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Electric Car vs. Hybrid Car

Written by Bryan Johannsen

So you've decided you want to go electric but you're having a hard deciding if going full electric is right for you. We've written this article to help you decide if a hybrid electric or full electric car is right for you.

For comparisons sake for this article we are using the most recently announced electric cars which are due out in late 2010/early 2011. These are the Chevy Volt, Coda Sedan, Tesla Model S, and the Nissan Leaf. Specifications are sometimes difficult to come by for these soon-to-come electric cars but we do our best interpolation. We're lumping hybrid cars together into one class though they may vary a lot from parralel hybrids to hybrid plug ins.

On the hybrid side of equation we have cars that split their power between electric motors and gas or diesel engines. There are two forms of hybrid technology, series hybrid and parallel hybrid. A series hybrid is one in which the wheels are always driven by the electric motor while the gasoline or diesel engine acts as a generator. It uses electric motors with batteries that can be charged by either plugging them into an electric power source or by the gasoline powered "generator" in the car. A parallel hybrid uses both the electric and fossil fuel power sources to drive the wheels. The primary power comes from the gasoline engine and the electric motor acts as an auxiliary when the car is moving at slow speed or accellerating from a stop. The batteries are charged by the gas engine while the car is running and often by a regenerative braking system that uses a generator to create a rolling resistance that both slows the car and charges the batteries. An example of the parallel hybrid drive system is the Toyota Prius.

Plug In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) can be plugged into an outlet in order to have a full or partial battery charge before being driven letting the car run on battery power before using the gasoline engine to charge the batteries. While techinically it could be in the hybrid category we are putting PHEVs in with the electrics since they could go their entire lives without ever using a drop of gasoline. If the trips taken are within the battery's range and the car is plugged in between trips it will operate like any pure electric car. An example of this sort of technology is the upcoming Chevy Volt.

Pure Electric Cars are powered entirely by an electric motor or motors and store their power in an array of batteries. There are numerous types of batteries available to electric car manufacturers and each has advantages and disadvantages, read more about the different types of electric car batteries here. Electric cars get their "fuel" by plugging into a power source, most can be charged by any 110 volt outlet like you'll find anywhere in your house but they will benefit from plugging into a designated car charger wired directly into the high voltage lines coming into the house or business. The high voltage chargers will fill the batteries significantly faster than a regular outlet. In electric cars like the Nissan Leaf the full charge takes between 6-8 hours on a fast charger while a full charge on a 110 volt outlet will take 24 hours. Electric cars can also utilize a regenerative braking system to add charge to the batteries but don't expect the braking to provide enough power to give you the fabled perpetual motion machine.

The Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is a specific category of electric car that is speed limited to 25 mph and is restricted in most states to roads with a speed limit no greater than 35 miles per hour. Some states raise the limits to 40 or 45 mph and in some states NEVs aren't allowed on roads at all. You can read more about the NEV laws in your state here.

Range

Probably the most important thing to consider when choosing between hybrid and electric is the distance that you travel every day. Electric cars are short range vehicles, 100-200 miles on a charge is the upper end of the electric cars that are available or coming soon. Most of the neighborhood electric vehicles have maximum ranges of about 40 miles. In PHEVs the range is longer, up to 400 miles, but you will be using the gas generator to get that sort of range. Using air conditioning, heaters, radios and any other powered accessories will reduce the maximum range as all of these rely on the batteries that are driving the wheels. When it comes time to "refuel" an electric car it will have to be on a charger for a minimum of a few hours so if your typical trip is longer than about 40% of the car's maximum range then you will have to have a place to charge the batteries at your destination.

Hybrid cars have ranges comparable or even longer than a gasoline or diesel powered car of the same class. If you have a long commute or often take long drives to visit family or friends then range is going to be the deciding factor in your purchase of a new vehicle. Refueling a hybrid car is no different than refuel a typical fossil fuel powered vehicle, you'll stop at a gas station and fill it up. For plug in hybrids a charging station at your destination is optional whereas in an electric car it is required if you can't make the round trip on one charge.

Advantage: Hybrid. If you only use the car for short trips then this isn't a concern, also in urban and built up areas expect to see charging infrastructure in place sooner.

Speed

In general hybrid and electric cars are not performance cars, they will get you where you need to go and will maintain highway speed limits but don't expect "pin you to your seat" accelleration or blazing top speeds in these vehicles. There are exceptions though, the Tesla Roadster will rocket from zero to sixty miles per hour in 4 seconds and will go 125mph. Being based on a Lotus chassis gives the Roadster capable handling as well but the half ton lump of batteries in the center of the car bring it's handling performance below the ICE powered sports car it is based on.

There are some fast hybrids as well, the Lexus GS Hybrid will reach sixty from a dead stop in about 5 seconds, as will the hybrid LS. Raw speed isn't usually a factor in purchaasing an environmentally friendly automobile but there are cars on both sides of the hybrid vs. eelctric debate that will get you some speeding tickets.

Advantage: Draw. While most types of either style aren't performance cars by any stretch there are high performance electrics and hybrids available

Charging

With a Hybrid vehicle this isn't going to be a concern. With the built in internal combustion engine that can either drive the wheels or charge the batteries the infrastructure already in place for fossil fuel vehicles will service your hybrid without issue. In the case of plug in hybrids you can plug it in at your residence or place of business to put a charge in the batteries but it is not required as it is in an electric vehicle.

In the vast majority of the US there is little to no infrastructure currently in place for electric cars so keeping the batteries charged is going to be a concern. If you live in a house with a connected garage or car port then getting energy into the batteries is as easy as running an extension cord or just plugging directly in to the wall outlet. With a neighborhood electric vehicle this may be all that is needed as these short range electric cars don't require a lot of charge. If you park close enough to where you work and your company is understanding you may even be able to charge your batteries at work. If you live in an apartment complex or condominium complex and you park close enough you may be able to run an extention cord out to the car provided you feel safe doing so and the community's rules allow for it. In a complex with a parking garage or the like you will have to choose a place that has built in charging infrastructure or arrange for it with your management company.

With highway capable electric vehicles the extended range is going to require significantly more energy. This can still be supplied by a standard 100 volt wall outlet but the charge time will be lengthy, even a much as a full day to put the maximum charge in the batteries. In this case you will want a fast charger.

A fast charger is a unit that is wired directly into the high voltage coming into your building. These provide vastly more power than a wall outlet and will charge an electric car's batteries relatively quickly. These units must be installed by a qualified electrician and in many states require a state inspection and government approval before use.

In short, without the infrastructure in place or without the ability to charge your vehicle at your destination, range is going to be the most important consideration in an electric car purchase. If you don't have anywhere to charge the batteries except at home then 35%-40% of the car's maximum range should be the one way length of your daily commute. We don't recommend 50% because the manufacturer's measure the range of these cars under the most optimum conditions which are not the conditions most of us drive in every day. Also as the batteries age the maximum range of the car will decrease. You can read more about Electric Car Range here.

Maintenance

This is one area where electric cars have a significant advantage, mainly due to simpler construction. With an electric car you have far fewer moving parts than with internal combustion engine powered vehicles. Less moving parts equals less maintenance, you can forget about oil changes forever in an electric car. There is one bit of very expensive maintenance though, batteries lose some of their ability to hold a charge every time they are cycled (charged and drained), eventually the entire battery system will have to be replaced and that will be very expensive. Thankfully this isn't something you'll be doing often current estimates are around 5 to 7 years depending on driving and charging habits. Read more about Battery Replacement Costs for Electric Cars here.

A hybrid, on the other hand, has all the maintenance of a regular gasoline powered car along with the batteries of an electric car. The gas engine will require all the same maintenance as your current car plus the batteries will eventually need to be replaced. This often isn't thought of when thinking about a hybrid but because of the multiple drive systems and the systems that must balance between them the hybrid is quite a complex piece of machinery.

PHEVs skew this a bit, we are classing them as electric cars due to their ability to run without ever using the gasoline generator but for maintenence purposes they fall on the hybrid side of the equation.

Advantage: Electric. Less moving parts means less maintenance and Hybrids have all the maintenece of an electric plus those of an internal combustion engine.

Price

If you're looking to go electric or partially electric, price probably isn't a huge consideration for you. Both hybrid and electric cars are going to be quite a bit more expensive than a gas or diesel powered car of the same class and quality and if the price of gas remains about where it is now it probably won't offset the difference during the time period that most people keep a car.

The price will certainly come down in the next few years as the technology becomes more widespread and sees more mass production come in to play but for now electric car buyers are early adopters and are going to be paying the price associated with that label. Tax credits from the federal government and some state governments can help lessen the blow but you shouldn't choose to go electric or hybrid based purely on gas price savings as it almost certainly won't balance out in the end.

Since many of the electric cars being discussed in this article aren't on the open market yet the pricing information we have is from statements from the manufacturers. The Chevy Volt and Coda Sedan will run in the $40,000 range while the Tesla Model S should be around $50,000. The Nissan leaf will start at around $32,000 but tax credits can bring it into the mid 20's making it very affordable for a highway capable electric car. If it does fall in that range it will be the most affordable pure electric, highway capable electric car. NEVs range from under $10,000 to over $20,000 depending on style and accessories.

Hybrids like the Prius start around $23,000, while others like the hybrid version of some Lexus and Ford automobiles will be more expensive than the standard version of the same car. For example, you can expect to pay around $12,000 for the hybrid version of the Lexus GS sedan and around $40,000(!) more for the hybrid LS sedan.

Advantage: Hybrid. When compared against the same class the hybrid will be the less expensive option though both are vastly more expensive then a standard gasoline of diesel powered version of the same class car. Factoring in gas savings and tax credits gets them more competitive if you are the type to keep a car for a long period of time. The Nissan Leaf shows good pricing for a pure electric.

Conclusion

Pitting hybrid cars versus electric cars at this time is slightly unfair to the electric car due to the lack of charging infrastructure and the extremely limited availability of electric cars. From a practical point of view driving a hybrid isn't any different than driving a gas or diesel car. You still use the same filling stations, you don't have to worry about getting power to where you park it and range isn't an issue because you use the same infrastructure as everyone else. In the current electric car environment the considerations are myriad. Limited range, speed limits, charging, price; all of these will be a factor when considering an electric car purchase, none more so than range. If you make a mistake in your calculations or something forces a deviation from your normal route you can't just drop into a station and top off the batteries. If the only place you have to charge is at home then every trip that is close to half the range of the car is almost a gamble, most cars have a "limp home mode" that will only let the car operate at maximum efficiency (read as "very slowly") to get the most out of the last 20% or so of the battery and that may save you but you will find yourself eyeballing the charge needle a lot more often than you will the gas needle.

We will keep this article updated as things change, more infrastructure is installed and more electric cars are released to the public, for now the electric car is only going to be a choice for a very specific group of people that have a place to charge it, a short commute and the income to afford the high cost.

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