Only 45% of U.S. Adults Know How Hybrid Vehicles Work, According to Consumer Reports

Do you know how hybrid vehicles work? You aren’t alone if you don’t. According to a Consumer Reports survey, only 45% of American adults understand hybrid cars. So, how do hybrid vehicles work? What are the different types of hybrids? Which of them has to be plugged in?

How hybrid vehicles work

A hybrid car charging.
Hybrid car charging | Sean Gallup via Getty Images

A hybrid vehicle gets power from a gasoline engine and at least one electric motor. According to Car and Driver, it recaptures energy through regenerative braking and stores it in its battery pack. The hybrid vehicle uses less gas than a gas-powered vehicle because sometimes, all the power to turn the wheels comes from the electric motor. Other times the electric motor and the gas engine work together, or only the gas engine produces all the power.

The electric motor powers the vehicle at low speeds so the gas engine can turn off. The gas engine turns back on when the vehicle is going at higher speeds, up hills, or when the battery needs recharging.

The electricity for the electric motor comes from a high-voltage battery pack, which is different from a vehicle’s standard 12-volt battery. The battery pack is recharged by the gas engine and through a regenerative braking system, which captures the energy from slowing or coasting released as heat in a gas-powered vehicle.

Less than half of Americans understand how hybrid vehicles work, according to Consumer Reports

In September 2022, Consumer Reports asked 2,519 adults in the United States, “do hybrid vehicles need to be charged by being plugged in (such as to an electrical outlet or charging station) in order to run?” The answers indicate that many Americans are confused about how hybrid vehicles work. Less than half of respondents, 45%, answered that hybrid vehicles do not need to be plugged in to run. Of the remainder, 37% said hybrid vehicles need to be plugged in to run, and 18% were unsure.

There are plug-in hybrids that can plug in. This extra charge allows them to run on mainly electric power for 25 to 50 miles before switching back to functioning as a parallel hybrid. Consumer Reports points out that plug-in hybrids will still run even if they are never plugged in. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, other types of hybrid vehicles cannot be plugged in.

As vehicles come with a greater variety of powertrains, it’s easy to get confused. Before buying a new vehicle, be sure to understand how it works and whether it can be plugged in.

Types of hybrid vehicles

There are several different types of hybrid vehicle designs. Parallel hybrid is the most common. It connects an electric motor (or more than one) and a gasoline engine to the same transmission, which combines the power from both sources. These vehicles are not plugged in. This design is used in the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt.

In a series hybrid, the electric motor (or motors) is connected to the wheels and provides the thrust. The gas engine only recharges the battery. These cars, like the BMW i3 with the range extenders, feel more like an electric vehicle except when the engine kicks in to recharge the battery.

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is like a parallel hybrid but has a much larger battery pack that can be recharged from an external electricity source. With the larger battery pack, a plug-in hybrid vehicle can drive farther using just electric power and less gas.

These hybrids can still be driven even when they haven’t been plugged in. If the all-electric charge is used, the vehicle runs like a parallel hybrid. It is also possible to have a plug-in series hybrid. The Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid is one example of a plug-in hybrid.

There are also hybrid designs that aren’t exactly parallel or series hybrids. In some, the engine generally recharges the battery but can power the wheels when necessary. In the through-the-road hybrids, one axle is driven by the gas engine, and the electric motor drives the other. 

Unlike the others, a mild hybrid isn’t a full hybrid because the vehicle is never powered by just the electric motor. In these vehicles, the electric motor helps the gas engine improve fuel economy and performance. The electric motor is also the starter for the automatic start-stop system. 

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