Alternative-fuel vehicles have surged in popularity over the last few years with climate change having become one of the most talked-about global issues today. There’s no doubt that hybrid vehicles do perform a lot more frugally and with far less emissions than regular gasoline-powered vehicles. The new Ford Explorer Hybrid, for example, returns better fuel economy figures than the smaller Ford Edge SUV crossover, the former returning gas mileage figures of 27/29/28 miles per gallon vs the latter’s 21/29/24 mpg in their most frugal guises. Where the uncertainty comes in is in the manufacturing of these vehicles, particularly in regards to their electrical components – how green is the process, really?
What Are Hybrid Cars And How Do They Work?
If a car uses more than a single means of propulsion, then it is considered a hybrid. There are also different types of hybrids – mild, standard (HEV), plug-in (PHEV), and range-extender. Modern hybrid vehicles typically make use of a standard combustion engine that’s mated to one or more electric motors and a battery pack. The engine burns fuel and the electric motors generate power that’s stored in the battery to power the car’s drivetrain. A standard hybrid works this way continuously, while a PHEV can be set to use electric power only by engaging an EV-only mode. This is because a larger battery pack is usually used for them which can be charged manually. Whatever the case, there are common advantages and disadvantages that are shared by all hybrid-electric vehicles.
- Frugal fuel economy returns
- Reduced exhaust emissions
- Tax rebates and road benefits
- Retention of value for resale
- Improved acceleration responses
- More expensive than regular cars
- Maintenance costs are relatively high
- Passenger and cargo room compromises
Production Process Pollution
The Department of Energy in the USA conducted an in-depth study into the manufacturing of HEV’s and found that they do, in fact, require a significant amount more energy to manufacture than conventional vehicles. A lot more fossil fuels are burnt throughout the process and more greenhouse gasses are subsequently produced, too. The main cause of this is the HEV’s nickel-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, which require a whole lot more energy to create than regular car batteries, leading to higher emissions, particularly in the form of sulfur dioxide. Battery production alone accounts for two to five percent of total lifetime emissions for each hybrid. Cars with nickel-hydride batteries create around 22 pounds of sulfur oxide emissions while regular gasoline cars create around 2.2 pounds in comparison.
As with conventional gasoline cars, HEVs are also produced on high-tech, automated assembly lines that require a massive input of energy. There are field experts that estimate that up to twenty percent of a vehicle’s total lifetime greenhouse gas emissions can be released during just the production phase alone. The Prius, a lightweight HEV produced by Toyota, is a pioneer in hybrid technology and has been around for a really long time, relatively speaking. Toyota stated that it expended more energy and caused more carbon dioxide pollution to manufacture the Prius than most of its gas-powered models.
Automakers are implementing various existing and innovative measures aimed at offsetting the production of pollution produced during the manufacturing process. Some measures include the use of solar panels to conserve electricity, the planting of trees to counter carbon dioxide emissions, walls painted with photocatalytic paint that absorb some harmful airborne gasses, grass engineered to grow slowly for less maintenance, and even new species of flowers that absorb heat and harmful gasses. So, the question that remains is whether or not the long-term benefits of driving an HEV are outweighed by the environmental impacts caused by its production.
So, Does Performance Offset Production
Hybrid-electric cars burn the same type of gasoline as regular cars, and therefore emit the same greenhouse gasses – to an extent. Fortunately, by virtue of their better performance in terms of fuel economy, they require less fuel in the long run. Subsequently, hybrid vehicles are still a lot more eco-friendly than regular gasoline cars even with all the emissions produced during the manufacturing phase. This is because HEVs use far less energy and create far less emissions during their actual operation and over their entire lifetimes compared to conventional cars.
HEVs are so eco-friendly, in fact, that the levels of pollution that are produced throughout their production process are canceled out entirely when considering just how much emissions regular cars produce during operation. According to the USA’s Energy Information Administration, HEVs return 38.7 mpg on average while comparable gasoline-only cars achieve around 26.7 mpg on average, which means HEVs require significantly less fuel than gas cars to cover the same distance.
The Various Types of Hybrid Vehicles
Now that we know that hybridized vehicles are certainly more eco-friendly than conventional cars, it will be good to know what types of hybrid vehicles there are if you’re going to consider buying one.
- Mild Hybrid: A mild hybrid car comes equipped with a small battery that is used only for pulling away, coasting, and braking to provide some minor efficiency improvements. The battery is also used to power the typical in-car tech and functions.
- Hybrid: A full hybrid primarily utilizes its engine for propulsion while one or more electric motors take over when it is efficient to do so, usually at pull-off and lower speeds. The battery is charged automatically through a system called regenerative braking.
- Plug-in Hybrid: A PHEV is typically equipped with a large capacity battery pack that is capable of offering an all-electric-only driving range, albeit limited. While the battery is charged via regenerative braking, as with the other hybrid variants, a PHEV can also be charged at a charging station or outlet. These are the best when it comes to fuel economy and efficiency, though are usually relatively expensive.