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Published on March 18th, 2018 | by Maarten Vinkhuyzen

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The Damage Fake Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles Do

March 18th, 2018 by  


The search for cleaner and more efficient transportation has resulted in a multitude of solutions. Ways to make the internal combustion engine powertrain more efficient, replacing the fuel with alternate fuels like LPG and LNG, synthetic fuels to mix with the fossil fuels, and, ultimately, replacing the internal combustion engine (ICE) completely are all options on the table.

For decades, this replacement was expected to be the hydrogen fuel cell (HFC). But development was slow and not seen as urgent.

Just over two decades ago, some carmakers began to research battery electric solutions — first, to augment the ICE powertrain; but later also as an interim replacement until HFC was able to take over.

This resulted in the below list from classical ICE cars via many crossbreeds to fully functional battery electric vehicles (BEV) as their replacements.

This list is my personal, private vision on the different types of powertrains in current cars. Many use the distinction with a plug or without it. This categorization below was not created to criticize certain cars with a plug, but I think the type of powertrain is sometimes more important.

Internal Combustion Powertrains
0 Plain ICE The electric system is only used for starting the ICE and lighting, entertainment, etc.
1 Micro hybrid ICE Start/stop system without a hybrid powertrain.
2 Mild hybrid ICE Replaces the starter and alternator with a single device placed as a parallel second powertrain beside the normal ICE powertrain.

Enables functions such as supporting the primary powertrain, shutting down and restarting the engine while coasting or waiting for traffic lights, and some regenerative braking.

But no electric-only mode.

3 Full hybrid ICE Mild hybrid + bigger battery + more regenerative braking + electric-only (golf cart) mode + more support for primary ICE drivetrain.
4 Plug-in hybrid ICE (Fake PHEV) Full hybrid + charging + bigger battery + electric-only mode usable for daily use around town + significant support for primary ICE powertrain.
Most notorious examples: BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo “PHEVs.”
Electric Powertrains
5 Plug-in hybrid BEV Primary powertrain is electric.

Secondary ICE powertrain only used when battery is nearly depleted or under extreme circumstances (towing, off the road).

Different modes of ICE hybrid operation — as generator, in support of electric powertrain, or taking over when battery is depleted.

Besides the original Chevy Volt, examples include: the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid and the new kid on the block, the Polestar 1.
6 (Plug-in) series hybrid BEV Only powertrain is the electric powertrain. An ICE generator can recharge the battery while driving. The plug-in uses this option only as a range extender. The plug-less has a very small battery (less than ~2 kWh) and recharges the battery repeatedly, often every few minutes for one or two minutes.
BMW i3 REx and Nissan Note ePower
7 Compromise BEV Mostly first-generation electric cars. The compromise is between price (too high) and battery size (too small). Usable for most daily use including highway driving. Limited range of less than 200 miles and limited DCFC making it unfit for charging while travelling*).
First-generation Nissan LEAF, Renault Zoë, BMW i3, and all converted gas cars.
8 No-compromise BEV Capable of nearly all functions a comparable ICE car could do with a (forget about it) range of over 200 miles. Exceptions can be towing or circuit ranging.

A DCFC function that can be used for charging while traveling.

All Tesla vehicles, nearly the Chevy Bolt, MY2019 Nissan LEAF 60, Mercedes-Benz EQ, Jaguar I-PACE, Hyundai Kona EV.

After this lengthy intro, it is time for the topic of this article — the damage fake plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) do. It started with governments recognizing that the era of the ICE would soon be over, but that the new technologies that would replace it could use some help to grow to full maturity.

They picked winners and losers and designed incentives, regulations, and mandates to help the winners grow. Or worse, they tried not to appear to pick winners and losers and designed more complex incentives, regulations, and mandates for the next-generation transport powertrains.

And as with any complex mix of incentives, regulations, and mandates, there are unintended consequences and loopholes.

About a decade ago, the first generation of electric vehicles faced a severe problem. The battery prices were far too high. Tesla solved it by making extremely expensive cars, Nissan built its own battery factories and used batteries just big enough to cover normal daily driving.

But GM did something brilliant — it built a car with a battery half as large as Nissan’s and with the money saved put a second powertrain into the car that could take over when the battery was depleted. This became the original PHEV — for all intents and purposes, a real electric car, but with a range-extending secondary powertrain.

For regulatory purposes, this GM-designed PHEV was treated like a full BEV and a giant loophole was born. Other carmakers recognized that using a hybrid powertrain as pioneered by Toyota and Honda with a bit more battery and a plug would bring many of the incentives without the inconvenience to their customers of electric driving. Think: tens of thousands of dollars or euros in incentives for the drivers and an equal amount in ZEV and/or CAFE credits for the carmakers and never using a single kWh from the grid.

The small electric motors were too weak to bring the famous instant torque smile of real electric cars, though, and the great sound of the sporty tailpipe every time the accelerator was hit taught the customers that, electric driving was nice, but for real driving you need a real engine. Depending on commutes and charging capability, some drivers also had to continue making regular trips to the gas station, limiting the convenience benefit of home charging.

In the end, the “fake PHEVs” have limited the education and natural marketing of real electric cars’ fun and useful instant torque, convenient home charging, and peacefully silent rides. Thus, many of these drivers and their passengers don’t yet “get” why the future is electric, and why the future is more fun.

*Charging while travelling => the capability to charge from 10% SoC to 80% SoC in less than 20 minutes or enough range for the journey’s next leg between breaks.


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About the Author

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since.



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