Courtesy of Volkswagen

Volkswagen Introduces New Plug-In Hybrid Powertrain While China Embraces PHEVs

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The plug-in hybrid has suddenly found itself to be the prom queen of the EV revolution. We have hashed out the pluses and minuses of plug-in hybrid technology several times here at CleanTechnica. We know it has several downsides. PHEV cars often cost as much or more than a battery-electric vehicle.

But driving a plug-in hybrid means never having range anxiety. In normal daily driving, it can operate on battery power most of the time, foregoing any tailpipe emissions that contribute to global heating. But when it’s time to travel long distances, there is no need for PlugShare or ABRP. As long as there are gas stations, drivers can go when and where they like and never worry about broken chargers or standing in the rain talking to some customer service rep trying to get a charger to accept their credit card.

It turns out that charging is the Achilles heel of the EV revolution. People want electric cars that can go 300 miles or more without stopping. Then they want to be able to recharge those cars in 10 minutes or less so they can get back on the road and continue their journey. But there aren’t any electric cars like that for sale, which leaves a plug-in hybrid as what you might call a bridge to the electric car future, much as methane gas is sometimes called a “bridge” to a clean energy future.

Plug-In Hybrid Sales Boom In China

BYD sold more electric cars in 2023 than any other manufacturer — 1.6 million. It also sold 1.4 million plug-in hybrid vehicles. PHEVs are very popular in China. Sam Zhong told Bloomberg Hyperdrive recently he test drove a number of gasoline powered vehicles and a handful of battery electric models before settling on a Qin Plus plug-in hybrid from BYD. At less than 100,000 yuan ($13,900), it fit his budget, and the ability to switch between battery power and an internal combustion engine meant he can save money on his daily commute and still take long road trips without worrying about recharging. “I like the strong power of gasoline cars, and this car gives me a great driving experience, even on pure-electric mode,” Zhong said. “I’m very satisfied with the decision.”

“BYD is the dominant player — it has a weapon that Tesla doesn’t have, and that’s the plug-in hybrid,” says Bill Russo, a former Chrysler executive who’s now chief executive officer of Automobility, a Shanghai-based consultancy. BYD has been building plug-in hybrid vehicles for 20 years.

While plug-in hybrids are more environmentally friendly than gasoline cars, their increasing popularity could delay China’s planned transition to zero emission transportation. There are obvious implications for other countries in North America that are relying on battery powered vehicles to play a major part in meeting their climate goals.

A plug-in hybrid emits an average of about 4,800 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, compared to 6,900 pounds for a hybrid and 12,500 pounds for a gasoline car. While battery EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, they still are responsible for about 2,700 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year depending on the source of the electricity they use to recharge their batteries, according to the US Department of Energy.

The popularity of plug-in hybrid cars isn’t a bad thing because they represent progress toward battery EVs, according to Automobility’s Russo. “It may not be possible to get all the way to the other side of the river in one step. Plug-in hybrids sit on the EV side of the river. The conventional hybrid sits on the internal combustion engine side. The plug-in hybrid was designed to give the traditional auto industry a way to feel its way across the river by stepping on this stone.”

New Volkswagen Plug-In Hybrid Technology

Suddenly, everyone is talking about plug-in hybrid automobiles. GM execs are running around like their hair was on fire trying to rush PHEVs into production. The last time they did something like that, they tried to make standard gas engines into diesels when diesels were what people wanted. Those conversions were poorly engineered and many of the over-stressed engines failed before they went 10,000 miles. Let’s hope GM learned from its mistakes and does a better job this time.

Volkswagen may actually be ready to ride the plug-in hybrid wave better than most. It just introduced its latest PHEV powertrain this week. While the timing is auspicious, this is not something Oliver Blume called for last week. It normally takes two years to design a new powertrain, then test it for millions of miles on real roads to identify any weaknesses. After that, it takes time to get the assembly lines ready to produce it at scale.

In a press release, Volkswagen says the plug-in hybrid powertrain consists of two drive modules — the electric drive motor and a turbocharged gasoline engine. The previous 1.4 TSI engine is replaced by the 1.5 TSI evo2, which is characterized by a number of high-tech features. These include the TSI-evo combustion process and a variable turbine geometry (VTG) turbocharger. The combination of the TSI Miller combustion process with the VTG turbocharger is a unique technical selling point in the area of high-volume petrol engines. In addition to using the 1.5 TSI evo2 in a plug-in hybrid for the first time, an engine variant with an output of 130 kW is also making its debut.

The key factor here is the combination of VTG turbocharging and the Miller cycle (early closing of the inlet valves with high compression) which makes for a very efficient engine and minimizes consumption and emissions. Other technical features include high pressure injection with 350 bar pressure, plasma coated cylinder liners that lower internal friction, and pistons with cast-in cooling channels. The new powertrain includes an integrated six speed dual clutch transmission.

Volkswagen’s previous plug-in hybrid used a 10.6 kWh battery. The battery in the new system is nearly double that — 19.7 kWh — which will allow driving in battery-only mode for up to 100 km (62 miles) WLTP. The battery has a new cell technology and external liquid cooling. The power flow between the battery and the electric drive motor is managed by new power electronics which convert the direct current of the battery into alternating current for the electric drive motor. In addition, a DC/DC converter supplies the 12 V electrical system.

A new charger means it is now possible to charge with up to 11 kW instead of 3.6 kW at AC charging points. That means a depleted battery can be fully charged in 2 hours 45 minutes. DC fast charging is also now included with a maximum charge rate of 50 kW.  From a SOC of 10%, the battery can be charged to 80% in about 23 minutes. The charge level of the battery can now be maintained at five different levels while driving by selecting the desired mode. This feature allows the driver to use the gasoline engine only while on the highway and still have a full battery charge when driving in the city.

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The Takeaway

It would be great if you could buy a Volkswagen plug-in hybrid for the same price as a BYD Qin Plus, but that’s not going to happen. Volkswagen has not said when or if the upgraded PHEV system will be available in America or what the prices of plug-in hybrid models might be.

It seems as though the EV revolution is pausing to catch its breath after a decade of frenetic growth. If PHEVs are what is needed to get more mainstream drivers interested in driving electric cars, this could be a good thing. But PHEVs have far more reliability issues that either battery-electric or conventional cars. That could dampen enthusiasm for them as time goes on. And as more charging stations get built, the range anxiety associated with battery electric cars may decrease.

It’s possible we may have been a little optimistic in predicting the end of conventional cars by 2030 or before. It now appears it may take a few years longer than that. But soon humans are going to have to decide whether they are willing to destroy the environment in the name of convenience. What is needed to reinvigorate the EV revolution is less expensive electric cars that clearly cost less to own than conventional cars. Faster, more reliable charging is also a necessity.

All those things are in the offing. They aren’t here yet, but they will be soon. The EV revolution is just getting started.

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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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