Improving Fuel Economy

Besides a smaller, more efficient engine, today's hybrids use many other tricks to increase fuel efficiency. Some of those tricks will help any type of car get better mileage, and some only apply to a hybrid. To squeeze every last mile out of a gallon of gasoline, a hybrid car can:

  • Recover energy and store it in the battery - Whenever you step on the brake pedal in your car, you are removing energy from the car. The faster a car is going, the more kinetic energy it has. The brakes of a car remove this energy and dissipate it in the form of heat. A hybrid car can capture some of this energy and store it in the battery to use later. It does this by using "regenerative braking." That is, instead of just using the brakes to stop the car, the electric motor that drives the hybrid can also slow the car. In this mode, the electric motor acts as a generator and charges the batteries while the car is slowing down.

  • Sometimes shut off the engine - A hybrid car does not need to rely on the gasoline engine all of the time because it has an alternate power source -- the electric motor and batteries. So the hybrid car can sometimes turn off the gasoline engine, for example when the vehicle is stopped at a red light.

    The frontal area profile of a small and large car

  • Use advanced aerodynamics to reduce drag - When you are driving on the freeway, most of the work your engine does goes into pushing the car through the air. This force is known as aerodynamic drag. This drag force can be reduced in a variety of ways. One sure way is to reduce the frontal area of the car. Think of how a big SUV has to push a much greater area through the air than a tiny sports car.

    Reducing disturbances around objects that stick out from the car or eliminating them altogether can also help to improve the aerodynamics. For example, covers over the wheel housings smooth the airflow and reduce drag. And sometimes, mirrors are replaced with small cameras.

  • Use low-rolling resistance tires - The tires on most cars are optimized to give a smooth ride, minimize noise, and provide good traction in a variety of weather conditions. But they are rarely optimized for efficiency. In fact, the tires cause a surprising amount of drag while you are driving. Hybrid cars use special tires that are both stiffer and inflated to a higher pressure than conventional tires. The result is that they cause about half the drag of regular tires.

  • Use lightweight materials - Reducing the overall weight of a car is one easy way to increase the mileage. A lighter vehicle uses less energy each time you accelerate or drive up a hill. Composite materials like carbon fiber or lightweight metals like aluminum and magnesium can be used to reduce weight.

All of the hybrid cars on the market utilize some or all of these efficiency tricks. We will be looking closely at the technology of the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.

Photo courtesy Consumer Guide and Publications International, Ltd.
The 2006 Honda Insight (left) and 2006 Toyota Prius

Although both of these cars are modified parallel hybrids, they are actually quite different in character. The Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius both have a gasoline engine, an electric motor and batteries, but that is where the similarities end. Let's start with the Insight.