OP-ED: Why Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs) Are Not Electric Vehicles (EVs)
At least not today’s PHEVs, IMHO.
A few weeks ago, I was watching a Transport Evolved episode. Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, the show host, made a comment about people she has known who have purchased a PHEV. She said, “But nearly everyone I know who had one at some point then went full electric for their next car.” Nikki is echoing an opinion held among fervent EV advocates. PHEVs are a gateway to fully electric vehicles.
My response is this. Nikki’s acquaintances “went full electric” because they were NOT driving an EV. The more correct moniker for most of these vehicles is a Plug-In Hybrid Internal Combustion Vehicles, or PHICV. For the most part, that is what today’s PHEVs are. Internal combustion-powered vehicles with an electric motor thrown in the mix. Today’s PHEVs are NOT true EVs!(IMHO) Instead, the “EV” label is, for the most part, just a clever marketing semantic. It is a marketing misnomer. They should not qualify as EVs.
Come on! Calling a vehicle with only 22 miles of rated electric range an EV? Give me a break! To qualify as an EV, vehicles should be required to have at least 60 miles of rated electric range. Keep in mind that rated range is rarely the same as practical, usable range. While it may be possible to hypermile and exceed the rated range, the more frequent use case is going to be less than the rated range. In adverse conditions, that range could possibly drop far below the posted rated range. A simple shopping day in a 22 mile PHEV could very easily result in the gasoline engine being used for at least part of the trip.
Now, if, on the other hand, Nikki’s acquaintances had been driving a true PHEV with 90 miles of pure electric rated range, I suspect that most likely very few of them would have ever felt the need to go “full electric.”
Admittedly, it’s possible that some of Nikki’s acquaintances who switched from their “PHEV” to “full electric” may truly need a full on BEV. I don’t have the data to declare an exact cutoff, but I think we can agree that anyone that drives upwards of 20,000 miles a year needs a straight-up long-range BEV. But for many of us, a daily driver that has 90 miles of pure electric rated range with hybrid long-range capabilities would serve us well, no huge battery pack needed.
There is another unintended, but built-in, side effect of these very limited range PHEVs, a reduced motivation to charge. Why invest in a level 2 home charging unit or go to lengths to use public charging, when you know you’ll end up using the gasoline engine as much as half the time anyway.
With such limited electric range, it is no wonder that reports have come out against today’s PHEVs. Some claim that in real-world use, these vehicles are as polluting, or even more so, than standard IC vehicles. I would not be surprised if these claims are true. With such limited range, I do not blame any EV advocate for discounting them or saying bad things about today’s PHEVs. PHEVs need to have a much greater pure electric rated range, at least 80 miles.
Give us true plug-in hybrid EVs or better yet range-extended BEVs with 90 miles of rated range and then we’ll have something. Unfortunately, no such animal exists today. However, I do think, that there is hope on the horizon.
Following The Money
We know the automotive world is changing. We can point to governmental mandates and societal influences as sources of that change. However, in the end, it could very well be that advances in technology become the strongest push to automobile electrification.
We should not be surprised if within this decade we see automotive battery cells with an energy density of 1 kWh per kg. By the time this happens, electric powertrains may be significantly smaller, lighter, and more powerful than their ICE counterparts, not to mention possibly less expensive.
When it’s more profitable to make and sell EVs than it is to make and sell pure IC vehicles, ALL automakers will be foolish to do anything besides manufacture and sell EVs, of one flavor or another. The question then becomes not if EVs will become the manufactured standard, but rather who will adapt and survive, who will fall by the wayside, and what will those varying flavors of EVs look like.
None of today’s PHEVs
Among those flavors of EVs manufactured in the future, we should not see any very low range PHEVs such as we have today. Personally, I would hope that we see an explosion of range-extended BEVs.
I am partial to the concept of range-extended BEVs. I tend to subscribe to the idea that to be called a true EV, the vehicle should use a pure electric drivetrain. I find it odd that we have yet to see truly capable range-extended BEVs. I find it difficult to understand why manufacturers don’t pursue the range-extended BEV architecture. With falling battery costs, a properly engineered range-extended BEV could already be cost-competitive with or even lower cost than comparable IC vehicles.
I muse whether range-extended BEVs are a natural evolution in the EV revolution. If electrification of vehicles is the foregone conclusion, does it make sense for manufacturers to produce two types of drivetrains? It seems much more obvious to manufacture just one drivetrain (electric) and vary the balance of battery and series extended range, depending on customer needs.
We should hope to see many more long-range capable electric vehicles in the future. Hopefully, we’ll see many EVs with smaller, less expensive, but adequate, battery packs combined with hybrid range extenders. The battery pack will provide 60 miles plus of dependable pure electric daily driving while the range extender will provide the vehicles with desired long-range capabilities.
Stretching Out Battery Resources
I have this one question that I wish I could ask Elon and Tesla. If Tesla and others could produce two to four times as many long-range capable EVs right now using the same amount of batteries that are used today, what would that mean to Tesla’s mission, the adoption of EVs, and the battery supply chain?
Now, I know someone is going to bring this up in the comments, so I’ll address it here. The Chevy Volt is one of the better PHEVs out there (IMHO). It comes closer to the configuration that I’m talking about. It’s a good car. Just ask E for Electric‘s Alex Guberman. He’s been driving one now for several years. We can also add one of Nikki’s staffers to the list of happy Volt owners. Volts are a fine solution. If only they had 90 miles of rated pure electric range they would be an even better one.
And by the way, since I’m sure someone will bring it up in the comments, I want to clarify something. A BMW i3 is classified by CARB with the designation of “EVx”. A classification that REQUIRES that the REx be only a limited “limp home” power assist. That is the reason why i3 REx owners can never zip up hills or zoom full speed on freeways using the REx alone. In order to get maximum CARB credits, by regulation, the car HAS to be wimpy when relying on the REx. The REx also has to have a short, limited range.
What do you think? How much would 90-mile electric range RExEVs extend scarce battery resources? How often do you think RExEV owners would visit a gas station if they could dependably go 60 usable miles on pure electric? (How much gas might they use in a month?)
Finally, if you have some solid insight (“just the facts ma’am”) as to why automakers are not pursuing range-extended BEVs (80 miles electric range), please write to me on my email. Let’s have a conversation.
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