All PHEVs Are Not Created Equal

A few days ago, my colleague Steve wrote an article about the problems European regulators are having with plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). The theoretical emissions, based on unreal conditions and driving, often end up being far below what the cars actually emit with real-world conditions and non-hypermiling drivers. So, the EU’s regulators are having to take their regulations back to the drawing board to get the emissions numbers they’re actually seeking.

I’d recommend reading Steve’s whole piece, because it gives a lot of great background on the situation, but I’ll go over some key issues before I explain the nuance that’s needed for meaningful PHEV regulation.

How Some Automakers Use PHEVs To Cheat

One of the first EVs I owned was a Chevy Volt. Now, I know some readers will tell me that’s not a real EV, but for me, it was an EV. At one point, the gas was down on empty after an out-of-town trip, and I just didn’t bother to put gas in it for three months. When I got home every night, I plugged it in, and it had about 30 miles of freeway speed electric-only range when I woke up. This was enough to get the kids to school, but not enough to go pick them back up, but I’d plug it in when I got home and it would be full again by the time the kids got out of school.

So, the car was really an EV for me.

But, I figured out pretty quickly in the following years that all PHEVs aren’t the same. One example was the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. It’s not advertised as an EV, but it does have a certain amount of electric range before it becomes a fat Prius that can carry more kids. But, on a test drive, I figured out pretty quickly that it really was a hybrid. If you did anything but drive super carefully, the gas motor would roar to life to give you more power for things like getting on the freeway, passing, etc.

Another Stellantis offering, the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, was a great vehicle, but it had a couple of ways that it cheated. In EV mode, the vehicle was a lot less touchy than the Pacifica. Only at wide open throttle would it kick in some gas to give you more power. For most drivers, driving around in EV mode would be a true EV experience for 20–30 miles. But, that’s not what the Jeep defaulted to when I turned it on. It always wanted to start in hybrid mode, and would slowly give your electric range away, mixed with gas power, for more efficient longer journeys but much dirtier short trips.

If I had one (and I still want one), I’d press that EV button almost every time I got into the Jeep, but if you’re an average buyer who doesn’t know much about plug-in hybrids or doesn’t care enough to press the button every time, you’d get a much more Prius-like experience.

I’ve read about and tested some other PHEVs, and the truth is that they’re all over the map. Some PHEVs are like my Volt was, and give you honest electric range. Others are more like the Pacifica or the Jeep, and give you a slightly gassed-down experience. Some are even worse, offering no EV mode of any kind, and throwing in gas power seemingly at random because their electric motor just isn’t up to the task of moving the vehicle.

One Thing I’m Not Worried About

There’s one big argument I keep seeing against PHEVs that I’m just not worried about: the idea that people don’t plug them in.

Most people who make that argument are parroting it from somewhere else. The few who know what backs it usually looked at a faulty study that came to this conclusion, but didn’t give us the context that the PHEVs were owned by an employer and driven home at night by employees. The employer encouraged people to plug the cars in, but didn’t pay for electricity. But they did pay for gas. So, employees naturally decided to let the employer pay for gas instead of footing the bill for charging.

There’s better data coming out soon from a better study using telematics data from privately-owned vehicles, and it shows that most people do the smart thing and plug the car in at night. I’ll share that data once it’s published, but I’ve seen enough to know that people not plugging in a PHEV makes too little sense to be a common thing in the real world outside of unusual circumstances.

What I Am Concerned About

The thing that concerns me is fake PHEVs, and their potential to rob us of the potential benefits of real ones.

I think it’s time that we do what Chevrolet did when it put out the first Volts, and create different categories. A vehicle that defaults to EV mode, doesn’t give you gas power at any throttle position, and has enough range to cover the average commute (30 miles or more), should be considered a type of EV. I’d use old GM terminology and call them extended range EVs (EREVs). The Volt and the i3 REx are great examples of this. These vehicles, when owners do the sane thing and plug them in, will cover your commute with electricity.

Other PHEVs should be considered hybrids, and treated like hybrids. If a vehicle defaults to hybrid mode, even with a full battery, it’s a hybrid. If it can’t get on the freeway without activating the gas engine, it’s a hybrid. If the vehicle can’t go 80 MPH on electric power, it’s a hybrid.

Vehicles in the latter category shouldn’t get any tax credits, emissions exemptions, or any other benefit beyond the gas savings that owners may (or may not) experience. They shouldn’t be marketed as EVs (as that’s terribly dishonest). Buyers should know from the get-go that they’re not buying an EV of any kind.

If we can’t make this important distinction, we lose out on the ability to get more electric miles happening on the road. That obviously won’t really happen with fake PHEVs, but it will usually happen with EREVs. Encouraging EVs without encouraging bogus hybrids is the way forward.

Featured image: The 2013 Chevrolet Volt I used to drive, and probably should have kept. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.


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