What is the history of hybrid cars?

Honda unveiled its Insight hybrid car at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But the Insight wasn't the first hybrid car on the road. See more pictures of hybrid car models.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Generally speaking, a hybrid car is any car that uses more than one fuel source. Nowadays, however, we mainly use the term to describe cars that combine a gas-fueled internal combustion engine with a battery-driven electric motor. Until recently such hybrid electric vehicles (or HEVs) were relatively rare, but the success of the Toyota Prius has raised public awareness of these gas-saving vehicles and spawned a number of similar cars from manufacturers such as Honda (the Honda Insight) and Ford (the Ford Fusion Hybrid). In fact, these fuel efficient vehicles are one of the most rapidly growing segments within the auto industry. They help us achieve the ideal of green driving.

In the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, back when the idea that cars must run on gasoline wasn't yet set in stone, inventors tinkered with a number of ways in which automobiles could be powered -- including electricity, fossil fuels, steam and combinations of these things. The history of hybrid electric vehicles, however, began shortly after the dawn of the 20th century. Here are some of the highlights of that history:

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1900: The Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil makes it debut at the Paris Exposition. Although initially a purely electric vehicle, designer Ferdinand Porsche soon added an internal combustion engine to recharge the batteries, making it the first hybrid electric vehicle.

1917: Woods Motor Company introduces the Woods Dual Power, a hybrid electric vehicle with a 4-cylinder internal combustion engine. The Dual Power had a top speed of around 35 miles per hour (56.3 kilometers per hour). It was not a success.

1960s and 1970s: Electrical engineer Victor Wouk builds a prototype HEV based on the Buick Skylark. When the U.S. government decided not to invest in the vehicle's further development, Wouk ran out of money and abandoned the project.

1968: GM develops the GM 512, an experimental vehicle that runs on electricity at low speeds and gasoline at high speeds.

1989: Audi demonstrates the experimental Audi Duo. It combines a 12-horsepower electric motor with a 139-horsepower internal combustion engine. Audi develops further generations of the Duo over much of the following decade.

1997: In response to a challenge from Executive Vice President Akihiro Wadi to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles, Toyota introduces the Prius and begins marketing it in Japan.

1999: Honda introduces the Insight.

2000: Toyota begins marketing the Prius (as a 2001 model) in the United States.

2002: Hybrids start to become fairly common in the marketplace. Honda introduces the Accord Hybrid. Many more hybrid cars follow over the next few years.

2004: Ford introduces the first hybrid SUV, the 2005 Ford Escape.

On the next page we'll take a closer look at the very first hybrid car, the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil. This ingenious early motor vehicle shows that eco-friendly driving isn't just a modern concept.

The First Hybrid Car

Porsche Chief Engineer, Wolfgang Duerheimer, explains to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the Lohner-Porsche was the first advanced electric car and the technological star of the 1900 Paris Auto Show.
Porsche Chief Engineer, Wolfgang Duerheimer, explains to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the Lohner-Porsche was the first advanced electric car and the technological star of the 1900 Paris Auto Show.
Courtesy of Porsche Cars North America

The first hybrid car wasn't the Toyota Prius nor was it invented in the 1990s or 2000s. In fact, it dates back to the early 20th century. Still, the first hybrid car was brought into existence for reasons that will be familiar to those living in the early 21st century: Internal combustion engines were producing too much foul-smelling pollution.

The first hybrid car was in part the brainchild of a Viennese coach builder named Jacob Lohner, who felt that gas-driven cars were too noisy and smelly. To find a solution to this problem, Lohner turned to a young Austrian engineer named Ferdinand Porsche. In 1896, when he was just 21 years old, Porsche had invented the electric wheel-hub motor, a battery-operated motor that actually fit inside the hub of a wheel. Lohner asked Porsche to combine his in-wheel motors with one of Lohner's coaches. The result was the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil. This vehicle was first shown to the general public at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

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Although initially a purely electric vehicle, the Elektromobil soon became history's first hybrid. Faced with the problem of keeping the Elektromobil's batteries charged, Porsche added an internal combustion engine that ran a generator, making the Elektromobil the first vehicle to combine an electric motor with a gasoline-powered engine. This gas-electric hybrid could achieve a top speed of 38 miles per hour (61.2 kilometers per hour). The first person to buy an Elektromobil was E.W. Hart of Luton, England, who requested that Porsche put motors on all four wheels. Porsche complied, and the Elektromobil became not only the first hybrid but a pioneering four-wheel-drive vehicle, too. The Electromobil didn't introduce the concept of green driving -- in fact, there had been all-electric cars for several decades by the time it debuted -- but it did show how electricity and gasoline could be used together for increased fuel efficiency.

Ultimately Lohner and Porsche sold about 300 Elektromobils and the idea of a gas-electric hybrid faded into history for many years. Porsche himself became better known not only for founding the company known today as Porsche SE, but also as the designer of the original Volkswagen Beetle.

The idea of the gas-electric hybrid did actually resurface several times over the following century, but it remained for Toyota to turn it into a viable enterprise with the Prius, which was introduced in Japan in 1997 and outside Japan in 2001. By 2007 Toyota had sold one million Priuses worldwide. The Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil, by contrast, has been forgotten by the general public, though several survive and occasionally show up at antique auto shows. Without the Elektromobil the Prius would probably still exist, but Porsche and Lohner deserve credit for having an idea that was nearly 100 years ahead of its time.

Hybrid Car Manufacturing

These high-power nanophosphate lithium-ion cells for hybrid electric vehicles are from A123 Systems in Livonia, Mich.
These high-power nanophosphate lithium-ion cells for hybrid electric vehicles are from A123 Systems in Livonia, Mich.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Despite their increased fuel efficiency and potential for eco-friendly, green driving, hybrid vehicles are manufactured in much the same way other cars are. As with the build-process of most cars, the typical hybrid is put together on an assembly line according to a carefully choreographed series of steps. Conveyor belts shuttle the parts along and elevators move parts into place. Both human workers and machines are involved in the process.

The main difference in the creation of these fuel-efficient vehicles is in the batteries. Hybrid batteries are large, rechargeable and they take up a considerable amount of space. They're made by specialty battery companies, like Panasonic and Sanyo, chiefly located in Japan. Most current hybrids use nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. However, some of the newest hybrids use the more advanced lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.

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To make a lithium-ion battery, a lithium ingot is extruded under pressure into a sheet that's just .01 inches (0.254 millimeters) wide. Machinery is then used to wind these sheets into tightly coiled cells. These wound-up sheets are baked at a high temperature and molten metal is sprayed onto the sheets by automated equipment -- a process known as metalizing. Several metalized battery cells are then stacked together in a module.

There are certain misconceptions about hybrid car manufacturing. One is that the amount of carbon dioxide released in the manufacture of a hybrid car, such as the Toyota Prius, is greater than the amount saved by driving one. Many experts have debunked this idea, yet it persists [source: Gratton]. According to Toyota's own figures, a Prius only has to be driven for about 13,000 miles (20,921 kilometers) for the CO2 savings to outweigh the manufacturing costs. It has also been suggested that the sheer distance the nickel used in the manufacture of the Prius' NiMH batteries travels before it reaches the factory causes more energy to be burned than would be burned by driving a Hummer instead of a Prius. However, analysts have shown that this idea is based on faulty assumptions. The Prius saves more energy than the manufacturing process uses.

For more information about hybrid cars and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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