Frequently Asked Questions of Hybrid Cars
Do currently available hybrids need to be plugged in?
No. The batteries recharge by reclaiming energy when the car brakes. Many industry observers expect some future hybrids to be “plug-in hybrids,” offering the option to recharge more powerful batteries via a common household electric socket, while still maintaining a small gasoline engine.
How do hybrids work?
Instead of relying solely on a gasoline internal combustion engine, hybrids use both a gas engine and electric motors. The energy used by the electric motors are stores in rechargeable batteries. The ability to partially use electricity as a fuel means that you burn less gasoline. The computer system on a hybrid makes the decisions about which energy source to use at different times, based on maximizing efficiency while providing the same level of safety and comfort as conventional cars. Our technology section provides more details about how hybrids work.
Is maintenance more expensive with a hybrid?
Maintaining a hybrid doesn’t cost any more than a conventional car, and may even cost less due to decreased wear and tear on the engine and braking system. You’ll probably want to take your hybrid to a dealer, especially considering that Toyota offers a 100,000 mile warranty on emission components and battery pack, and that Honda offers an 80,000 mile warranty on the same—on top of the traditional 3-year/36,000 mile warranty on the conventional systems. Dealer service centers do usually charge a little more, but classes are popping up all over the country to teach independent car mechanics about hybrids. After all, there are more than one million of these cars on the road, and mechanics have to meet this demand. This timing works out well for new hybrid buyers. By the time your warranty is finished, there will be many more qualified hybrid mechanics available to you.
Can you drive a hybrid in extremely cold or hot weather?
Hybrid cars are designed to operate in the same range of conditions and temperatures as conventional vehicles. For example, Honda’s specs indicate that its Integrated Motor Assist system will operate as low as 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. We have seen reports of a Prius in Barrow, Alaska suffering from a frozen and damaged battery pack—at 56 below zero. Master hybrid technician Craig Van Batenburg reports that nickel metal hydride batteries can take heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. He said, “It just doesn’t get that hot. The air cooling works fine.” Gas mileage during cold weather is diminished for all vehicles, hybrid or not.
Can you tow with a hybrid?
Towing a Toyota Prius or Honda requires front wheels off the ground. Honda’s (manual transmission) can be towed with wheels on the ground, but it’s not recommended. Honda’s with CVT can be towed with wheels off the ground. Tow dollies are commonly used.
Toyota and Honda will say not to tow anything behind their hybrids. Except for the Insight, which has an aluminum frame, it’s done everyday. Prius and Civic Hybrid can tow with a tongue weight of less than 100 lbs and total trailer under 1000 lbs. (Just basic guidance; be careful.)
General Motors Two-Mode Hybrids, like the Chevy Tahoe, are specifically designed for full towing capabilities. Other SUV hybrids have adequate towing power. For example, the Ford Escape Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h have towing capacities of 1,000 pounds and 3,500 pounds respectively.
How often do hybrid batteries need replacing? Is replacement expensive and disposal an environmental problem?
The hybrid battery packs are designed to last for the lifetime of the vehicle, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 miles, probably a whole lot longer. The warranty covers the batteries for between eight and ten years, depending on the carmaker.
Battery toxicity is a concern, although today’s hybrids use NiMH batteries, not the environmentally problematic rechargeable nickel cadmium. “Nickel metal hydride batteries are benign. They can be fully recycled,” says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car Journal. Toyota and Honda say that they will recycle dead batteries and that disposal will pose no toxic hazards. Toyota puts a phone number on each battery, and they pay a $200 “bounty” for each battery to help ensure that it will be properly recycled.
There’s no definitive word on replacement costs because they are almost never replaced. According to Toyota, since the Prius first went on sale in 2000, they have not replaced a single battery for wear and tear.
Does long-term storage of hybrids create a problem?
Hybrid storage for less than three months does not create a problem. If you plan to be storing your hybrid for a longer period, it’s a good idea to have the vehicle started up and run for 30 minutes every three months. If your hybrid is left dormant for even longer periods, you may need to have a professional test the state-of-charge, and potentially give the Nickel-metal-hydride batteries a boost.
The fact that hybrids run on electricity as well as gas has no bearing on their safety. You can always check out a car’s safety rating, but this is primarily based on crash tests. Many of the current hybrid cars are small, quick, and nimble (good at avoiding accidents), and rank high in safety ratings for their weight class. SUVs make people feel safe, but have an atrocious record in terms of rolling over and being difficult to maneuver. Furthermore, SUVs do not have to meet the same safety standards as passenger cars, because of federal rules classifying SUVs as light trucks. Safety is not a reason to avoid getting a hybrid, especially when evaluating the hybrid version of a vehicle compared to its conventional counterpart.
Where can you drive a hybrid solo in the carpool lane?
The HOV access laws are changing rapidly and are subject to local interpretation. Contact your local transportation authority to get a definitive answer.
What tax breaks do you get with a hybrid?
The current hybrid tax incentive program went into effect on January 1, 2006, as part of the “Energy Policy Act of 2005.” Our incentives and legislation page has a more complete description of tax incentives and other hybrid perks.
Will hydrogen fuel cell technology wipe out hybrids?
Most experts agree that cars powered by hydrogen will not hit the market for another ten to twenty years. It’s likely that the first set of hydrogen-powered cars will use more than one energy source, and thus will be considered hybrids.