Op-Ed: The Reality of the Plug-in Hybrid
Watching the comments section of any news story about an EV seems to have changed over the last few years. 5 years ago, most of the comments were mis-informed people or shills spouting off the usual anti-EV propaganda about them being fire hazards, or being worse for the environment than gasoline vehicles, or costing the taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars a piece, etc. And while there is still some of that, it seems now most of the arguments seem to come from within the EV community itself, fighting over things like whether or not a vehicle with a range extender can be considered an EV at all.
So, as both an open-minded person, as well as somebody with a lot of experience on both sides of this fence, I am going to lay down some facts, opinions, and speculations and hopefully settle some of this argument.
People need to realize that the new vehicle plug-in market in the USA is at 1%. That means 99% of buyers today are still buying traditional cars. So it is annoying, to say the least, when people make generalizations about what people will and won’t buy.
For example, I can’t even count the number of comments that said Toyota wouldn’t be able to sell the Prius Prime due to its smaller EV range. That has obviously turned out not to be true (the Prime lead all plug-ins in sales in April).
This market is still very much in the early stages. It is safe to say, though, that most of the misinformed or unreasonable comments come from the “Pro BEV” side. So I’m going to be arguing mostly against those people. Before I begin, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not by any means against BEV products. I’ve owned two Nissan Leafs already. And even though my wife and I both have PHEVs now (2017 Volt and 2014 i3 Rex), I am not against the possibility of buying another BEV, although it would need at least 50% more range than our 2013 Leaf had, plus a body style I like.
The first thing I’d like to point out is the charging infrastructure situation. If you live in California, you’re biggest problem is probably finding a station ICE’d or in use by another car. However, where I live the situation is much worse.
Take a look at this map of DC fast chargers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area:
With the map condensed down like this, the 30 stations we have seems like it should be enough. But once you take into account how large our metroplex is, you suddenly realize most of these stations are 10 to 20 miles apart. For me, anyway, it seems the stations are never where I need them to be and would often require heavy planning to use them. Not only that, but sometimes I would have to drive 10 miles out of my way just to get to one. Then top it off, sometimes the stations are broken, ICE’d, or unavailable after hours. So this had led to me being stranded and calling for a tow truck in my Nissan Leaf. Ideally, we need about 10 times this many stations before people could really start to depend on recharging on-the-go as an option.
So, let’s start with some of the annoying arguments I see.
Why should I carry around an engine that I don’t use every day?
This argument is tired and illogical. First of all, people want a car with usable range. If we ever hope to reach the rest of the 99% that is not buying a plug-in car, then range needs to be hundreds of miles. There’s only two ways to accomplish that. You either need a really big battery, or carry a gas engine. So, keeping that in mind. Let’s examine some numbers.
- Tesla Model S battery weight: approx. 1,200 lbs.
- Chevy Volt battery weight: approx. 400 lbs.
- Typical 4-cylinder engine weight: approx 300 lbs
- BMW i3’s entire range extender system: approx. 265 lbs
Looking at that data, it seems to me as if carrying the larger battery ends up as the loser when it comes to carrying around weight that you don’t need every day. In fact, it turns out that a smaller battery plus a range extender engine currently wins out on both price and weight.
If it burns gasoline on every trip, then what is the point?
I find this argument ironic, because the previous argument is that the engine isn’t needed every day, but apparently now it is needed every day. Still, the point is very clear. Even if the PHEV has as little as 15 miles of range, that is still around 5,000 miles of EV driving per year, twice that if it is recharged at the destination. And it’s still going to be better than 99% of the other vehicles on the road in this regard. And to be honest, I could literally go most days without ever starting the ICE on a vehicle like that. I realize everyone’s needs are different, though.
In fact, what I’m seeing is exactly the opposite. There seems to be a lot of traditional hybrids popping up and they can’t recharge at all. It seems to me that once you’ve gone to the trouble to design a hybrid, you might as well give it a plug, even if the EV range isn’t that impressive. Any EV range, even 15 miles, is better than no EV range.
People won’t even bother to charge them.
It is true that there are some documented cases of this, especially on company vehicles where the employees are not given any means to charge. My previous car was a 2013 Volt which was off lease and had never been plugged in until I brought it home. There have also been some cases where people bought them just for HOV lane access. However, the official telematics data from these vehicles shows that the majority of drivers do plug them in. And even for the rare cases like the one I had, they will all end up on the used market eventually. And just like mine, it will eventually get used for its intended purpose.
Hybrids are (or will be) hogging up our charging stations!
Good! We need more charging stations. If they sit around idle all day not getting used, then how do you expect the charging companies to afford or even desire to install more stations? Plus, you just got through complaining that these vehicles run too much on gasoline and that drivers wouldn’t bother to charge them.
I don’t want the maintenance and repairs of the gas engine!
Well, there is some valid concern there, but it isn’t as bad as you think. A strong PHEV like the my 2017 Volt can go months between starting the engine. Thus, I only have to change the oil every 2 years according to the maintenance schedule. Also many states don’t even require emissions inspections on vehicles like these. The engine and related system should last a very long time compared to a regular car. My Volt only has 600 miles on the engine after 1 year of ownership. At that rate, when the car is 10 years old it will have 6,000 miles on the engine. It’ll almost be brand new!
Some real benefits of a PHEV
Range – The main obvious benefit is the extended range. Even a Chevy Bolt EV is still just a city car. You can’t drive it across country. Now, I’m sure somebody in the comments will disagree and say that they’ve done it by stopping at RV parks and all other sorts of creative charging tricks. But if you think the other 99% of the population will put up with that, you are delusional. So until the charging infrastructure matures to the point that travel and range are no longer an issue, a PHEV is the only way to affordably have your cake and eat it too.
Use of entire EV range. While pure EVs may have more total EV range, they typically can’t use the entire battery. I learned this lesson the hard way when my Nissan Leaf ran out of power despite saying it had 6 miles left, and only 2 miles away from the DC fast charger I was headed to.
As such, I always left a 10 to 15 mile buffer on my Leaf, thus actually meaning about 17% of my Leaf’s battery was simply not available for me to use. However, with my Volt I can use up every last mile of my battery without worrying about getting stranded.
Can charge easier off-peak. When I had a Leaf I always plugged in the moment I got home to start charging. I was always worried I might need to go somewhere in the evening and thus would want more charge. And sometimes I was right. However, with my Volt I can easily set it to charge after 10:00pm when our electricity is free. I don’t need to worry about an unexpected trip since I can always use the gas engine in a pinch.
Level-1 charging practical – While I already have an L2 left over from my Leaf. I could probably just as easily get by on a level-1 with my Volt. This makes it easier for Joe consumer to buy the car and charge it. Getting a 240V station installed can be expensive and a turn off to possible buyers of an EV.
Subsidies – Right now an EV has an advantage in the USA by getting a $7,500 subsidy, where most PHEVs wind up getting half of that or less, The Volt and i3 Rex being the only exceptions. However, when the subsidies are gone, the smaller battery PHEVs will be the best deal. the Prius Prime, for example, will be almost $10,000 cheaper than a Bolt EV. And yet, it will give a lot of people an all-electric commute with no range anxiety.
Dealers – While it may be annoying that some dealers don’t even bother to charge up their PHEVs before test drives or sales, the simple fact that they can treat them like a regular car they are used to means they are probably more likely to actually want to sell it. It’s also an easier to sell to Joe consumer when he doesn’t have to mention that it dies on the side of the road when it runs out of power.
Battery Production Capacity – Let’s face it. We couldn’t have everyone switch to EVs tomorrow even if everyone wanted to. There simply isn’t enough production capacity. Obviously, we could manufacture more vehicles with 10 Kwh batteries than we could 100 Kwh batteries. Eventually the capacity will come, of course.
Some real possible concerns of PHEVs.
-Most don’t have DC fast charging, so they won’t help with the building of those types of stations, which arguably are the kind most needed for BEVs. The solution is to get manufacturers of PHEVs to start including that as an option. The only PHEV I am aware of in the USA that has it is the BMW i3 Rex. However, the Prius Prime has it in Japan as well as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. So it can be done. Even if it only works at 25KW, which would be cheaper to implement on the vehicle, it would still be compatible with the faster stations and thus encourage more build-out of such stations.
-Many PHEVs are performance limited in EV mode, which leads to a less enjoyable EV experience, and could help perpetuate the old myth that EVs are slow. I haven’t seen this so far with most PHEV drivers, but that is because generally those drivers currently are very well informed about how their car works. As the masses start to buy them, they will be less informed. An obvious solution to this is to move away from current designs and more towards designs like the Volt and BMW i3 Rex.
-While fueling up at home with electricity will be the cheapest fuel, gasoline often winds up being cheaper than public charging. So PHEV owners are more likely to hog up the free public stations and ignore the ones that charge money. Thus not helping the infrastructure as much as they could. however, I suspect the cost of charging to go down in the future once the cost of the stations drops and the cost of the installations are amortized. Not only that, but when gasoline eventually does go up, that will also curb that issue.
So, to conclude this opinion piece: I’m all for BEVs. But I think some of these people that are criticizing PHEVs at every chance they get must live in one of those cities where there is a charging station on every street corner.
I would invite that person to come to Texas and try getting around with a BEV for a while. Sure, it can be done, but it is a lot of extra work. Getting between cities like Dallas and Houston is still virtually impossible, even with a Bolt EV. The only vehicles that can do that are Tesla vehicles due to the supercharger stations along the interstate routes. And since the few fast-charge stations we have inside the cities aren’t even that reliable, being stranded is still a real possibility. I speak from experience. That’s why I’m driving a PHEV today.
So, in short, I wish the EV purists could stop being so arrogant and get a view of the bigger picture. Realize that any vehicle with a plug is a good thing compared to not having a plug. Buy what makes you happy, but don’t feel the need to criticize those who buy something different.