As time goes by, I have the increasing impression that coincidence is just a name we invented to describe something we can’t explain. Last November 21, I published a text to share that I bought a PHEV. On November 23, T&E (Transport & Environment) released a study claiming plug-in hybrids can pollute 28 percent up to 12 times more than advertised.
Although it may seem like a disappointment for all PHEV owners – old or recent, like me – that is something I had brought up when I wrote my article as a concern. My precise words there were these:
“Apart from not burning fuel, buying an electric car made sense to me because all my urban rides are relatively close to my house. With a regular car, its engine would work for less than ten minutes, which is equivalent to severe use: the oil does not lubricate all engine components properly, and it does not heat to the ideal working temperature, as well as the catalyzer. The direct consequence is an engine that lasts a lot less and emits a lot more.
I asked BMW what it advised me to do, as well as all my readers who also own the company’s PHEVs. Should they select the Max eDrive mode in short distances or still allow the car to choose the best option? The email message is with BMW’s PR department since November 5, and all I heard back was an automatic out of office reply – at least so far.”
T&E’s study answers the question on behalf of BMW. If you allow the combustion engine to enter whenever the car decides it is a good time to do so, you’ll end up having a more pollutant car. It will work in this “severe use” I mentioned multiple times a day.
T&E asked Emission Analytics to perform tests on three of the most popular PHEVs for sale in 2020: the BMW X5, Volvo XC60, and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. What the tests revealed was that they could emit 28 percent to 89 percent more CO2 than advertised with a full battery, in EV mode, and optimal conditions. The graphic above reveals the BMW X5 was the one with 28 percent more emissions. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV got the 89 percent result.
If the battery pack is depleted, they can emit between three to eight times more than the values officially informed by the manufacturers. If these cars work in the battery-charging mode, emissions can be three to twelve times higher. According to the graphic, it is the X5 that reaches the highest emission rate, while the Outlander keeps it at the lowest level.
Julia Poliscanova, senior director for clean vehicles at T&E, wants governments to stop giving automakers any sales incentives. She said the EU should stop giving them additional credits when it reviews its targets for 2025 and 2030 in 2021 because they are “fake electric cars, built for lab tests, and tax breaks, not real driving.” Another option would be to make them better.
“Carmakers blame drivers for plug-in hybrids’ high emissions. But the truth is that most PHEVs are just not well made. They have weak electric motors, big, polluting engines, and usually can’t fast charge. The only way plug-ins are going to have a future is if we completely overhaul how we reward them in EU car CO2 tests and regulations. Otherwise, PHEVs will soon join diesel in the dustbin of history.”
In a way, the parallel with diesel cars can be more intense. If PHEV emissions are so much higher than the official numbers inform, that could be a new Dieselgate: an Emissiongate, or even a PHEVgate, if you prefer. Why are they so much higher in Emission Analytics tests than in official ones? We’ll try to find out more about that.
In the meantime, if you intended to buy a PHEV, consider going fully electric if the charging infrastructure in your country is good. If that is not the case, such as here in Portugal, choose a PHEV with the smallest combustion engine available. It should work mostly as a generator, not as something to power the wheels.
If you are already a PHEV owner, like me, make sure you operate in EV mode most of the time. Only allow the car to decide whether to activate the combustion engine or not on long trips – when you are certain that it will work for a long time. That will heat the catalyzer, lubricate internal components properly, and avoid the severe use I mentioned in my text. That’s the price to pay for an insufficient charging network.
Anyway, we hope automakers listen to T&E in the sense of either making PHEVs more efficient and less-pollutant machines. They are meant to be a transition, not a way to hide big engines under an environmentally friendly badge.