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How Regenerative Braking Works

Regenerative Braking Circuits
Hybrid and fully electric cars use regenerative braking systems to charge the batteries.
Hybrid and fully electric cars use regenerative braking systems to charge the batteries.
©­iStockphoto/­TIM MCCAIG

Regenerative braking is used in vehicles that make use of electric motors, primarily fully electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles. One of the more interesting properties of an electric motor is that, when it's run in one direction, it converts electrical energy into mechanical energy that can be used to perform work (such as turning the wheels of a car), but when the motor is run in the opposite direction, a properly designed motor becomes an electric generator, converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. This electrical energy can then be fed into a charging system for the car's batteries.

In a regenerative braking system, the trick to getting the motor to run backwards is to use the vehicle's momentum as the mechanical energy that puts the motor into reverse. Momentum is the property that keeps the vehicle moving forward once it's been brought up to speed. Once the motor has been reversed, the electricity generated by the motor is fed back into the batteries, where it can be used to accelerate the car again after it stops. Sophisticated electronic circuitry is necessary to decide when the motor should reverse, while specialized electric circuits route the electricity generated by the motor into the vehicle's batteries. In some cases, the energy produced by these types of brakes is stored in a series of capacitors for later use. In addition, since vehicles using these kinds of brakes also have a standard friction braking system, the vehicle's electronics must decide which braking system is appropriate at which time. Because so much is controlled electronically in a regenerative braking system, it's even possible for the driver to select certain presets that determine how the vehicle reacts in different situations. For instance, in some vehicles a driver can select whether regenerative braking should begin immediately whenever the driver's foot comes off the accelerator pedal and whether the braking system will take the car all the way to 0 mph (0 kilometers per hour) or will let the car coast slightly.

There's a general movement in the automotive industry toward so-called brake-by-wire systems where many of the functions of brakes that have traditionally been performed mechanically will be performed electronically. Hybrids and electric cars will probably be early adopters of these brake types. At present, different automotive engineers have come up with differing circuit designs to handle the complexities of regenerative braking; however, in all cases, the single most important part of the braking circuitry is the braking controller, which we'll discuss in the next section.