What is a Hybrid?

by Paul Bindon & Matt Stroud

Have you ever thought about how you would handle yourself or your crew when dealing with a hybrid vehicle that was involved in an incident?  Maybe you have taken a class.  Did you get enough information from that class to make you comfortable dealing with any scenario?  Did you walk away having questions unanswered?  Even worse, did you walk away with more fear than before the class?  Maybe you have never even thought about it.

This is the first in a series of monthly articles about hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles, as they pertain to first responders.  Future article topics will include:

  • Hybrids Around Us Today
  • Electrical Theory
  • High Voltage vs Low Voltage Circuits
  • High Intensity Discharge Headlights
  • Parts Location
  • Approach Tactics & Power Down Procedures
  • Fire & Submersion Procedures
  • Myths
  • Airbag Technologies
  • Alternative Fuels & Future Technologies

These articles are designed to provide a complete and in depth understanding of these technologies.  Our goal is to eliminate hesitation and fear when responding to vehicle incidents.

MGS TECH. Corporation consists of factory trained Master Diagnostic specialists with 50 years of combined automotive and engineering experience.  We have also participated in extensive extrication and tactical training courses.  These two fields blended together form the symbiotic relationship necessary to teach the broad range of topics discussed during our new vehicle technology classes.

Let’s begin with some history; Automobiles were powered with electric motors as early as the late 1800’s.  They had the advantage of simplicity over their gasoline counterparts of the time.  There were no difficult gears to shift, they did not need to be crank started and they did not belch smoke into the atmosphere.  They were the preferred method of transportation for the elite when travelling within the city.  The development of better road systems between cities, and the discovery of large amounts of crude oil in Texas in the early 1900’s, caused their limited range and high cost to sway public preference toward gasoline powered automobiles. This preference has continued until the recent resurgence of age old concerns about pollution and dependence on foreign oil that make alternatives more appealing.

From the Congressional Record, 1875;
“A new source of power… called gasoline has been produced by a
Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is
exploded inside the cylinder of an engine…
The dangers are obvious
. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people
interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive
hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline
might attain speeds of 14, or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to
our people of this type hurtling through our streets and along our
roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative
action even if the military and economic implications were not so
overwhelming… the cost of producing (gasoline) is far beyond the
financial capacity of private industry… In addition the development of
this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck
our agriculture.”

As you can see, current concerns regarding new vehicle technology being offered today differ little from those expressed at the end of the 1800’s.  New types of fuels and emission concerns are still very relevant.

Social and legislative pressures in the late 80’s led to the federal Clean Air Act and the subsequent adoption of the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standard by the state of California in 1990. As a result of these regulations, the major auto manufacturers were required to sell ever increasing numbers of zero emission vehicles in California over the following years, with a goal of 2% by 1998 and 10% by 2003.

General Motors produced a zero emission vehicle called the EV 1 from 1996 to 1999.  The EV 1 was a capable electric vehicle with good range and power.  GM offered it as a lease-only vehicle, leasing only 800 units due to high production costs.  GM claimed it was not able to make enough of a profit on it to justify continued production, thus the vehicles we’re recalled and destroyed.  Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda also offered electric vehicles during that time in very limited numbers.  Since the auto manufacturers were unable or unwilling to meet the zero emission standards established in California, subsequent legal battles resulted in compromises that included; blended gasoline with alcohol as an “alternative fuel”, a new rating system for gasoline powered vehicles’ emission standards, and the production of natural gas and hybrid vehicles as Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV’s) or Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEV) instead of electric or zero emission vehicles (ZEV).  The byproduct of these emission standards is a very efficient vehicle with exceptional fuel economy; the Hybrid.  Hybrid vehicles became widely available to the public in the year 2000 with the introduction of the Honda Insight.  The following year Toyota introduced the Prius.  An in depth look at the Politics involved in this evolution can be seen in the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”.

A Hybrid vehicle blends internal combustion engine and high voltage electric motor technology together, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase fuel economy.  Energy is stored in a high voltage battery pack and used by high voltage electric motor(s) to either drive the wheels directly, or assist in driving the wheels through a conventional transmission.

System types include:

  • Parallel hybrids use the electric motor(s) or the internal combustion engine together or individually to power the vehicle. (Toyota Prius Synergy drive)
  • Mid Parallel hybrids use a compact electric motor to assist the internal combustion engine in driving the wheels. (Honda Civic Integrated Motor Assist system IMA)
  • Series hybrids use an internal combustion engine to produce electricity that is either stored in a battery, or used by an electric motor to drive the wheels. (soon to be released Chevy Volt)
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also a type of series hybrid.  The fuel cell provides electricity for storage in the battery or for use by the electric motor that drives the wheels.  While there are no production fuel cell vehicles available currently, prototypes from most major manufacturers have been produced (Toyota, GM, Hyundai, Honda etc.)

Hybrid vehicles utilize a regenerative braking to capture the vehicles forward motion and convert it to electricity that is stored in the battery.  Computer controls make this possible by converting the electric motors into generators.  The complexity of these systems has only been made possible by advances in modern computer technology.

With millions of these vehicles on the road today, they are an important part of our transportation system.  Learning how they work and how to safely respond to an incident involving them is an important part of a first responders’ career training.

In Summary, we realize that some of the material presented in this article may be dry.  It is however important that you understand the history of these vehicles and where vehicle technology is heading.

Our next article, “Hybrid Models Around Us Today”, will focus on current hybrid models of cars, trucks, buses and mid voltage hybrids.