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Poor Man's Hybrid · 1 October 05


You might have noticed that most of the automotive news these days is about hybrids. Small hybrids, big hybrids, mild hybrids, even hybrids with chicken pox (just kidding).

Hybrid’s are all the rage.

Do you drive a gas or diesel powered car or truck? Then most likely you already own a hybrid. Of course if you tried to drive around the block on electric power alone you’d probably burn out a few components and kill the battery.

Back in the early part of the 1900’s electric cars were trendy. They were marketed to Doctors and women, among others, because you didn’t have to crank start the engine (getting covered in dirt and oil). At the time gas powered cars were a fickle, messy, and laborious affair. People who drove an EV just hopped in and away they went.

Batteries weren’t very good, but cities weren’t very big nor were they clogged with thousands of commuters. Still, range was surely an issue and I’m not sure how they went about charging those early EVs.

Then some bright chap came along and thought, “Hey, what if I put a small EV inside a gas car? The battery and electric motor could crank the crusty old engine FOR ME!” Essentially the first hybrid between a gas and electric car and more or less what we drive today.

To Review

  • Under the hood of a gas car is a gas powered engine, battery, alternator (charger), and an electric motor (starter).
  • Under the hood of a hybrid is a gas powered engine (smaller), batteries, charger, and electric motor (larger).

If your car had a beefy enough starter (and starter solenoid), larger battery(s), and you hacked a few of the engine’s other controls it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to run it as an electric some of the time. Creeping through rush hour traffic, for example. Ideally you’d want a way to either disengage the gas engine entirely or at least open the valves to reduce back pressure.

A hybrid isn’t really much more than a tweak to the scale and complexity of a gas car. The manufacturer has added extra equipment to optimize the drive train efficiencies: when to use gas, when to use electric, when to charge. The gas engine is smaller since the electric motor is used to smooth out the demands for higher horsepower.

Hybrid Diagram

The current crop of hybrids from Toyota and Honda do their best to optimize fuel efficiency. Mark my words, the coming crop of hybrids (SUVs, etc…) from US automakers are going to be more focused on the marketing potential of the word “Hybrid” than as a means to accomplish better fuel efficiency.

Not that Honda and Toyota are saints here, but they have been trying, even before it was cool.

The people who get the best mileage (hybrid or gas or electric) are those who drive “fuel smart.” If you are a boolean driver (Full Gas or Full Brake) the type of care you drive isn’t going to matter much. But it’s not that hard to start saving right now without even changing vehicles, bookmark MetroMPG for regular driving tips.

One of the coolest things about driving an EV (and maybe hybrids) is being able to see exactly how much power you are using at a given moment and over a longer period. I love to experiment with different routes to see which results in the lowest amp hours or try different styles of driving to see how they affect the power needed to get home, up killer hill. You are able to watch the amps being used and battery voltage respond immediately to the slightest change.

This is either really tough to do in a gas vehicle or not something an auto manufacturer would want to encourage. Can you imagine if every car came with a MPG meter? Auto manufacturers would be spending most of their time with angry customers trying to rationalize misleading fuel economy ratings or in educating them on the best methods to obtain such mileage. A support nightmare.

I think hybrids are a great first step. Manufactured and driven properly they can help to conserve fuel and cut down on emissions. Still, they are more complex to make and that translates into smaller profit margins for automakers. Over time, with enough demand and competition, we will hopefully benefit from increased R&D, reduced production costs, and advances in system control.

Which is great news for EVs. Hybrids use batteries, electric motors, and a controller:any improvements to these directly translate into products that you and I can pop under the hood of our EVs.

Long exposure sparks

Totally unrelated Photo

Comments 7
  1. — Greg Coleman    Oct 02, 2005 01:06 AM    #
    I was at an energy show this past summer and was looking over the spec sheet on a new Hybrid (forgot which brand). The battery was a huge thing with over 120 volts. The motor was also good sized and around 30HP. Get this…the range for the car to run on battery alone was ONE MILE!!!
    Wouldn’t it be better to have a longer running battery setup and use it for most short trips in town, then use the engine in the country? Seemed fairly wrong to have such a short battery run.
  2. Jerry Halstead    Oct 02, 2005 09:42 AM    #
    I guess that is part of the impetus behind plug-in hybrids. Although I think the claims of 150-250mpg are misleading.
  3. darin    Oct 05, 2005 13:46 PM    #
    i chuckled when i read this post.

    it reminded me of the time i once used the “hybrid” capacity of a regular ICE car to get me out of traffic in a pinch.

    the gas motor quit at a stop light and i couldn’t get it re-started. so i held the key to “start”, feathered the clutch, and limped 40 feet or so into a corner gas station – all on electric power!

    on a serious note though…

    in addition to the technological “trickle-down” from hybrids that will benefit EV applications, i think one should also consider the effects of psychological or cultural trickle-down as well.

    in a “baby steps” kind of way, the hybrid shift is exposing a lot of people to the potential of alternative modes of motive power who wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about it.

    Interest in hybrids is closing the gap between the “mainstream” and the “fringe”, and i think we’ll see a lot more interest in “pure” EVs and other alternatives as a result.
  4. — Jepel    Aug 18, 2006 12:09 PM    #

    I think plug-in hybrids will be the defining step to get people accustomed to the idea of EVs. Wanting to maximize fuel efficiency, users will plan their commutes and be careful with the gas pedal as they drive, like EV drivers do today. After seeing how much city driving they can do just with electricity, it’ll seem logical to do away with the heavy gas engine for short trips where it’s unnecessary.

  5. — Nagorak    Aug 18, 2006 22:38 PM    #

    I think Plug-in Hybrids will be helpful in moving people in the direction of full EVs. They’ll start out with almost no range (current Prius, which can’t be plugged in), and then slowly as battery technology gets better they’ll go farther, and people will find themselves using gas power less and less. At some point the gas engine will just end up being vestigial and will be tossed.

    A lot of people won’t believe an EV is practical till they actually (partially) experience it. So, it’s good for changing people’s mentalities too.

  6. — James May    Aug 19, 2006 08:11 AM    #

    One of the reasons I like to drive my EV round in front of people is that it sort of proves that it can be used practically. I was speaking to someone at a wedding recently who thought that hybrids were just a dead end technology when it’s simpler to build a super efficient diesel car. I disagreed for the reasons you give here, it’s a transitory step to EVs and is necessary to refine the technology and bring economy of scale. I sometimes imagine just how expensive a one-off petrol car would be if we were all driving EVs. Imaging getting one-off block and head castings, huh and expecting it to work properly! EVs will become more affordable in the end I think.

  7. — Dan P.    May 19, 2008 00:46 AM    #


    One gas saving gadget that can improve fuel economy is a simple vacuum gauge. The gauge displays intake vacuum, which is an indication of how much load is on the engine. The lower the vacuum reading, the higher the load on the engine and the more fuel it burns.

    The gauge saves gas by helping the driver see the effect his right foot has on fuel consumption. Tromp down on the gas pedal and intake vacuum drops and fuel consumption goes up. Take it easy on the gas pedal and accelerate slowly causes less of a drop in intake vacuum and less fuel usage. Duh! Pretending there is a raw egg under the gas pedal can have the same positive effect on fuel economy.