Plug-In Hybrid Electric Cars — Forgotten & Shamed Heroes

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In 3–5 years, the electric car market is going to be very different. Heck, in 6 months it’s going to be very different. But up till now, it has been led by buyers who strongly concluded that cleantech action was needed in order to thwart cancer-causing pollution and cool down the fever our world is developing. For many of us, the idea of an “impure,” gasoline-using plug-in hybrid doesn’t feel right. It feels like we should go fully electric — no compromises. My mom got a Nissan LEAF and didn’t even seriously consider the Chevy Volt because she just didn’t want a gas tank in her car, wanted to do everything she could to avoid visiting a gas station again.

I’ll admit it, too — I’ve got some issues with plug-in hybrids, and particularly how they’ve been designed by most automakers — well, all automakers except GM. However, plug-in hybrids are superb options — the best options — for many buyers. They even offer more environmental benefits than fully electric cars in some cases. Simply put, they are transition vehicles, and many people need transition vehicles in order to jump into the transition quicker.

Additionally, even with small-battery, low-electric-range plug-in hybrids, a tremendous amount of driving can be done on electricity. Some facts:

♣ The average commute in the United States is 13.6 miles. (2009 data from the US DOT analyzed by Solar Journey USA)

♣ 95% of American car commuters commute were 40 miles or fewer to work. (2009 data from the US DOT analyzed by Solar Journey USA)

♣ 95% of single-destination trips were 30 miles or fewer. (2009 data from the US DOT analyzed by Solar Journey USA)

♣ Nearly 80% of days, American drivers drive 50 miles or fewer. (2009 data from the US DOT analyzed by Solar Journey USA)

♣ The average annual distance driven by American drivers is approximately twice that of British drivers (and more or less the same thing is probably true of other European countries).

♣ Early Chevy Volt drivers drive nearly the same number of electric miles a year as early Nissan LEAF drivers (2015 report from Idaho National Laboratory, covered on EV Obsession)

— Nissan LEAF average annual electric miles driven: 9,697
— Chevy Volt average annual electric miles driven: 9,112

Now, if you look at the electric range of plug-in hybrids on the market today, here are some more facts:

♣ Even the lowest-electric-range plug-in hybrids — basically, BMW’s models — have 14 miles of electric range, which would cover the average commute in the USA.

♣ Many of the plug-in hybrids on the market now have 20+ miles of electric range. Assuming the battery can be charged up at home, such a car could cover all of the driving on electricity on ~40% of days. That doesn’t mean only 40% electric driving, of course, since the car could also offer 20 miles of electric driving on days with over 20 miles of driving. Another ~30% of days, for example, that battery could cover 50% of the driving — and that’s assuming no charging away from home! Furthermore, remember, the battery needed to cover all of that is much smaller than the batteries in fully electric cars, which means less mining and emissions from the battery production side of the equation.

♣ The Toyota Prius Prime — now the most popular or second most popular plug-in hybrid in the USA — offers 25 miles of EPA-rated electric range. Drive just a little bit conservatively or on slow roads and that could easily be 30 miles, which would mean that the Prime could cover 95% of single-distance trips on electricity. Flip the switch on that and it means only 5% of single-distance trips couldn’t be covered by a full Prius Prime battery.

♣ The Chevy Volt — the other most popular plug-in hybrid — has 53 miles of EPA-rated electric range. That means that the Volt could cover ~80% of US driving days on electricity without charging away from home. Add in the ability to get a full charge out and about and it would cover approximately 95% of driving days.

I think the points are pretty clear: With much smaller batteries than fully electric cars, plug-in hybrids can still cover the majority or vast majority of driving on electricity — even without charging away from home. If you imagined a hypothetical extreme where 100% of cars became plug-in hybrids, that could mean fully cutting 100% of emissions from gasoline-powered cars on >50% of days, and cutting another large chunk of emissions on other days. If all of these plug-in hybrids had the electric range of the Chevy Volt, that would mean cutting 100% of emissions from gasoline-powered cars on ~80% of days, and cutting another large chunk of emissions on other days.

And that’s all in the driving-addicted United States.

The general point is that even though many of us cleantech-loving climate hawks wish automakers would come out with more fully electric cars and would partner with Tesla on Supercharging so that those cars would be convenient/practical for long-distance travel, plug-in hybrids can cut a tremendous amount of emissions with relatively little demand for battery production growth and basically no need for fast charging or superfast charging.

There are other pros and cons to plug-in hybrids, though, so I’ll quickly run through some of these in a couple of clover-point lists.

More Plug-in Hybrid Pros

♣ Automakers can fairly easily create them from existing gasoline/diesel models, which hypothetically cuts down on model development costs.

♣ Don’t really have to worry about your battery degrading and becoming inadequate over time.

♣ Give people a taste of driving electric, instant torque, a quiet & smooth ride, home charging, and rarely stopping at a gas station.

♣ Increase battery demand (when consumers choose them over gas cars), which helps to ramp up production capacity and bring down costs.

Plug-in Hybrid Cons

♣ Include the cost and complexity of gasoline/diesel cars since they also comes with engines and all their supportive bandages and canes. (Includes the cost and hassle of repairing gasoline/diesel components as they inevitably break.)

♣ Small batteries (and motors) mean less power, which can easily hide the superb benefit of an electric car’s instant torque.

♣ You do indeed have to go get gasoline when you go beyond your electric driving range too much.

♣ Can’t use DC fast charging.

♣ Space is more limited than it would be otherwise since the car has to accommodate engines, motors, batteries, and other components of both electric and gasoline/diesel drivetrains.

♣ Decrease battery demand (when consumers choosing them over fully electric cars), which means a slower ramp up of battery production capacity and costs drops.


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Zachary Shahan

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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