What is a self charging hybrid?​​

Tom Barnard

9 Feb 2023

Charging an electric car - or indeed a plug-in hybrid - is not always a straightforward affair. There’s a rapidly growing network of chargers out there, but a swelling number of electric drivers hooking their cars up to them. Sometimes they can be out-of-order, or just plain slow. So an electrified car that charges itself? It sounds like a winner.

You may have stumbled across the term ‘self-charging hybrid’ and been curious to understand just how this is possible. These are hybrid cars with no plug sockets in sight - the only thing you’ll need to fill is the fuel tank, and many of them are now propelled by electric motors. It sounds incredible and the tech is almost certainly cleaner than a regular petrol or diesel car. But there are no miracles at work here, and they don't hold a candle to fully-electric and plug-in hybrid cars in terms of their cost to run, tax, and their cleanliness. 

How does it work?

The term ‘self-charging hybrid’ is a market term coined for what previously would have been considered a typical hybrid vehicle. These cars tend to have a very small battery, an electric motor and a larger petrol (or occasionally diesel) engine.

The battery is charged automatically using electricity created and captured when the car slows down. This happens as the electric motor switches to becomes a generator, harnessing energy which is usually wasted. It’s sort of like recycling.

This power is then used to feed the electric motor when you press on the accelerator again. As the petrol engine doesn’t have to work as hard because it’s getting a helping hand, it improves fuel economy and lowers emissions. It also makes the car feel faster.

The driver doesn’t have to do anything to initiate this process – the car just works it out itself. You can usually choose a few different modes however to make the car behave differently and be sportier or more economical.

Just to complicate things further, there’s a new type of hybrid which works in a different way. Instead of having an electric motor helping the engine occasionally, the new versions have a petrol engine which works solely as a generator to provide electricity to the battery. This is then fed to the motors which propel the car along, so there is no physical connection between the petrol engine and the wheels.

This can make the car even more economical as the petrol engine can be set to run at its most efficient levels, while the battery takes some of the strain and smooths out the peaks and troughs in demand for acceleration and braking. This system is currently used by Honda in the Jazz and Nissan in the new Qashqai, but others will follow.

So the car does indeed 'charge' itself, but not with electricity sourced from the grid - the power is always going to be drawn from recuperated energy, but mainly from burning fuel, in the case of these newer hybrid models with electric motors directly driving the wheels. 

A screen will usually tell you where the power is flowing around your hybrid system

Will a self-charging hybrid suit me?

Look past the marketing term and it’s clear that a conventional hybrid doesn’t have the same ability to use the electricity grid to power your car. Its sole power source is from fuel which comes from a pump and it burns stuff to make it go.

That said, it is more efficient than a conventionally-engined car, usually by about 20%, especially if you drive in towns or heavy traffic.

It’s quite likely that many drivers don’t really care what is happening under the bonnet and just want to have a simple way of getting around while using the least amount of fuel. For them, a hybrid will allow them to use their car in exactly the way they’re used to, filling up with fuel at the petrol station and driving around without having to worry about plugging in.

Are they reliable?

Yes – it seems so. Hybrids made by Toyota and Honda have been around since the late 1990s and are especially popular with taxi drivers who rack up huge mileages. They seem to rarely fail, but the batteries do degrade over time and become less useful. That means the car has to use the petrol engine more of the time.

There’s not quite so much data on other maker’s hybrids as they’re not so old, but there are very few horror stories out there.

Will hybrids be banned in 2030?

These types of hybrids will no longer be allowed on sale from new as part of the 2030 ban on combustion engined cars, as their battery and motor systems will not enable the car to run for a significant distance on electric power alone. Plug-in hybrid models that can cover the defined distance (yet to be confirmed in legislation) will be allowed on sale until 2035, after which, all new cars on sale in Britain will need to be zero emission.

Hybrids are reliable over huge mileages - just ask any taxi driver

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