Many electric vehicle purists have a disdain for plug-in hybrids, claiming that they aren’t real electric vehicles and that their typical short battery ranges are a joke.
The PHEV “haters” will also often decry the complexity of the various types of plug-in hybrids and suggest that auto manufacturers should just make internal combustion engines with higher mileage efficiency or pure battery-electric vehicles.
Here are sample comments from a few electric vehicle websites and CleanTechnica:
“Plug in hybrids with 10-20 miles range really annoy me. They may as well
just be FF (fossil fuel) cars with a slightly better mpg.”
“PHEVs are fundamentally complicated and therefore expensive
and unlikely to hit mass market.”
“That’s a joke just like the Ford CMax Energi. 26 miles is not
enough for a daily jaunt of errands, etc. No thanks.”
The anti-PHEV crowd have some legitimate beefs. According to my analysis of the 23 PHEVs currently available in the US, the average battery-only range is 22 miles, while the median range is 21 miles.
The Chevrolet Volt has the highest battery-only range at 53 miles and also the lowest cost per mile of range at $643. The Mercedes C350e has the honor of the least battery-only range at a paltry 11 miles.
Below the Volt, only 3 models have an electric range of 30 or more miles — the BMW 530e (30 miles), Cadillac CT6 PHEV (31 miles), and Chrysler Pacific Hybrid (33 miles). But nearly half (11 of 23) of PHEVs have an electric range of 20 miles or less. If you exclude the 4 PHEVs with a range of 30 or more miles, the average battery range drops to 18 miles.
And this is where the anti-PHEV crowd has a point. Does the 18 mile range of the new Volvo XC60 TC8, for example, really make sense?
On average, Americans drive 29.2 miles per day, making two trips with an average total duration of 46 minutes, according to a 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Urban Institute. The study also found that college graduates drove an average of 37.2 miles.
And as the chart below shows, average daily vehicle miles per trip can vary widely by metropolitan region.
The San Francisco Bay Area, which is responsible for about 25% of all EVs purchased in the US, also has the most “megacommuters” — those with one-way commutes of more than 50 miles. These commutes are in fact one of the main reasons California commuters want an EV, to cut down on their fuel costs from their long commutes.
Realistically, only the Chevrolet Volt enables the average driver to complete a typical daily trip of around 30 or more miles without having to stop to charge, or have the vehicle switch over to its gas engine. And many of the plug-in hybrids would not (or just barely) deliver a commuter one way to the workplace without needing to charge in order to return back home in full electric mode.
Despite some acknowledged weaknesses, PHEVs remain popular with consumers and automakers continue to announce plans for new models. Though, by my analysis, only about 1 in 5 new electric vehicles to reach the US market in the next 5 years will be PHEVs.
On the flip side, the following are a few positive comments about PHEVs captured from a recent CleanTechnica column on the Kia Niro PHEV:
“The driver will get hooked on the electric driving experience and
realize how undesirable the gas engine is.”
“I bought my current PHEV because there wasn’t a similarly priced BEV
available at the time and I knew that about 70% of the time my daily
drive was in the electric range anyway.”
“ … but it’s a great solution for the masses who would otherwise
buy another gas car.”
- Owners of PHEVs gain experience using EV chargers, charging networks, and mobile apps.
- PHEV owners become more knowledgeable about the various types of chargers, terminology, locations of EV chargers, charging etiquette, and best practices.
- Owners learn how to plan and manage their trips around available battery range and reduce or eliminate range anxiety.
- Owners may install a charger at their home (or get one installed at their apartment). An existing charger at home is one less hurdle for a consumer to jump to a BEV.
- Owners get first-hand experience with the advantages of EVs when their PHEVs are in battery mode. These include increased torque, acceleration, smoothness, and the quietness of the electric motor. They also get to enjoy fewer trips to gas stations.
- Their purchase of an EV, even if only a PHEV with a range of 20 miles, sends a powerful signal to auto salespeople, dealer management, auto company executives, and the overall industry and marketplace that more consumers are comfortable buying plug-in cars.
- Dealers and their salespeople gain experience on how to market and sell EVs.
- PHEV owners expose more people to EVs as neighbors and co-workers see them drive PHEVs such as the Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Energi, and others. This exposure has a particularly powerful impact on sales especially in more environmentally conscious areas and is referred to as “conspicuous conservation.”
- Automakers gain additional manufacturing and supply chain scale and experience with electric drive trains and battery packs.
- The additional sales and number of PHEV models seen in the marketplace spurs more employers, airports, apartment owners, shopping mall and restaurant owners, hotel operators, and other businesses to add new or additional charging stations.
Most of the current crop of plug-in hybrids in the US tend to be overpriced and lack adequate range to operate in electric mode for the average US daily vehicle miles driven. And because they combine two different types of motors and require complex drivetrains, they will likely decline in popularity among manufacturers and consumers in the next 7–10 years.
For the next 5–7 years, however, PHEVs will serve a key role in moving consumers and the industry more quickly to the adoption of pure battery electric vehicles. And that is a good thing.