A few weeks ago, the EV folks on social media joined together to sing the scorn of a German engineering firm’s “Hyper Hybrid” — a modified Tesla with a reduced battery pack and a small range extender under the hood instead of a frunk. “Why fix what isn’t broken?” some asked. The general consensus was that battery EVs are the answer, while plug-in hybrids are a step backward.
It’s not that simple, though.
First off, charging infrastructure isn’t really there yet. I know that in places like California, even a busted 2011 LEAF that can only go 40 miles can still be useful.
On the other hand, here’s most of the land area of New Mexico, along with a chunk of Texas:
Even with the latest LEAF with a 60 kWh battery, traversing this area would be incredibly difficult, probably requiring 1 or 2 overnight charging sessions at level 2 chargers (assuming they’re even available along your route).
But, to be fair, let’s take the battery EVs with the most range and the best infrastructure available:
Even Tesla’s Supercharger network misses the entire state of North Dakota, and has big gaps in surrounding states and provinces (including most of Montana). Even if someone wanted to drive a battery EV in this area, it would be very difficult. Definitely not impossible, but difficult. As an enthusiast, I’d do it, but most buyers aren’t interested in messing with all of that.
Look around on Plugshare, and you’ll find many more gaps in charging infrastructure that the average person isn’t going to tolerate if they live in or travel to/through these areas. The areas get smaller and disappear more each year, but right now in January 2020, it’s not 100%.
Even with Good Infrastructure, Road Trips Still Suck with BEVs
While people like me take EVs places the average, sane person wouldn’t dare, they’re much easier to travel along routes with good charging availability. Even then, though, it’s still not something many drivers are willing to put up with.
Let’s use an extreme example, but with the best the EV world has to offer in terms of charging speed and charging availability: a trip from New York to Los Angeles in a Tesla Model 3 Long Range RWD, with the aero caps. No other mass-market EV that’s readily available today will do better at this.
For a gas-powered vehicle, Google Maps estimates this trip can be done (legally, around the speed limit) in about 41 hours. Assuming one wants to do this without getting very tired, you could break it up into four 10 hour and 15 minute driving days, with three nights in a motel along the route.
Using A Better Route Planner, we can see what it’s like in the Tesla Model 3. Instead of 41 hours, you’d need to take 44 hours to make sure you stay in range of the Supercharger sites. Then, on top of that, you’ll need almost 8 hours at the Superchargers along the way. Total time is just under 52 hours.
Most people would probably want to split that trip up into 5 days, and make it a little over 10 hours each day. (Some time could be saved by charging overnight, but then you also have to find hotels with charging precisely on the route you’re traveling at the points you want.)
Even for long trips that don’t take 5 days, anything further away than half of the vehicle’s range is going to take some charging time to accomplish. It might only add 15–20 minutes, but that’s more time than many people will be willing to spend.
The “It Covers 90% of Your Driving” Argument (read: “Buy Two Cars”)
My Nissan LEAF covers almost all of my driving, probably well over 90%. I use it to run errands, take the kids to school, and even do some ridesharing on the weekends for extra ammo money. With Electrify America’s chargers, it’s even okay for some regional trips.
But going east, I can’t take it much past El Paso, as it lacks the range to make it to the next charger in Van Horn, Texas. It can’t make it to Albuquerque, NM, without staying overnight partway there. I also can’t make it back from Phoenix because there’s a big climb after Tucson. Going other places is far harder.
I can’t very well give up on going to those places, so I have a second vehicle. With a second car payment. And a second insurance premium. And maintenance costs. And tires. Plus, I have to buy it gas sometimes.
You know what would be really nice? To be able to drive everywhere without owning a second gas car…
PHEVs Can Give Us 90% of the Benefits of EVs, without the Drawbacks
Honestly, I still miss the Chevy Volt I used to own. I could do almost all of my driving as an EV around town, just like I can do now, but I could still put gas in it and drive it anywhere without stopping to charge. After 40 miles or so, it switched to gas and still got 35–45 MPG.
No second car payment. No second insurance premium. The gas engine rarely got used, so it didn’t need a lot of maintenance. No extra tires. No needing to stop by home and switch cars if I suddenly need to take a longer trip than expected. I could drive it anywhere a regular gas car went, and could add hundreds of miles of extra range in 5 minutes.
The extra environmental impact from making the Volt was less than my LEAF, and far less than a Tesla. It only had an 18 kWh battery, of which only about 10 kWh was usable. Since 90% of the driving was done without running the gas engine, it still could reach the point where saved emissions outweighed battery production emissions much faster.
On top of that, newer PHEV designs don’t include a full-sized gasoline engine. Mazda, for example, is going to put a small rotary range extender that wouldn’t take up nearly the room of an engine like the Volt has. Safety, interior room, and every other advantage of a BEV would still be available.
So, Why Are We Poo-Pooing PHEVs?
While going fully electric is a lofty goal, it’s going to be a tough sell in the near term for most people and possibly for 10 or more years for people living outside of urban areas. Nearly anyone with access to electricity at night can comfortably buy a PHEV today without the disadvantages, and still deliver most of the advantages of an EV.
Instead of demanding purity and saying PHEVs aren’t good enough, we should be welcoming them.