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Why “Electric Cars” Include “Plug-in Hybrid Electric Cars”

There are different naming systems currently in use for 100% electric cars, plug-in hybrid electric cars, and conventional hybrid electric cars. The topic comes up in our comment section from time to time, particularly by people who are opposed to my inclusive use of “electric cars.” So, I’ve decided to write a short article explaining why I use the system I us (and, for the record, plenty of other people use the same system).

First of all, the most important part for me in labeling a car an “electric car” is whether or not the car can drive purely on electricity, if/when the driver wishes it to. Furthermore, the driver must be able to plug the car in and charge it up using electricity.

Naturally, this includes plug-in hybrid electric cars (as implied by the name of this subset of motor vehicle). An EV Obsession reader and Bob Wallace have both made an excellent analogy that really captures things well, imho. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is like a bike with training wheels. A bike with training wheels is still a bike — it just has training wheels. Similarly, a PHEV is still an EV — it just has a gas tank and engine that can extend the range if the driver needs a bit of help driving further.

By no means is this to say that 100% electric vehicles are the same as PHEVs. 100% electric vehicles have plenty of benefits PHEVs don’t have, and PHEVs have a couple of benefits. I prefer 100% electrics for many reasons, but am happy many PHEVs are on the market to offer a stepping stone for the less adventurous types, or simply those who drive a ton and can’t afford a Tesla Model S.

Another point to make — one that I make in order to promote wider adoption of 100% electric vehicles — is that most people actually drive much less than they realize. The range of a pure-electric vehicle, like the Nissan LEAF or BMW i3, is plenty for most people for all but a few trips a year (when they can then rent a car or swap with a friend or family member who wants to try out their electric car). But, really, the distance we drive is short enough that many people can drive on electricity most of the time — even the vast majority of the time — even with a plug-in hybrid electric car. Bob Wallace shared this image (which another reader noted came from here) to demonstrate this point well:

car trip distance

Those are my main points, but there’s another important one: Most people don’t really know anything about electric cars, and I think that the term “plug-in hybrid electric car” is too bulky and complicated for introducing them to these cars. It’s a turnoff. It makes people think, “this is too complicated for me” or “this is not my game, I’m out of here.” It’s better, imho, to bring people into the topic with simpler terms and concepts. Once they learn, “Oh, I can drive only using electricity (no gas), I can charge my car at home by plugging it into the wall, I can forget about the gas station, I can cut air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and I can save a lot of money,” then they can be introduced to the concept of 100% electric cars and plug-in hybrids. For the most part, both types of EVs have all of those benefits above. But then you can get into the nitty gritty of how different EVs work and their comparative advantages and disadvantages.

That’s my case and I’m sticking to it. I think I’ve seen all of the arguments against this taxonomy, and they just aren’t as strong as the arguments above, in my opinion.


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Written By

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.


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