Transport & Environment Calls Out PHEV Manufacturers For Higher Than Advertised Emissions

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Transport & Environment is a European based NGO whose mission is “a zero-emission mobility system that is affordable and has minimal impacts on our health, climate and environment.” Since it was founded 30 years ago, it has played an important role in uncovering the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal and promoting tougher emission standards for cars and trucks sold in the EU.

PHEV emissions Transport & Environment
Credit: Transport & Environment

In its latest report, it points an accusatory finger at several of the most popular plug-in hybrid vehicles sold in Europe, saying their actual carbon emissions in normal use are up to 12 times higher than advertised by their manufacturers. It argues those cars should be stripped of any government sponsored rebates or tax credits. Basically, T&E says those manufacturers are committing fraud by selling cars they know do not come anywhere close to achieving the emissions reductions they promise. It says the current situation with PHEVs is as bad or worse than Dieselgate. Tough words that won’t go down well with the buying public or government regulators.

After recent testing, T&E says, “The BMW X5, Volvo XC60, and Mitsubishi Outlander emitted 28-89% more CO2 than advertised when tested by Emissions Analytics on a fully charged battery in optimal conditions. On an empty battery, they emitted three to eight times more than official values. When driven in battery-charging mode, which could become more common as motorists charge up ahead of using electric mode in low-emissions zones, the PHEVs emitted three to 12 times more.”

What is most distressing is that two of the three models tested are made by highly respected manufacturers of premium automobiles — BMW and Volvo. The company from Bavaria has been tooting its horn a lot lately about how it is converting many of its current models to plug-in hybrid powertrains. And the Swedish company has been crowing for years about its hybrid technology that combines turbocharing and supercharging to extract maximum performance from the engine. Here’s a tip, folks. If an automaker is touting such tweaks to its gasoline engines, you might want to take its claims about how “green” its cars are with a grain of salt.

Some of  the cars tested even bring the gasoline engine into play when the climate control system is active. Now try this. Next time you are driving around, notice how many drivers have their windows open. The answer will probably be, “not many.” It’s hard to hear the music pouring out of your 47 speaker Bang & Olufsen entertainment center with all that wind noise. Ergo, the A/C will be on constantly and that means the gasoline engine will be pumping pollutants out the tailpipe constantly as well.

Another factor that few people like to talk about is that for a plug-in hybrid of any kind to be effective, someone has to actually plug the damn thing in! Lots of drivers have no idea how their car operates and may even be shocked to learn they have to connect it to a charger once in a while. T&E points out the BMW and Volvo cars do not even feature fast charging for drivers who may want to use them in electric mode on longer trips.

Fake Electric Cars

Julia Poliscanova, senior director for clean vehicles at T&E, really puts the boots to the current PHEV fad. “Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving. Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute more than advertised. Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts. Governments should stop subsidizing these cars with billions in taxpayers’ money.

“Carmakers blame drivers for plug-in hybrids’ high emissions. But the truth is that most PHEVs are just not well made. They have weak electric motors, big, polluting engines, and usually can’t fast charge. The only way plug-ins are going to have a future is if we completely overhaul how we reward them in EU car CO2 tests and regulations. Otherwise PHEVs will soon join diesel in the dustbin of history.”

Series Vs. Parallel

In theory, a plug-in hybrid should be a nearly ideal way to introduce skeptical drivers to the pleasures of driving an electric car. Since most have a range on battery power alone of around 25 miles (early examples had far less) and since most people drive less than 25 miles a day on average, the expectation is that a PHEV driver will seldom need to call on the onboard gasoline engine. But that’s often not the way things work in reality.

Most hybrid power trains come in two flavors, series or parallel. Some combine them into what is called a series/parallel configuration. In a series hybrid, the battery is the primary source of power for the electric motor. The gasoline engine is just along for the ride to charge the battery if needed. The Chevy Volt was probably the best example of a series hybrid powertrain. Chevrolet actually anticipated that the engine would only be called on occasionally and programmed it to start every month or so just to make certain all the oily bits were properly lubricated at all times. Several CleanTechnica readers are Chevy Volt owners who report their average annual gasoline usage is typically less than 30 gallons.

A parallel hybrid system is an entirely different kettle of fish. It fires up every time the car encounters a hill, accelerates away from a stoplight, or needs to pass another vehicle. The engine is connected to the wheels mechanically, which means its is used much more frequently than the engine in a series hybrid. It’s a question of priorities, really. A series hybrid is an electric car first and a gasoline powered car second. A parallel hybrid is a gasoline powered car that gets an occasional boost from a battery and an electric motor. Technically, both are plug-in hybrids but they are world’s apart when it comes to how they operate.

Why So Many PHEVs?

Automakers are desperate to meet the new EU emissions standards in order to avoid massive fines. Their conventional cars can’t do that without help of some kind. Developing dedicated electric cars requires years of hard work and billions of Euros. It is so much cheaper to just shove a modest size battery into an existing chassis, stuff a wimpy electric motor into the drivetrain somewhere — often inside the transmission — and call it a day. Mission accomplished, even if the result only meets the letter of the law and not the spirit.

But investigations by organizations like Transport and Environment are exposing the lie at the heart or the current crop of so-called plug-in hybrids. If the EU decides to stop certifying these cars as being in compliance with its emissions regulations, sales will plummet and some customers may start demanding their money back. It’s a dangerous dance with the Devil the regulators have begun.

The auto industry is a major employer in most European countries and there is a multiplier effect that affects all the suppliers and outside consultants that support the auto industry. Squeeze too hard — especially during the time of Covid 19 — and there could be serious economic consequences. If the EU continues to countenance these fake electric cars, that will be tantamount to perpetrating a fraud on consumers. It will be interesting to see how EU regulators respond to the Transport & Environment allegations.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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