Maybe It's Time To Stop Blurring the Line Between "Plug-in" and "All-Electric"

Plugin Hybrids are not Electric Vehicles 6 photos
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
Plugin Hybrids are trying to convince customers they're better than EVsMost of plugin hybrids owners rarely charge the batteryThe acronym PHEV is misleading, as EV is not the main part the car is usingChevrolet Bolt was more a plugin hybrid than an EV with range extenderPlugin hybrids are racing for longer all-electric ranges, so bigger batteries are needed
At some point in the 2010s, I noticed that press releases started to use the term “electrified cars.” It was too late when I realized it wasn’t just a humble detail but a Machiavellian marketing gimmick. The popular wisdom was already confusing plugin hybrids with 100% electric cars. And policymakers were gladly favoring the least green combination.
Hybrid cars made sense. At least in the United States, where diesel cars were almost prohibited because of stringent pollution measures. On the contrary, Europe encouraged diesel usage in passenger cars. Until “Dieselgate” exploded, and we all know the outcome.

In the U.S., hybrids were perceived as less polluting than their ICE counterparts. As long as they were merely a fraction of total sales, they didn’t bother anyone. But then electric Teslas disrupted the industry big time, and things got crazy.

Suddenly, electric cars were the good guys, and the rest were the bad guys. When driving, battery electric vehicles were zero-emissions, while internal combustion vehicles were spewing harmful pollutants and CO2 causing global warming.

Most of all, some activists began shouting louder and louder “Electrify everything!” and “Ditch the oil!”. Then the 2015 Paris Agreement shook the industry as countries pledged to drastically reduce emissions and transition to net-zero economies by mid-century.

All was pointing out to an end of oil in the car industry. An end of a trillion dollars business, with a few nations and corporations controlling the market. An end of an era no one was prepared for, neither fossil fuels proponents nor renewables ones.

So, how do you keep the status quo?

One way is deceiving people into believing things that are not entirely true. Let’s see: electric cars are labeled as zero emissions. What’s their most important feature that the large public is most aware of? That's the fact that they use a cable to connect to a plug or a charging station.

There you go, there’s your easy-to-understand and to-remember statement – plugin cars are green cars. In a broader sense, ALL plugin cars are green cars. Including plugin hybrids because, you know, they are fitted with batteries and electric motors. And they also provide some all-electric zero-emissions range, and they have cables to plug in and to charge the battery.

Plugin Hybrids are trying to convince customers they're better than EVs
Photo: Toyota
Oh, don’t forget carmakers’ subterfuge related to consumption and emissions values for plugin hybrids. It was truly genius, and people and authorities just bought it. I remember the popular Chevrolet Volt and the debate I had with engineers from GM. Oh, I was this close to being thrown under the bus because I was arguing the official consumption values were misleading.

In the U.S., the car had an official fuel economy of more than 230 mpg. In Europe, its consumption value was a mere 1.2 l/100 km. And the CO2 emissions were only 16 g/mile or 27 g/km. Fascinating! And unbelievable at the same time. So, where’s the catch?

The answer is in the measurement units for consumption: miles per gallon in the U.S., and liters for one hundred kilometers in Europe. The 16-kWh lithium-ion battery was good for a maximum of 80 km (50 miles) of electric range. When the battery depleted, the car used the internal combustion engine to burn gasoline for the rest of 20 km (12.5 miles).

So, the values were true for THE FIRST 100 km (62 miles). If the Volt traveled more than that, its complicated propulsion system was simply a hybrid one. And this meant higher values for consumption and emission, closer to a Toyota Prius.

Later, I had the chance to drive an Opel Ampera – the rebadged Volt for Europe – on a 5,000 km (3,000 miles) European road trip. In the end, the onboard computer showed an average consumption of more than 6 l/100 km (around 40 mpg). I charged the battery only a few times, so the total electric range was like 200 km (125 miles) – which was four percent of the whole road trip.

Of course, a plugin hybrid like the Volt made sense for daily commutes. As long as you were able to charge at home overnight or at the office during the day, there was a big chance for the car to be used as an electric car. And all the statistics were in favor of plugin cars’ daily usage.

Except the theory is far from the reality

Recent studies showed that plugin car owners rarely charge the battery. The vast majority of drivers fill up the fuel tank and then simply use the cars as hybrids until the tank is empty. You can put the blame on the lack of charging infrastructure, but studies showed there’s more likely owners’ laziness to blame.

Most of plugin hybrids owners rarely charge the battery
Photo: Ford
But there’s more to it. Every time I tested a plugin hybrid, I noticed that using the EV mode required adapting the driving style to “chill, man, where’s the hurry?!” I had literally hundreds of fossil fuel-hungry horsepower under the hood, but a very shy electric motor and a little lithium-ion battery to move around a two-ton car, usually the SUV kind.

Again, in theory, it was ok for the traffic in the city. But every time I pushed the pedal a little harder, the internal combustion engine took control and my zero-emission journey was suddenly over. In my opinion, you simply can’t really use a plugin hybrid as an EV with no stress.

The carmakers emphasize plugin hybrid bivalence: for the daily commute, it’s more of an EV, while for long journeys, it’s more of a hybrid. And compared to EVs, there’s no range anxiety when traveling hundreds of kilometers or miles. Because, you know, you can fill up the tank in a couple of minutes. Mind-blowing!

For some years now, I made up my mind regarding plugin hybrids. They are simply bulshit. Their theoretical advantages don’t justify their more complicated and expensive technology compared to non-plugin hybrids or even ICE cars. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

But plugin hybrids serve the oil industry well

Fact: the car industry is using more than half of the oil produced around the globe. Fact: oil industry forecasts always point out that internal combustion engines will be around even in 2100. Fact: the oil industry is choosing profits over climate change mitigation.

If your brain can easily be confused into believing “electrified vehicles” is the same as “electric vehicles,” the show can go on. The “Plugin” term is a great tool. It’s the most effective greenwashing tool when it comes to car sales charts.

Let’s take a look at the top of the carmakers that sold the most plugin vehicles in 2022:

  • BYD: 1.8 million units
  • Tesla: 1.3 million units
  • VW Group: 0.8 million units
  • GM & Wuling: 0.6 million units
  • Stellantis: 0.5 million units

Now let’s see the top of the carmakers that sold the most full-electric vehicles in 2022:

  • Tesla: 1.3 million units
  • BYD: 0.9 million units
  • VW Group: 0.6 million units
  • GM & Wuling: 0.6 million units
  • Hyundai Motor: 0.4 million units

In the first chart, Tesla is only second, as the Chinese BYD carmaker sold 41% more plugin cars. Tesla is the top-of-mind EV carmaker, and you can clearly see this in the second chart, where BYD sold 30% fewer electric cars.

It may look like details of no importance, but in the bigger picture, they keep the impression of ICEs being part of a greener future. This is not the case, as mixing plugin hybrids with full-electric cars on purpose has a negative impact on reducing emissions in the transportation sector. Subsidizing plugin hybrids was a huge mistake, but it seems policymakers will finally correct it.

The acronym PHEV is misleading, as EV is not the main part the car is using
Photo: Mitsubishi
One more thing. I think we should also stop using HEV and PHEV acronyms. It’s nonsense. Both the Hybrid Electric Vehicle and the Plugin mainly rely on internal combustion engines. They make too little use of electric motors and batteries.

So, more appropriate acronyms would be HICEV and PHICEV, where ICEV is for Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle… Wait for a second, did I just fall into the trap? No matter what “EV” comes from, popular wisdom is already considering it as an acronym for Electric Vehicle.

I really feel dumb realizing that Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle’s short form is ICEV.
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About the author: Oraan Marc
Oraan Marc profile photo

After graduating college with an automotive degree, Oraan went for a journalism career. 15 years went by and another switch turned him from a petrolhead into an electrohead, so watch his profile for insight into green tech, EVs of all kinds and alternative propulsion systems.
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