M20A-FXS 2.0-liter in-line 4-cylinder engine and Plug-in Hybrid set up in right-hand drive orientation. (Photo supplied by Toyota Motors Corp., Japan)

Is The EV Revolution Over? Should We All Just Drive A Plug-In Hybrid And Be Happy?

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I have been writing about the EV revolution for well over a decade now. When I started, battery-electric cars were few and far between. The BMW i3 was the eighth wonder of the modern world, and the Nissan LEAF was just beginning to attract buyers. In 2008, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid appeared and ignited the debate about which was better, a fully electric car or one that had both an engine and a battery? The Volt seemed the perfect answer for a time when there were few if any public chargers available. No charger? No problem. Let the gasoline engine do the work until you could plug in somewhere, usually at home.

Then along came the Tesla Model 3 and later the Model Y. Coupled with the outstanding Tesla Supercharger network, drivers of electric cars could now go pretty much anywhere they wanted without worrying about running out of battery power. Volkswagen pivoted from a purveyor of diesel dreams to an electric car proponent. Soon it was joined by Mercedes, BMW, Ford, GM, a reluctant Stellantis, and the Hyundai Motor Group, all promising they would build massive new factories to supply the world with battery-electric cars. The Volt was taken out of production and replaced by the fully electric Bolt and it seemed the sun had set on plug-in hybrid cars.

Series Vs Parallel Plug-in Hybrid Cars

There are two kinds of PHEVS, series and parallel, and most consumers have little idea what the difference is between the two. In a parallel hybrid, both the battery and the engine power the wheels. Think of the standard Toyota Prius. The engine in that car runs almost constantly to move the car forward from a stop, to climb hills, or to pass another car. In a series hybrid, the engine is simply a generator to keep the battery charged or to power the electric motor. When you mash the throttle, the engine doesn’t leap into action. The car operates very much like a true battery-electric car until the battery is depleted, and then the engine turns on to supply electricity to the electric motor.

Driving in a parallel plug-in hybrid feels very similar to driving in a conventional car. There is the same engine sound much of the time and the same gear changes from the transmission. It’s not uncommon for people to wonder what all the extra hybrid bits and pieces are for. It drives like a normal car, it shifts like a normal car, and it brakes like a normal car. The only difference is an increase in fuel economy in city driving.

Driving a series plug-in hybrid, which some call an extended range hybrid, feels like driving an electric car most of the time. There is the same seamless acceleration, the same regenerative braking, and the same lack of a transmission always hunting for the correct gear. For those who don’t drive long distances every day and plug in each night, it is exactly like driving a battery powered car except any lingering concerns about range anxiety are eliminated.

China Leads In Plug-In Hybrid Technology

Just under a third of plug-in hybrid sales in China last year were extended range plug-in hybrid vehicles, similar to the original Chevy Volt. They had an average range of 127 kilometers last year and the trend in China is for longer ranges with each new model year. Chinese customers simply won’t tolerate plug-in hybrids that can only travel 50 km or less on batteries alone, which is the norm for plug-in offerings in Europe and North America. BYD recently touted a new plug-in hybrid model it says can drive for a total of 2100 km on a combination of battery power and onboard range extender engine.

Globally, the plug-in hybrid sector has enjoyed the highest compound annual growth rate — +65% — over the lass five years, according to Bloomberg. Sales in China are primarily responsible for that increase. The CAGR for battery-electric cars during the same period was +57% and for conventional hybrids +18%. While total sales of battery-electric cars globally are more than double those of plug-in hybrid vehicles, PHEV sales were almost as high as conventional hybrids last year.

One big improvement in plug-in hybrid offerings, especially in China, is the ability to use DC fast chargers to replenish the batteries, which are getting larger in order to increase how far the cars can drive on battery power alone. Previously, plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt were normally charged by plugging into a conventional wall outlet and waiting hours for the process to finish. Now many plug-in hybrid drivers are able to take advantage of fast chargers so they will spend more time driving on electrons and less time driving on molecules.

PHEVs Reach Price Parity In China

When it comes to prices, there is China and then there is the rest of the world. Bloomberg says the average prices of a plug-in hybrid in China have fallen steadily in the last five years, taking them from the most expensive option to being fully cost competitive with gasoline and battery-electric models. In the US, by comparison, they are now the most expensive drivetrain option, costing around $20,000 more than the models available in China.

Why there would be such a disparity between prices in China and prices in North America is unclear, but volume undoubtedly has something to do with it. American manufacturers are offering few plug-in hybrid models, although General Motors claims it will have several new PHEV models for sale in a few years. The new US tariffs on Chinese-made vehicles may do a wonderful job of insulating American automakers from competition by Chinese companies, but they also mean American consumers will face higher prices for electric and plug-in hybrid cars for years to come. Tariffs, in most cases, are a double-edged sword.

You Have To Plug In Your Plug-In Hybrid

Bloomberg suggests the surge in interest about plug-in hybrid  technology may be here to stay or a blip on the radar screen. The determining factor will be how often they are driven in electric-only mode. BNEF analyzed all the research available on this topic over the last decade and the results are mixed. For private owners, studies found between 26% and 54% of all kilometers driven in PHEVs were done in electric mode. Some of the largest studies, involving millions of cars in China, were toward the higher end of that range.

For company cars, which are a common business perk for executives in Europe, the story is much different. In that situation, BNEF found the electric motor was used exclusively just 11% to 24% of the time. That is mostly because many of the drivers of company cars do not pay the fuel costs for their vehicles, which means they have little incentive to plug those cars in at the end of the day. That’s where policies in one area — company cars — may have negative effects in another area — reducing emissions from transportation.

Bloomberg says it is not clear what cars the buyers of plug-in hybrid vehicles would have bought if they had not purchased a PHEV. The EV purist view is that every plug-in hybrid purchased is a missed opportunity from an emissions and oil demand-reduction point of view. But if those buyers were never going to purchase a battery-electric car anyway, then buying a plug-in hybrid is a net positive from an emissions point of view. The latest trend suggests that as plug-in hybrid technology improves, more consumers are considering a PHEV.

The Takeaway

Most CleanTechnica readers believe a plug-in hybrid is a poor choice. Studies show they have the highest number of vehicle fires and mechanical issues, largely because they have two powertrains for things to go wrong with. They also are costly in North America and Europe, which begs the question of whether more people would consider purchasing one if they cost the same as a normal car, as is the case in China. For those of you who still support the EV revolution, there is a ray of sunshine in the latest BNEF report.

It finds that battery-electric cars will continue to increase their market share to around 33% globally by 2030 and nearly 60% by 2035, so the trend is up strongly despite distractions like hybrids, plug-in hybrids, tariffs, and the like. It estimates plug-in hybrid sales may get to about 10% of the new car market before falling out of favor as battery prices decline, making battery-electric cars more affordable. Are the folks at Bloomberg on target? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

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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.

Steve Hanley has 5633 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley