Great Rivalries: Hybrid vs Electric Vehicles

There’s little question that the future of the automobile includes some measure of electrification. The big debate is how much we’ll rely on an electric system’s volts and amps instead of an internal-combustion engine’s pistons and valves.

Modern hybrid cars still rely on the combustion of fossil fuels for their motivation – a supplementary electrical system takes some of the energy that would be wasted or otherwise lost under braking, stores it in a battery, and then uses it to help power the vehicle at some later point. Carting around two powertrains (no matter how well integrated they are) will never be the most efficient solution, so some say that the hybrid is just a stepping-stone toward an electric car that doesn’t depend on combustion.

Except there are problems. First of all, a battery that can store enough electricity to equal the energy in a tank of liquid fuel is big, heavy, and prohibitively expensive. And then there’s the issue of where the electricity comes from in the first place. The energy that comes out of your household outlet could have been generated by burning coal, another nonrenewable energy source. Add to that the losses inherent in transmitting that electricity from the power station to your house, and you might have been better off driving a regular car in the first place.

You could generate your own electricity, perhaps with a windmill or solar cells on your roof. Or maybe you could make the electricity in a hydrogen fuel cell located in the car itself. Fuel-cell vehicles remove the redundancy of hybrids and diminish the range problems associated with battery-powered EVs. Unfortunately, your neighborhood gas station doesn’t carry hydrogen. And even if it did, compressing the gas to several-thousand psi for storage in your car requires power – enough to make the whole process less efficient than just using a battery in the first place.

Is there no simple solution? Unfortunately not. And there’s no simple answer, either, to the question of whether hybrids are here to stay or if they’ll be replaced by some sort of electric vehicle. Only time will tell.

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