Why aren’t there more full-fledged hybrid vehicles—models that provide the kind of efficiency gains that really pay off in fuel savings over time?
Blame the bean-counters. With Toyota and its mammoth economies of scale with high-mileage hybrids perhaps the one exception, a set of critical components that need to go in full hybrids—the high-voltage system—is expensive.
That’s led automakers to settle for affordable 48-volt “mild hybrid” systems that, while promising for incremental gains across a fleet of millions of vehicles, can be underwhelming for any perceived personal benefit at the pump.
Jeep Wrangler 48-volt tech
Now the supplier Continental claims to have developed what could be a game-changer: a full hybrid system that skips the high-voltage systems entirely. It instead relies on 48-volt systems—that up to a quarter of new vehicles could have by 2025—to actually provide electric propulsion up to 56 mph.
Motor for Continental 48V full hybrid system
The company's 48-volt system, announced earlier this month, offers all the advantages of a full hybrid with a higher-voltage system, Continental says, but with smaller and cheaper electrical components and a more compact design. With the addition of a new water-cooled electric motor, Continental has managed to double the power of the motor versus a previous-generation “mild” hybrid system, without any increase in diameter.
The compactness claim may seem counterintuitive at first, because if you go down in voltage, the system will need to be able to handle higher current loads to provide the same power (it’s the opposite of why Porsche decided to go to 800 volts in its Taycan electric car).
Continental says that its system has those concerns handled, with higher electrical efficiency for the system. And although higher amps requires thicker connectors and cables, there’s less of a concern of arcing and thus components can be placed closer together, with less worry about insulation.
Continental 48V full hybrid system
The supplier claims that the hybrid system will increase fuel efficiency of a vehicle by 20 percent compared to the same vehicle without a hybrid system. And it notes that a plug-in hybrid version of its 48V system would even be possible.
“This is because the ability to drive in all-electric mode is no longer the main criterion for benefiting from the support for plug-in vehicles,” the supplier says in a release on the tech. That bluntly points to the loophole, as some may see it, in programs like the federal EV tax credit, which grants a credit amount to plug-in hybrids based on the size of the battery, not the capability to go all-electric in real-world driving.
Continental says that it’s testing the system in a Ford Focus, but that it could be used in a wide range of applications, with gasoline or diesel. If big automakers green-light this system, expect to see hybrid badges—and real gains in gas mileage—on many more affordable vehicles over the next few years.