Many DIYers (and even some professionals) believe that they can’t fix anything on a hybrid or electric vehicle. But the truth is, electrified cars have many of the same components as their fossil-fuel-dependent counterparts.
If you’ve been afraid of hybrids and EVs because they seem so unfamiliar, now is the time to get to know these vehicles, as they’re becoming increasingly commonplace.
Governor Newsom recently issued an executive order that requires all new passenger vehicles sold in California to be zero-emissions by 2035. General Motors also vowed to go all-electric within the same timeframe.
Furthermore, President Joe Biden announced he would begin to shift the U.S. government’s fleet of vehicles to electricity. It’s expected that electrified vehicles will make up over 30% of the overall market by 2025 and 51% of the market by 2030.
Let’s demystify these seemingly complex cars now so that you’re prepared.
What Are the Primary Differences Between Traditional Vehicles and Electrified Vehicles?
Most drivers are familiar with traditional vehicles that rely solely on an internal combustion engine (ICE). After all, most vehicles still use gasoline or diesel fuel as their only energy source. However, there are getting to be more and more hybrids and EVs on the road.
As you might guess, a hybrid vehicle combines an ICE with one or more electric motors and a high-voltage battery.
Meanwhile, a pure battery-electric vehicle does not have an ICE. Instead, the vehicle is propelled entirely by one or more electric motors paired with a high-voltage battery. The battery is recharged by connecting the car to the electrical grid.
Although hybrids and EVs are similar to traditional vehicles in many ways, there are also some key differences.
Hybrids have unique systems and components that traditional vehicles do not have. Today, there are many different types of hybrids on the road, ranging from those with a simple belt starter generator system (BSG) to so-called full or strong hybrids.
The most common type of electrified vehicle is a full hybrid. A full hybrid uses an electric motor (or multiple motors) alone or in conjunction with the ICE to power the drive wheels under certain conditions. Such a design requires not only an electric motor but also a high-voltage battery and a power electronics system (i.e., inverter, converter, etc.).
In a hybrid, the high-voltage battery is primarily recharged by the ICE. The battery can be charged through regenerative braking when the vehicle is slowing or stopping, as well. There are also less-common, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHVs) that can be recharged when parked by connecting to the electrical grid.
The primary difference between hybrid and electric vehicles is that EVs do not have an ICE. Because of this, the high-voltage battery must be recharged by connecting the car to the grid. All EVs have a drive motor battery charger (also known as a battery charger control module) that can connect to an external charging station to accomplish this task.
The Heating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) System
In a traditional vehicle, the heating and the air conditioning (A/C) systems rely on an ICE. The A/C compressor is driven off the ICE, and the heater uses hot engine coolant.
Of course, in most electrified vehicles, the ICE is either absent or doesn’t run all of the time. As a result, the HVAC systems in hybrids and EVs are different from those in other vehicles.
For one thing, nearly all hybrids and EVs use a high-voltage A/C compressor that requires special non-conductive refrigerant oil. Extra care must be taken when servicing these unique systems.
Most electrified cars also have a heating system that’s different from that of a traditional vehicle. Hybrids and EVs often use an electric coolant pump, along with an electric heater and/or a coolant storage system to keep the cabin warm.
The Braking System
Traditional cars use either engine vacuum or pressurized power steering fluid to provide braking assist. Both approaches require an ICE that runs continuously during vehicle operation. But in most electrified vehicles, the ICE is either nonexistent or shuts down under certain driving conditions.
Also, unlike traditional vehicles, most electrified cars offer regenerative braking. The technology uses the car’s electric motor as a generator to reduce the speed of travel and recharge the high-voltage battery.
To accommodate these differences, many electrified vehicles use some type of advanced electronic brake control system.
For example, many Toyota hybrids use a hydraulic brake booster and master cylinder assembly to apply the friction brakes as needed. An electronic control module operates the booster assembly based on inputs it receives from various sensors, including a stroke sensor that measures how far the driver depresses the brake pedal.
The braking systems on traditional vehicles and electrified vehicles aren’t completely different, though. As we’ll discuss later, the friction brakes are very similar on both types of cars.
What’s Similar On Hybrid, Electric, and Traditional Vehicles?
The differences between electrified and regular vehicles lie primarily in the powertrain. That means, if you’re familiar with the workings of a traditional vehicle, you’ll also recognize many aspects of a hybrid or EV, including the following:
The Undercarriage Components
For the most part, electrified cars and traditional vehicles have very similar steering and suspension systems. Many parts of the drivetrain are similar, as well. For example, electrified vehicles use axle shafts and wheel bearings, just like any other application.
Some hybrids also use a traditional multi-speed transmission (continuously variable, manual, or automatic), while others use a unique type of continuously variable transmission with a power-split system. As for EVs, they typically use a single-speed transmission (also known as a reduction gear) that’s integrated with the electric motor.
The Body and Interior Parts
Even though electrified vehicles often feature bodies made from unique, lightweight materials, the individual exterior trim parts are similar to those found on traditional vehicles. For instance, components such as wiper blades, headlights, and mirrors are often comparable on both types of cars.
Most of the interior components (e.g., interior door handles and power seats) found on hybrids and EVs are also similar to those found on regular vehicles.
The 12-Volt Electrical System
Like traditional, gas-powered vehicles, hybrid and electric cars have a 12-volt battery and corresponding electrical system. That means all of the low-voltage electronics—from the radio to the horn—are similar to those found on a traditional vehicle.
The Friction Brakes
Hybrid and electric cars have brake pads and rotors, just like other vehicles. The primary difference is that, because electrified cars offer regenerative braking, the friction brakes don’t wear out as quickly as they do on traditional applications.
The Internal Combustion Engine and Related Systems (Hybrid Vehicles Only)
Of course, hybrid vehicles also have an ICE and all of the related systems and components (e.g., exhaust system and emissions equipment). Although there are some subtle differences between these systems in an electrified vehicle and a traditional vehicle, they’re similar overall.
Should You Attempt to Work on a Hybrid or Electric Vehicle?
Many parts of a hybrid or EV are similar to those found on a traditional vehicle and—if you’ve got the skills—you should be able to service these familiar parts yourself.
For instance, if you can replace a set of wiper blades or a cabin filter on a regular vehicle, there’s no reason you can’t do the same on an electrified car. Of course, as with any type of vehicle, it’s important to consult a repair manual or repair database before performing any maintenance or repairs.
Also, keep in mind that, as a DIYer, you should never try to service any part of the high-voltage system on a hybrid or EV. Attempting to do so without the proper training and equipment can result in severe personal injury or even death.
Because hybrids and EVs are continuing to grow in popularity, there’s a good chance your next vehicle could be electrified to some degree. While you do have to be cautious around these advanced automobiles, there’s no reason to be afraid of them.
Instead, get in, buckle up—and get ready for the future of automotive technology. With a little knowledge of hybrids and EVs, you’re going to enjoy the ride.