Elon Musk famously doesn’t like plug-in hybrids, or any type of half-hearted attempt to go electric. He scorns them as amphibians or transitions.
But for normal people with average incomes contemplating doing the right thing for the environment and going electric, it’s not so simple. They worry that after spending much hard-earned money on an electric sedan or SUV, it might not be able to perform as well as an internal combustion-engine (ICE) powered machine.
Yes, we all know that the performance of electric cars can often be exhilarating, and the ambience soothing. But a journey which might take 4 hours in a cheap $10,000 diesel, might take all day in a $30,000 electric car as legal, high-speed cruising halves the promised range availability. An upmarket Tesla
The charging network across Europe is threadbare, made worse by a byzantine payment systems which doesn’t yet realize it has to mirror the traditional cash or credit cards ICE cars use. Currently an intrepid long-distance electric car driver needs about 9 different payments apps on his mobile phone. So perhaps Musk can forgive those tentatively flirting with electric to decide transition is good and buy a plug-in hybrid.
Pedro Pacheco, senior research director at Gartner
“In the end, consumers don’t want to compromise and won’t accept a change in lifestyle to suit the limitations of electric vehicles,” Pacheco said in an interview.
Pacheco said the debate about the merits of electric cars has become polarized.
“Advocates say EVs are great and need to be adopted. Others says EVs are useless and this is not a very good platform to discuss the pros and cons. For example, advocates point to fast-charging as a way to make EVs easier to live with, and the other side points to the fact this can often drastically cut battery life and this negative is not communicated to public opinion,” Pacheco said.
In the interests of this transition, I’ve just been driving a Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). This has been the biggest selling PHEV in Europe since it inaugurated the concept in 2014. In 2020, it was still the most popular in Europe, Schmidt Automotive Research says (https://www.schmidtmatthias.de/). In the first 11 months of 2020 it led the West European market with a share of 4.8% and sales of 24,100, just ahead of the Volvo XC40 and Ford Kuga. And now every major manufacturer seems to have at least one. Volvo has 5, Mercedes 4, BMW at least 2.
A PHEV builds on the ground-braking Toyota Prius-type hybrid, which uses a combination of electric and gasoline power to reduce fuel consumption. The Prius juggles the needs of the vehicle and uses an electric motor to augment power when required, and switches to more electricity when economy is needed, and uses the car’s momentum to generate electricity on the move. It has little independent electric capability; maybe a mile if you’re lucky. A plug-in hybrid does all that, but much more too. It has a bigger battery which allows electric-only driving of in this case up to 30 miles, and you can charge the battery independently. Like the Prius it can also add to the battery charge on the move, using the ICE engine or regenerative braking. This puts electricity back into the battery when the car is on a downhill stretch or slowing down when you take your foot off the accelerator.
If you have a short commute, or your driving is mainly local, the Outlander will be a virtual electric car, particularly if you can charge it during the day at the office, or in the supermarket carpark. You may never visit a petrol filling station again. When the battery runs dry you can switch to gasoline-power only and that will give you about 250 miles of range, so no range-anxiety here. Using just petrol, the Outlander PHEV will give you an average of over 27 miles per U.S. gallon, including motorway cruising.
According to the European Union (EU) approved data, the official fuel consumption for the Outlander is 116 miles per U.S. gallon, a function of some opaque algorithm and of course pure fantasy which other PHEV makers go along with. But environment organisations use this claim to rubbish the whole PHEV concept.
This is based on an abuse of the tax break some European governments give fleet operators of PHEVs. Drivers of these fleet vehicles often ignore the electric economy aspect of PHEVs and simply drive them on ICE power alone, ignoring the environmental possibilities. This enables green advocates to criticise the concept.
“Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving,” said Julia Poliscanova of Brussels-based Transport & Environment in a recent report.
“Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute (sic: CO2 isn’t a pollutant) more than advertized. Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts. Governments should stop subsiding these cars with billions in taxpayers’ money,” Poliscanova said.
“The BMW X5, Volvo XC60 and Mitsubishi Outlander (PHEV versions) emitted 28 to 89% more CO2 than advertised when tested by Emissions Analytics on a fully charged battery in optimal conditions. On an empty battery, they emitted 3 to 8 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 3 to 12 times more,” T&E said in the report.
These claims by T&E are only possible because of the grotesque mileage claims made by carmakers.
T&E wants all government subsidies and rebates for PHEVs stopped. But for the private motorist, this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Why shouldn’t private buyers get financial incentives for going green? Because it’s their own money, they are likely to exploit the electric technology to the full. Meanwhile, it shouldn’t be too hard to incentivise company PHEV drivers to max out the economy options.
Volkswagen lauds the qualities of its PHEVs.
“Plug-in hybrids are justified and are wrongly criticized so strongly. If you drive the new VW Tiguan PHEV, it can do (30 to 38 miles) on electric power. Many Tiguan customers drive 80% of their total driving distance with it. Modern plug-in hybrids are a good choice both economically and ecologically. The CO2 balance is nowhere near as negative as is occasionally shown,” VW Group CEO Herbert Diess said in a recent interview.
Upcoming PHEVs like the Mercedes GLE diesel can go 60 miles on battery power.
Gartner’s Pacheco said the move from ICE to BEV will be extremely hard but not impossible and it would be madness to neglect the role PHEVs and simpler so-called self-charging (traditional Prius-style) hybrids can play.
“PHEVs have a key role to play in the transition, although there is a downside if they are not used responsibly. I think the role of self-charging vehicles should not be neglected even though they are not as good as plug-in hybrids. But we must think in a practical way and self-charging can be better in the developing world. Both of these have an important role to play in the transition,” Pacheco said.
There is technical problem with the batteries though. Because they are smaller than with full BEV, they drain quicker, are recharged more often and are prone to overheating.
Many European governments, led by Britain, have decided to ban the production of ICE vehicles after 2030, and hybrids by 2035, in the name of saving the planet. But these utopian goals are likely to meet stiff resistance from the public when it realizes its leaders have in effect forced them to give up their private, personal transport in favor of the bus.
According to data provider IHS Market