A Simple Guide To Hybrid Cars

A profile shot of a purple McLaren P1 on a lawn in front of a majestic looking castle

Yup, the McLaren P1 is classified as a hybrid car / “MCLAREN P1” by Eddy Clio is licensed by CC 2.0

Okay car n00bs, Hybrid Vehicles 101 is now in session: You’re about to learn the 3 different types of hybrid technology.

hy·brid: something (as a power plant, vehicle, or electronic circuit) that has two different types of components performing essentially the same function

1. Series Hybrid (aka Extended Range Electric Vehicle or Range-Extended Electric Vehicle)

This is the simplest form of hybrid technology. Its basic components are a gasoline engine, an electric motor, a battery and a generator. The energy flows in the order I listed, i.e. it moves in a SERIES (ahhhhh moment).

If there is one point you must absolutely take away from the Series Hybrid, it’s that the wheels are turned by the electric motor ONLY.

The electric motor has to get power from somewhere, right? So you put gas into the gasoline engine, the gas engine burns this fuel and creates energy, which is used to power the generator. The generator then fills up the battery with energy. Now the battery can give power to the electric motor which turns the wheels, and thus forward motion is achieved.

Examples include the Fisker Karma, BMW i3 with Range Extender and Chevy Volt.

2. Parallel Hybrid 

Honda Insight / photo credit: Theodore Lee

A Parallel Hybrid also has a gasoline engine, electric motor and battery. However, the main difference between the Parallel and Series Hybrid is that BOTH the gas engine and electric motor can move the wheels together (remember, in the series hybrid, only the electric motor could move the wheels).

It’s called a Parallel Hybrid because the gas engine and electric motor are lined up with each other along either the cars front wheels or rear wheels, i.e. they are ‘parallel.’

Vehicles using this technology include the Honda Insight, Honda CR-Z, Honda Accord Hybrid, Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHYBRID and BMW 7-series hybrids.

3. Series-Parallel Hybrid 

Toyota Prius / photo credit: Robert Scoble

This design combines the best of both the Parallel and Series hybrid designs, thus the name. The same basic components are present: gas engine, electric motor, generator and battery.

Cars using the series-parallel hybrid design can A.) run on just the gas engine B.) run on just the electric engine or C.) use the power of both engines together.

To maximize efficiency, generally a series-parallel hybrid car will use its electric motor(s) at low speeds and then switch to the gas engine at freeway/cruising speeds.  If you need a sudden burst of power, it will use both.

The Toyota Prius, which is a Series-Parallel hybrid, is also called a ‘full hybrid’ because the electric motor by itself (it actually has two electric motors) can get the car up to 25mph without the gas engine’s help. The gas engine can also power the generator to recharge the battery as needed.

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