Let me start off by saying that I love the sound of a glorious V8 bellowing out its sonnet of horsepower as it kicks tire dust at the econo-boxes on the road of life. Conversely, there is nothing awesome about the silence with which a vehicle, not running on thousands of awesome explosions per second, goes about its business. If I were a spy or a serial killer, I could see the advantage of the silence an electric vehicle affords, but there is just something about the sound of suck, squeeze, bang, and blow that pulls at every emotional cord I have attached to me that a quiet whoosh will never fill.
However, the other thing that I am passionate about is science and technology. So much so, that this whole electric vs. combustion thing has me in serious turmoil. So with that in mind, let me try to put any rhetoric aside and talk about this new-fangled technology objectively, from a scientific point of view, but at the same time, dispel some of the nonsense along the way.
I hate to do it to you, but let’s talk about physics. In order for something to move from point A to point B, Sir Isaac Newton says that a force must act upon it. The greater the mass, the greater the force required. So a Toyota Prius, if it dumped its batteries, electric motor, and all their relevant components, would lose several hundred pounds of weight, which would lead to a significant decrease in energy needed to move it. So why add the electric motor at all?
Well, the hybrid does something that appeals to my inner scientist, and should appeal to everyone—it uses something all other cars waste. Normally when you hit the brakes, what happens is you are turning kinetic energy from your moving car, and converting it to heat by clamping the brake caliper’s pads onto the brake rotors. That is what we will call “wasted energy” as that heat does nothing useful.
Some brilliant folks long ago came up with an ingenious idea to put generators on the drivetrain, so that when you apply the brakes, instead of pads clamping down on rotors, a generator is activated. That generator then creates added resistance making it more difficult for the wheels to roll, which slows the car down, but in doing so, it generates electricity at the same time. So the kinetic energy that was once wasted, now gets put into batteries for later use. No scientific minded person can argue with the beauty of turning waste into wattage.
Now that we’ve explained how hybrids generate electricity, who are they good for? If you drive 30 miles to work each day, and it’s mostly highway driving with little to no braking, yet you decided to buy the Prius in order to save the planet, you’ve not done your homework.
Hybrids are only beneficial for people who do most of their driving in stop and go situations where they can take advantage of the energy that regenerative braking creates. If you’re not using your brakes, you’re just carrying around a large mass for the gas engine to transport and burning more fuel doing it. You should have bought a Volkswagen diesel, or something of that nature, instead.
I won’t go into the studies that have shown that hybrids have a larger carbon footprint than a SUV because of all the extra carbon created in shipping the materials for that battery, their assembly before ownership, and disposal thereafter. For now, I’ll just discuss the merits of owning one to the user, not its impact on the planet as a whole.
Unfortunately, the best merit is that hybrid consumers are simply helping to subsidize the advancement of technology in this area. In theory, if the vehicle were purely electric, it would be a much better car. But the technology simply isn’t there to achieve this for one simple reason; batteries.
As we discussed, weight is the enemy of efficiency, yet all hybrid-electric cars have a gas engine attached either as a generator, or a 2nd drivetrain, which of course, is quite heavy also. So why not dump the gas engine? Because battery technology quite frankly is lacking.
Without the gas engine, the range in a hybrid is going to be severely less than a gas-burner, even if you didn’t turn on the radio, A/C, and lights. If you need to use such accessories and suffer from leadfootitis, you’ll be lucky to get 50 miles before you need more juice.
But the problem with the batteries isn’t just their limited range. The other problem is that batteries simply don’t recharge fast enough. The plug-in electric vehicles must generally be plugged in for approximately 12 hours to achieve a full charge.
So to recap; if you were to buy an electric car using today’s technology, without a gas motor attached, you would be able to drive around 70 miles or so, then instead of pulling into a gas station for 10 minutes and refueling, you park it, plug it in, grab dinner, go to sleep, get up, eat breakfast, and it should be just about done refueling and ready to go—another 70 miles.
However, technology and free market capitalism continue to drive technology at an amazing pace, and when battery technology catches up to the rest of the technology, we’ll have an amazing product on our hands.
Being a huge proponent of nuclear power, I believe nuclear powered electrical plants providing power to practical electric vehicles is likely the way of the future, leaving gas combustion engines for weekends and racetracks. The two can certainly coexist on this planet. But for now, I’ll keep my Corvette, and you can subsidize the electric vehicle technology as it strives to attain practicality. I don’t like being a guinea pig, and don’t like rolling up in stealth mode.
So my honest analysis. If you’re purely an in town driver, logging 20-30 miles a day, and doing plenty of braking throughout; then a hybrid or electric will be a decent car for you. Especially since Uncle Sam has seen fit to rob us in order to provide you with a juicy tax credit instead of letting free markets advance the technology at its natural rate.
But if you’re logging 100 miles a day, mostly highway driving, and need longer range; I promise you will hate yourself more than that time you woke up after a drunken bender next to a goat and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels.