It seems like just yesterday that the first Toyota Prius was hitting the streets. The gas-electric hybrid vehicle was a revelation at the time, and even today stands as one of the most important vehicles in the history of the automobile. Still, it’s hard to believe that the vehicle first hit the market over 20 years ago.
It doesn’t seem long ago, and yet we’ve come so far since that time. One thing led to another, and here we are, in a world where hybrids, electric cars, and fuel cell vehicles are becoming more popular every month, slowly leading us to a world devoid of gasoline vehicles.
It’s often said that the future of the world is green, and the automotive industry is living proof of that. While gasoline still reigns supreme in the car world, that is steadily changing. Now, the Prius has been joined by Tesla, Smart, and many other companies who are pushing the boundaries of what cars can do without gasoline. And as a result, it’s a great time to be a fan of cars.
What’s the difference between electric, hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles?
There are three primary types of green vehicles currently being made. Gas-electric hybrids, fully electric vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles. Before we get into the differences between the three types of cars, it’s important to make sure we understand what a gasoline engine is, so we can see how green vehicles differ from what we were all raised on.
A standard gasoline engine is what is known as an internal combustion engine. That basically just means that the engine relies on a small explosion that is contained within the engine. In an internal combustion engine, gasoline is compressed, and then ignited. The explosion from the highly flammable compressed gasoline powers the rotation of the wheels, and resets the cylinders in the engine, so the process can be repeated.
An electric vehicle is a car with no engine at all. Instead, it relies solely on a motor that is powered by electricity. Electricity comes from the battery in the vehicle, which is dramatically larger than the battery in a gasoline-powered car. Rather than using fuel, an electric car needs to be charged, just like your computer and smart phone need to be. This charging process takes a long time, especially if you don’t have a charging station. Many cars take more than 12 hours to charge through a basic 120 volt outlet, but they can usually charge in three to six hours with a 240 volt outlet, and many charging stations exist. The range on an electric vehicle varies from model to model, with some as low as about 50 miles, and others in excess of 200.
A gas-electric hybrid is a car that uses both technology. A hybrid has an internal combustion engine, but it also has an electric motor. Most hybrids combine the two technologies to get the best of both worlds. The result is a car that doesn’t need to be charged, but that gets dramatically better gas mileage than a standard gasoline vehicle.
Hybrids employ lots of different techniques to gain efficiency. Many of them use the internal combustion engine when in motion, then shut off the engine when the car is coasting, driving at slow speeds, or stopped at a traffic light. At that point, they rely on the battery to run the car and the electronics, and the engine kicks back into gear when it’s needed. Since the engine can recharge the battery, hybrid vehicles don’t need to be charged.
Some newer hybrids are essentially just electric vehicles with a gasoline option. They charge like a normal electric vehicle, and run entirely on battery power. But once the electricity is used up and the range is depleted, the vehicle has a small gasoline tank that can take over. The purpose of these hybrids is to give you all the benefits of an electric vehicle, without the hassle of having to worry about range and getting to a charging station in time.
Finally, there are fuel cell vehicles, though those are very rare. Fuel cell cars are powered by large hydrogen tanks. The hydrogen mixes with air that is collected from outside of the vehicle, and, through a chemical reaction, creates electricity which then powers the car. All that’s left behind is some water that drips out the “exhaust” pipes.
So fuel cell cars are technically electric vehicles, they’re just electric vehicles where the electricity is created in real time, rather than transported into the vehicle’s battery. The biggest perk of a fuel cell car is that they tend to have a larger range (over 300 miles), but it only takes a few minutes to refill the hydrogen tanks in the car.
Why green cars are good for you
Green cars are all the rage. But why is that? What is the benefit for you, the consumer?
Well, there are a lot of different benefits. Most of them center around cost. Hybrid vehicles often get two or three times the mileage that an internal combustion engine gets. You can do the math on what kind of savings that means for you. Electric and fuel cell vehicles don’t require any gas at all, and the fuel that they do require (electricity and hydrogen) is much more affordable than gasoline. So regardless of what kind of green car you get, you’ll be saving loads of money at the gas station.
There are also financial incentives for purchasing a green vehicle. There’s a federal tax credit of $7,500 for almost all green cars. On top of that, many states offer credits of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars as well. These tax credits are meant to incentivize people to buy alternative fuel vehicles, and start moving away from gasoline.
Maintenance costs in green cars are also much lower. Quite simply, gasoline engines are very expensive to maintain. They require a lot repairs and replacements, feature expensive parts, and are constantly having issues. The opposite is true for electric vehicles. Electric cars have essentially no maintenance costs, because they have no engine. Outside of the brakes and the tires, and the occasional battery coolant replacement, there really aren’t any maintenance tasks that need to be done on an electric car. Hybrids fall in between the two: more maintenance costs than a fully electric vehicle, but lower expenses than a fully gasoline car.
Electric and hybrid vehicles also offer some driving perks. While they’re usually not as high of performance as their gasoline counterparts, they offer silky smooth rides, free of the clunkiness that comes from transmissions, and devoid of the loud grunting of a gasoline engine. Electric cars are quiet, smooth, and almost meditative.
Why green cars are good for the environment
You’re not the only one who wins when you purchase a green vehicle. They’re also really good for the environment. Ultimately, that is the primary purpose of a green vehicle: to be environmentally friendly.
So why are green vehicles more environmentally friendly than their gas guzzling counterparts? Primarily because the emissions caused by burning gasoline are horribly harmful to the environment. And when we say horribly harmful, we really mean it.
When cars burn fuel, they emit carbon dioxide, along with other harmful greenhouse gases. These gases pollute the air, and get trapped in the environment. This type of pollution is responsible for global warming, which poses a very scary threat to humanity, other species of animals, and the earth as we know it.
Green cars are not devoid of environmental harm. Hybrids still use gasoline, they just use less of it. Electric cars still need to create a type of fuel – electricity – to run. Most electricity comes from sources such as burning coal, which is also very harmful to the environment. However, electric vehicles need to use a much smaller amount of fuel than gas cars do, so the environmental impact is still strong. But even so, cars in general are bad for the environment. Thankfully, as the automotive world and the green car sphere evolves, the technology becomes better, and the vehicles are able to limit their environmental destruction.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of pollutants are used to manufacture cars, and cutting down on the amount of cars that are made will also help the environment. Electric vehicles have a much longer lifespan than gasoline cars, because they don’t have an engine that can die. The longer a car can last, the fewer cars need to be made, which is a plus for the environment.
The downside of green cars
Hybrids, electric cars, and fuel cell vehicles are all incredible. Each serves a purpose, and together they’re helping make the future of automobiles more green. But that’s not to say that they’re perfect for consumers.
Despite all the benefits we listed, there are considerable downsides to green cars. And before purchasing a hybrid, electric, or fuel cell vehicle, you should know what those downsides are.
The biggest issue with green cars is a lack of practicality. Many fully electric cars have a range of fewer than 100 miles, while another chunk of them can go between 100 and 150 miles. That’s not very far. Factor in four or five hours for charging, and there’s a pretty strong limit on how far you can drive your electric car.
If you do opt for driving your electric car beyond its range, you’ll have to plan your trip around charging stations so that you don’t end up stranded on the road. That type of planning is a much bigger hassle than just taking the next exit and refueling at the Chevron station. Not only that, but even at a charging station, the charge takes far longer than refueling at a gas station. With an electric car, a simple trip can quickly turn into a big ordeal.
Fuel cell vehicles combat many of these issues, because they have a larger range, and hydrogen refueling only takes about five minutes. But unfortunately, hydrogen refueling stations basically only exist in California, and even there they’re pretty limited. You can really only have a fuel cell car if you’re in California, and you’ll still have to go out o your way to refuel when your range is running low.
Thankfully, hybrids don’t have this problem, since you can still refuel them at the gas station. That’s part of why hybrids are so much more popular than fully electric vehicles.
Another downside of electric cars is the price. Even after you account for the large tax credits, electric vehicles are much more expensive than their gasoline counterpart. It’s not rare to spend $10-20,000 more on an electric or hybrid vehicle than you would have to spend on its gasoline cousin. Of course, you can eventually make that money back in fuel prices and maintenance costs, but that’s a long term plan. The initial investment with a green vehicle is pretty high, and that matters.
Finally, because green cars are relatively new, and gaining popularity, the technologies are frequently changing. That means that the electric vehicle technologies that were new and hot five years ago might be outdated already. As a result, green cars currently have a short shelf life in terms of how relevant they are. You can buy an electric car now, but in two or three years the same model might have a range twice as far, and you’ll be clamoring for that model. This not only makes it frustrating for buyers, but shoots a big hole in the resale value of green cars. Currently, green cars don’t hold their value well, for that reason.
The future of green cars
Green cars are firmly on the rise. The technology is improving, the reach is expanding, and every year they sell much better than the year before. It’s clear that green cars represent the future of the automotive world, but what does that future look like?
As technology improves, we’re going to see more and more electric vehicles that perform like their gasoline counterparts. Chevrolet is already pushing boundaries of how far a charge can go with an electric vehicle, while Tesla is creating a line of vehicles that have higher performance than almost any gasoline car we’ve ever seen.
Eventually, electric cars will function just like internal combustion vehicles: high performance, and able to drive for a long time before refueling.
As that happens, and as green cars expand in popularity, more and more charging stations appear, and the technology for charging electric vehicles will improve, so that the charging times can be dramatically lowered. Hydrogen filling stations are already gaining in popularity, and that will likely give rise to a whole new crop of fuel cell vehicles.
With the way the technology is expanding, it seems likely that we’re headed for an electric car boom in the next decade or so. For example, the Volkswagen brand, which owns many big names such as Porsche and Audi, has claimed that their goal is to have 80 of their 300 cars electric in some form or another by 2025. Their goal is to have all 300 vehicles electrified by 2030.
Perhaps this is lofty, but that’s beside the point. The point is that automotive manufacturers know that green is the way of the world, and they’re working hard to get us there. As the manufacturers get there, so too will the consumers, until our roads are filled with cars that pollute only a fraction of what cars have for the last decade.
In the grand scheme of the automotive world, the release of the Toyota Prius really wasn’t long ago. It’s amazing how far green vehicles have come since the early days of the gas-electric hybrid. But even more amazing will be to see where the next 20 years take green cars. Will gasoline cars even exist in 20 more years?
Green cars still make up only a small fraction of the vehicles being sold in the United States, but every year the number gets larger, the innovations get better, and the world gets greener. In our eyes, that’s a wonderful thing.
The full lineup
In case you’re wondering what current cars are green, here are all the green cars that are currently available in the United States.
The hydrogen fuel cell lineup
Honda Clarity Fuel Cell
Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell
The fully electric lineup
Chevrolet Bolt EV
Ford Focus Electric
Honda Clarity Electric
Kia Soul EV
Smart Electric Drive
Tesla Model 3
Tesla Model S
Tesla Model X
The gas-electric hybrid lineup
Audi A3 e-tron
BMW X5 xDrive40e
Cadillac CT6 PHV
Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid
Ford C-MAX Energi
Ford Fusion Energi
Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid
Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid
Kia Optima PHEV
Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid
Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid
Toyota Prius Prime
Volvo S90 T8
Volvo XC60 T8
Volvo XC90 T8