2016 is just around the corner. It used to be that buying an automobile boiled down to whether you wanted to drive a car with an automatic or manual transmission. Today, however, with dozens of automakers and technologies vying for our attention, our choice of automobile has become a little more complicated. They go beyond just gasoline or diesel engines and manual or automatic transmissions, but include new technologies, such as hybrid cars, electric cars, plug-in hybrid cars, even hydrogen cars.
Hybrid electric vehicles, otherwise known as hybrid cars or “hybrids,” combine the strengths and weaknesses of internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric motor-generators to deliver both power and efficiency.
‘Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or “plug-in hybrids,” as well as extended-range electric vehicles, have a slightly larger hybrid battery pack, which allows them to ride around longer without using the ICE. Hybrid cars are typically gasoline-powered, but there are a few with diesel engines, as well.
Battery electric vehicles, or electric cars, have the highest-capacity batteries and the most range, but they need to be recharged once the battery is depleted, which can take hours.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the newest, a form of hybrid vehicle, but without a gasoline or diesel engine. Instead, fuel cell vehicles generate electricity via chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.
A closer look at range, fuel economy and emissions reduction
The main reason for all of these new technologies is reducing emissions, which is directly related to how much fuel a vehicle uses. Considering that a gallon of gasoline generates 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide when burned, it’s easy to calculate how much harmful emissions a car generates. The 55 mpg (miles per gallon) Toyota Prius, a hybrid car, generates about half the emissions of the 25 mpg Toyota Matrix, a conventional vehicle, simply by virtue of the fact that it burns about half the fuel.
When it comes to plug-in hybrids, electric cars, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, fuel economy and emissions are somewhat tougher to get a grasp on. To that end, automakers and regulators have tried to give us tools to help us in that department.
The eGallon, for example, approximates a given electric car’s fuel economy with a comparable conventional vehicle, assigning a cost to drive a certain distance. For example, given a Nissan Leaf battery electric vehicle and a Toyota Corolla conventional vehicle, the eGallon costs about $1.20, while a gallon of gasoline fluctuates, from as high as $5 to as low as $2. Even given the latest drop in gasoline prices, driving an electric car is still about half the cost of driving a comparable conventional vehicle.
Then, since most people understand mpg (miles per gallon) or ℓ/100km (liters per 100 km), the US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) came up with MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) to describe fuel economy in cars that don’t use conventional fuels. Keep in mind that, for a quick conversion between mpg and ℓ/100km, just divide 235.2 by your fuel economy. For example, 235.2 / 55 mpg = 4.3 ℓ/100km, or 235.2 / 2.9 ℓ/100km = 81.1 mpg.
Because plug-in hybrid vehicles use both gasoline and electricity, and knowing that gasoline as the same amount of energy as 33.7 kWh of electricity, this makes it somewhat easier to understand that the Chevy Volt’s fuel economy, on a full charge and one tank of gasoline, is about 60 MPGe. Many Chevy Volt owners have gone so far as to avoid using the gasoline engine at all, which means their Volts average 93 MPGe. The Nissan Leaf is somewhat more efficient, rated at 99 MPGe.
Now, with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, regulators are still working on hydrogen MPGe. The Toyota Mirai, the world’s first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, for example, has a 5 kg hydrogen fuel tank and a range of about 300 miles. Considering that one kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy as one gallon of gasoline, this means that Toyota Mirai’s fuel economy is about 60 MPGe.
Regarding emissions, however, plug-in hybrids, electric cars, and fuel cell vehicles are harder to calculate. It all depends on how the fuel is generated. If your power grid is mainly coal-fired, a small diesel engine or hybrid car may be a better choice. If the electricity or hydrogen is generated using renewable energy, such as solar power or wind power, then an electric car or fuel cell vehicle can nearly eliminate emissions.
Wheeling to the future with the newest technology on the road
Hybrid cars might be stepping stones to the future of transportation, but it seems that there are two opposing factions regarding whether that future will be lithium-ion or hydrogen fuel cell powered. Will we ever be able to kick the fossil-fuel habit completely? If so, we figure that lithium-ion electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will, most likely, coexist for some time. It all really depends on infrastructure and convenience.
Get the most bang for your buck by choosing the right car for your needs
Generally-speaking, your choice in automobile depends a lot on how you plan to use it and what fuel is available. Obviously, buying a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle wouldn’t make any sense if there are no hydrogen fuel stations in your area. Similarly, if you have a 100 mi commute, a 50 mi range electric car wouldn’t make any sense, unless there are direct-current fast-charging stations on your route.
When it comes to convenience, plug-in hybrids and hybrid cars are a sure win. They are only slightly more expensive than conventional vehicles, can be charged at home, and fill up at regular gas stations. They also come in almost every shape and size.
Though electric cars are more expensive, they can be fun to drive and will save you a lot of money in refueling. If your daily drive is within the range of your car, and you can recharge at home, or convince your boss to allow you to recharge at work, an electric car is an excellent option.
Depending on your needs, even a small turbocharged diesel engine could be a smart choice, newer versions generating more power and consuming less fuel than ever before. Depending on your power grid, such a diesel engine could end up generating fewer harmful emissions than even an electric vehicle!
No matter what you choose to drive, however, do your homework and drive responsibly.