Why We Need Hybrid Cars
We are in the midst of a fuel revolution, fossil fuels are a finite resource and despite our best efforts, they will run out sooner rather than later. Our entire planet is working up to shift its primary energy source from fossil fuels to renewable energy and nowhere is this more pertinent than the automotive industry. With this impending lack of the fuel that has driven much if not all of the 20th century we are now working hard on alternatives, from hydrogen to ethanol to batteries to biodiesel we are trying to find an adequate replacement for oil and gasoline, a plentiful source of liquid energy that has powered us to school, to work and to holiday since the day we were born.
Most automotive manufacturers think that electricity is going to be the fuel of the future. We can make it using sunlight, waves, wind and even cold fusion (once we figure it out of course). The big issue we are faced with is that our ability to store electrons for use on demand is very limited. Current lithium-ion batteries are a huge technological step forward from what we had 10 years ago but we still have a long way to go.
Lithium-ion batteries are seeing an 8-10% increase in energy density (the amount of power stored per kilo of battery weight) each year, with this trend expected to continue or even accelerate as more money is poured into research, we can expect to have 100% electric cars with a 1,000+ mile range in 10-12 years time. That is great news but where does it leave us at the moment?
If you want an electric car and you want it soon, you’re probably looking at the Nissan Leaf. It’s the only mass produced highway capable electric car currently being sold (apart from the Tesla Roadster of course). The Nissan Leaf has a range of 100 miles (160 kilometers) and takes 7 hours to recharge using your household 220 volt outlet. This is more than adequate for 95% of American and European car owner’s needs but this is where “range anxiety” comes into play. People generally think that that drive a lot further than they actually do each day so instead of looking at a 100 mile range as 73% more than they need on a day to day basis (26.4 miles is the average commute for Americans) they think, what if I need to drive 101 miles?
SOURCE: US Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Omnibus Household Survey.
This is where the hybrid comes into its own. It’s a step towards an all electric future but it still has one foot in familiar fossil fuel territory. The Fisker Karma is a great example of an almost perfect hybrid car, it uses a 100% electric drive system until range runs out (50 miles) and then uses a small onboard gasoline engine to recharge batteries, offering a combined range of 300 miles in total. There are upcoming electric cars, such as the Tesla Model S, that offer a 300 mile range on batteries alone however the cost of the required amount of lithium-ion batteries to reach this range will put it well above the average American household. Until such a time as battery technology can inexpensively offer a 300+ mile range on a charge, hybrids are going to fill the void and we should welcome them with open arms as an important and vital step towards an all electric future, for everyone.
In a decade or so when we have more advanced lithium-ion or lithium-titanate or even some other as yet undiscovered battery technology that allows us a range of 500-1,000 miles per charge “range anxiety” will be a thing of the past and we’ll look back on the hybrid car as an interesting and important step. For the time being though, if you can only afford one car and you want to be as electric as possible, a plug-in hybrid really is your best option.