in.  A reader reports that their plug-in hybrid will go about 12 miles before the engine turns on.  Not a great range, considering that in the EV world, 300 miles is the golden number to hit.  But he reports that for most driving around town, the IC engine never turns on and when he gets home, he can then plug it in and recharge.

I advised him to put STA-BIL in the gas - it will go bad over time, particularly in hot weather as he uses so little of it.

Of course an EV is a pure battery car, and thus relies 100% on electricity to accelerate and then recaptures some of that energy in braking.  Again, drive an EV like a jackalope and you can cut the range very short in no time, as "Hoovie" of "Hoovie's Garage" (YouTube) aptly demonstrated.  What a dork!

But as you can see, while an EV might have a little in common with a plug-in hybrid, it really has nothing in common with a pure hybrid, other than both recapture braking energy (if driven properly). EVs do this to maintain their range.  Hybrids do this to increase gas mileage.  Similar ides, different applications.

Of course, even with a pure IC engine car you can really improve your gas mileage by changing how you drive.  I went to put the trailer away today and was chagrined to see people accelerating toward red lights as if "getting there first" was some kind of achievement or they would win a prize or something. All they were doing was wasting gas and wearing out their brakes.  And I know this as I used to drive that way - getting 30K max out of a set of brake pads.  Today, I get 100K out of a set, without difficulty.  It's all in how you drive.

If  you see a red light or a stop sign ahead, let up on the gas and coast to a stop.  The less braking you do, the more money you save.  The inherent friction and air resistance will slow you down.  Bonus if the stop sign is up a hill - you can convert your momentum into a hill climb.  So few people do, though.

One more thing about hybrids.  There is a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) being spread about hybrids and EVs.  I still hear from rednecks stories like, "Sure dem Priuses get good mileage, but after five years you have to replace the batteries and that costs ten grand!"  Car & Driver did a test where they compared a ten-year-old Prius to a brand-new one and found that the batteries had degraded, at most, by less than 5%.

These cars have been around a long time and are proving themselves to be not only as reliable as IC cars, but even moreso.  A Canadian friend of mine had her Prius stolen and the RCMP told her that it was likely put in a container and was on a ship to North Africa within hours of the theft.  Apparently the Toyota Prius has supplanted the Mercedes W123 (240D, 300D, etc.) as the car of choice for taxi drivers in the Arab world.  The Toyota Hilux pickup is similarly popular worldwide due to its durability.  I sold my 1988 4x4 to a guy who drove it to Guatemala and no doubt it is still tooling around there somewhere.

Having your Prius stolen is an odd endorsement of its quality, to be sure.  But it presence as a taxi (we saw a lot of them being used that way in Barcelona as well) is a sure sign that it is valued for its durability and reliability - FUD notwithstanding.