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A hybrid vehicle is any vehicle that utilizes a combination of an internal combustion engine running on traditional fossil fuels and a battery-powered electric motor for propulsion. The most basic and common configuration is to simply place the electric motor in line with the main drive train, and to have the electric motor draw from battery power and aid the internal combustion engine while the vehicle is undergoing acceleration. The act of accelerating burns more fuel than simply cruising at a constant speed, so the assistance of the electric motor during acceleration acts to conserve fossil fuels. Likewise, as the vehicle undergoes deceleration, the reverse rotation of the electric motor acts to recharge the battery. The electric motor is utilized more frequently if the vehicle makes frequent starts and stops; hence, hybrid vehicles tend to have better fossil fuel efficiency in urban driving conditions.
Some hybrid vehicles utilize a transmission system that has a more complex interaction between the electric motor and internal combustion engine. These models are able to run as described above, but also have the ability to engage the electric motor as the primary drive engine while cruising, or to use the internal combustion engine as the sole drive engine while utilizing the electric motor as a generator to recharge the battery.
Hybrid vehicles are considered to be environmentally friendly from two points of view. These vehicles, by having a greater efficiency rating for fossil fuel consumption, have a lower level of emission of greenhouse gases and can therefore slow the rate of global climate change. Second, these vehicles are seen as being beneficial by reducing dependence on fossil fuel consumption, with the additional geopolitical benefit of reducing dependence on imported fuel.
Environmental concerns have been raised in regard to disposal of the batteries these vehicles utilize, once they become spent. Current technology uses nickel-cadmium batteries. Nickel is suspected of being car-cinogenic, but is considered to be less of a threat than the lead used in standard lead-acid batteries. In addition to health concerns, environmentalists are concerned about the impact of nickel mining. Nickel-cadmium batteries are expected to be replaced soon by lithium-ion batteries, which are considered to be less of an environment and health risk.
Criticisms and Scrutiny
Environmentalists are critical of the automobile industry in implementing hybrid technologies. U.S.-based manufacturers have primarily created hybrid versions of their SUVs and light trucks, with a very small net increase in fuel efficiency. Environmentalists assert that this allows automakers to claim to be environmentally friendly with very small gains to overall fuel efficiency. Industry spokespeople counter that demand for hybrid vehicles with significantly increased fuel efficiency are niche markets; the increased costs of these hybrids exceeds the economic savings in fuel consumption and hence only people willing to spend the extra money on environmental values would likely buy them. The industry further argues that net fuel saved through implementing hybrid technologies on their largest-selling vehicles, although modest for any single consumer, would have a greater overall reduction in fuel consumption. Despite industry criticisms, demand for hybrid vehicles has been high, and the industry has not been producing enough to meet the demand.
- Jack Erjavec and Jeff Arias, Hybrid, Electric and Fuel-Cell Vehicles (Thomson Delmar Learning, 2006).