New EU Emissions Rules Could Limit PHEV Market

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Policy makers in Brussels are busy working on the next set of exhaust emissions standards for the European market. Plug-in hybrid vehicles have enjoyed certain advantages under the current rules, which has made it possible for manufacturers to claim credits for selling PHEVs as well as battery electric vehicles. But after Transport & Environment revealed last year that many plug-in hybrid cars currently offered in Europe actually pollute more than conventional cars, the blush is off the PHEV rose.

Image credit: Jacek Fior

The new regulations may prohibit car makers from labeling them as “sustainable investments” and tighten nitrogen oxide rules. Together, the new rules, if enacted, would remove most of the incentives that currently favor PHEV sales. The problem is, many automakers have invested billions in PHEV, technology thinking those cars would form a bridge to the battery electric future. If the plug-in era is curtailed, those investments may never be recouped.

The problem was closely analyzed by our own Jacek Fior, who shared his experiences with his Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4 (a darn fine looking automobile, by the way). He points out an essential truth that should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. A PHEV is useless is you don’t plug the damn thing in! Over a period of months, he treated his car like a battery electric, which meant plugging it every day or two. His average fuel consumption during that time was 3.9 liters per 100 km.

Then one day he took a 140 km trip and purposely started it with a fully depleted battery just to see how the car would perform using only the gasoline engine. The result? He used 60% more fuel — 6.6 liters per 100 km — on the way to his destination. On the return trip he again used only the gasoline engine but engaged the car’s e-charge function to recharge the battery while driving. The result? Gasoline consumption ballooned to 11 liters per 100 km. That’s almost 4 times what it is capable of if driven normally with the battery providing about 30 km of range and the gasoline engine taking care of the rest.

Testing The Limits Of Combustion Engine Technology

A report by Autoblog says a consortium of researchers commissioned by the EU and known as CLOVE, recommended the proposed Euro 7 rules should tighten car emission limits for pollutants including nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide beginning in 2025. Its recommendations are not binding, but meant to inform the European Commission as part if its rule making process. Transport & Environment says the proposals could force carmakers to fit PHEVs with expensive technology to curb emissions from their combustion engines.

Hildegard Mueller, president of German auto industry association VDA, said the proposals were “at the limit of what is technologically achievable. We still have to be very careful that the internal combustion engine is not made impossible by Euro 7,” she says.

PHEV Cheerleaders

Some European automakers are more invested in promoting plug-in hybrid cars than others. Volkswagen, for instance, hardly ever mentions them, as it has its eyes firmly fixed on a battery electric car future. But Stephan Neugebauer, chairman of the European Green Vehicles Initiative Association and BMW’s director of global research, tells Reuters that technology improvements will enable future PHEVs to rely less on their combustion engines, making them more suitable for the transition to low emissions driving over the next decade and beyond.

“Will all customers buy battery electric vehicles in 10 years, or nine years? We don’t think so,” he says. “Why? Because sometimes you have to make a long distance trip, you go on holidays, you have to pull a trailer. And for this, you need public charging infrastructure. And this will still be a critical issue.”

BMW CEO Oliver Zipse said last month that PHEVs are “a great consumer product” and there will be a market for them even without subsidies. Renault CEO Luca de Meo said in February that PHEVs “will be part of the landscape for the next 10 years easily” and were more profitable than conventional cars. Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson tells Reuters: “It’s a bit disappointing they (Brussels policymakers) don’t see the value of a plug-in hybrid.”

The New BMW X5 xDrive45e

Image courtesy of BMW

The proof of the pudding, as far as BMW is concerned, is its all new plug-in hybrid, the inelegantly named X5 xDrive45e. Visually similar to its predecessor, the new car features a 24 kWh battery — more than double the capacity of the prior model. That’s enough to give the new car a battery-only range of 30 miles, which is 16 more than the previous model. But it’s also just 35% of the range you can get with a first generation Nissan LEAF with the same size battery. Is this the best BMW has to offer?

The old turbo 4 has been yanked in favor of a 3-liter turbo straight six. BMW may build the smoothest, most sophisticated straight-6 engines in the history of motoring, but slipping one under the hood of the new X5 xDrive45e is hardly a sign of progress in the emissions department. The new car is more powerful and shaves more than a second off the 0-60 time of the prior model, but if the issue is keeping the planet from becoming inhospitable to human habitation, a daily dick measuring contest in the stoplight grand prix is hardly a relevant consideration. Once the battery is depleted, gas mileage plummets to a truly horrific 20 mpg. That is simply unacceptable.

So is the starting price in the US of $66,395. If that’s how much it costs to be part of the plug-in hybrid scene, then PHEVs deserve to die. It’s a shame, really. Many plug-in hybrid advocates point out, quite correctly, that the smaller batteries used in PHEVs mean there are more batteries available for more cars. That’s true, but if they are going into luxo-barges like the BMW X5 xDrive45e, what’s the point?

Perhaps the better place to invest money is in charging infrastructure, something that is getting a lot of attention from policymakers both in Europe and the US. That’s money that will truly move the EV revolution forward. 7 years or so ago, I thought the perfect combination for a personal vehicle would be a Chevy Volt with a small diesel engine. Goes to show what I know, huh?

The next phase of European emissions standards won’t be finalized until later this year. Will they effectively kill off the internal combustion engine? That would be a bad thing for legacy automakers, but a welcome relief for the environment. At some point, we will have to decide whether we value convenience or a sustainable environment more. It is becoming increasingly clear that we must stop burning fossil fuels entirely and pretty damn soon if humans are to continue inhabiting our tiny blue lifeboat way out at the edge of the universe. Probably best to get on with it.

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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."

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