Why didn't automakers think of hybrids a long time ago? They did. The first hybrid prototype was developed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1900. Inventor Henri Pieper was awarded the earliest U.S. hybrid patent in 1909.
What is a hybrid? It's a vehicle that uses more than one source of energy for power. Typically it's a gasoline internal combustion engine and electric motor. But there are other wrinkles to consider.
- In series hybrids, the gas engine drives a generator that charges the batteries for the electric motor.
- Parallel hybrids are cars in which both the engine and the motor can drive the wheels.
- In mixed hybrids, the most common type, the gas engine can either generate electricity or power the car directly.
- Full hybrids have an electric motor powerful enough to start the car from a stop and take it to full speed.
- In mild hybrids, the electric motor is small, more of a booster.
How much fuel do hybrids save? The Toyota Camry hybrid is rated at a combined city/highway mileage of 34 miles per gallon, versus a regular Camry at 26 miles per gallon. The Honda Civic Hybrid gets 42 miles per gallon; the gasoline-only Civic gets 29 miles per gallon [source: Fueleconomy.gov].
Research the different types of hybrids available. They range from compact cars to full-sized sedans to hefty SUVs. They can be almost as powerful as you want -- the Lexus GS 450h generates 300 horsepower [source: CarsDirect].
Don't ignore the next wave of hybrid technology, the plug-in hybrids. These vehicles typically have a larger battery and can be recharged by connecting them to a source of electricity. (Ordinary hybrids never need to be plugged in.) This option saves even more gas. The cars are starting to become available now, and Toyota plans a plug-in Prius in 2012.