🔒 Plug-In hybrid EVs are gaining popularity, but are they even eco-friendly? – Chris Bryant

As the electric vehicle craze loses some of its momentum and concerns over range anxiety and charging infrastructure persist, hybrid vehicles are making a comeback. General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are among the proponents of hybrids, especially Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), which offer a compromise between electric and combustion engines. However, recent studies reveal that these vehicles may not be as environmentally friendly as advertised, sparking debate over their future role in the automotive landscape.

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By Chris Bryant

Back when the electric vehicles revolution appeared unshakable and Tesla Inc. was valued at more than $1 trillion, few of us gave much thought to hybrids. But amid consumer wariness about EVs’ driving range and insufficient public recharging infrastructure, vehicles that combine a combustion engine and electric motor are back in fashion, at least for now. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are among those talking up the potential of hybrids, and US regulators see a bigger role for them in helping meet vehicle-emission targets. I’m all for consumers picking hybrids over regular gas guzzlers. But governments should keep an eye on a subset of these cars, known as Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles, because they often pollute more than manufacturers claim. 

Unlike regular hybrids, which can only drive very short distances using just the battery and don’t come with a plug, PHEVs typically offer 25-50 miles of purely battery-powered motoring before the combustion engine kicks in.

Until now these cars haven’t been all that popular in the US, but I expect demand to increase in the coming years as they’re a decent option for those still unwilling to make the leap to full electric. Stellantis NV, by far the largest seller of this type of vehicle in the US, reported an 82% increase in PHEV sales there in the first quarter; half of its Jeep Wrangler sales in the US came with a plug.  

BMW AG chief executive officer Oliver Zipse told analysts last month that PHEVs play a “crucial role” because, if they didn’t exist, many customers would just buy a combustion-engine vehicle instead; plug-in hybrids are “here to stay for the foreseeable time,” he said. 

Most drivers travel fewer than 40 miles per day, so PHEVs can provide a way to cover that distance without burning fuel but with a gasoline engine on hand for vacations and other longer trips.

Another advantage is that instead of owning two cars — an EV for daily use and a gasoline vehicle for long distances  — PHEVs offer a way to make do with just one. Plus, these vehicles have smaller batteries than regular EVs and hence consume fewer battery minerals.

European and Chinese drivers long ago cottoned onto to the appeal. While PHEV sales in Europe have also wobbled recently due to the withdrawal of purchase incentives, their almost 8% share of new car registrations is four times larger than in the US; the share of Chinese PHEV sales is even higher. (In contrast to Tesla, which sells only battery-powered models, China’s BYD Co. sold more PHEVs than battery-only models globally during the first quarter.)

On a worldwide basis, PHEV sales rose 43% last year, according to BloombergNEF data, outstripping the 28% increase in battery-electric sales. The upshot: around 30% of the almost 13.8 million vehicles sold worldwide with a plug last year were PHEVs. 

As a diehard fan of small cars — better for the environment as well as the pedestrians they might collide with — I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these vehicles. For manufacturers, this technology provides a way to keep selling heavy, capacious SUVs while remaining compliant with governmental emissions standards.

On paper PHEVs boast low emissions, but only if recharged daily as intended. However, a European Commission study found last month that they pollute much more than advertised because they are often not driven in electric mode, as regulators had assumed.

The report, which collected data from thousands of vehicles on Europe’s roads, found that real-world CO2 emissions for these vehicles were on average 3.5 times higher than approved values. Several studies by environmental groups have reached similar conclusions, with one branding the technology a “dangerous distraction.” 

One explanation for the discrepancy is that those purchased in Europe are often tax-advantaged company cars and their occupants don’t bother to keep the battery topped up. Sigh. Hence, from 2025 plug-in hybrids sold in Europe will have to declare more accurate emissions, making it harder for manufacturers to achieve compliance. The EC warned these values “may need to be further adjusted” based on new data.

So far the US has been more lenient. Acknowledging that PHEV’s real-world emissions were often higher than imagined, the US Environmental Protection Agency last month delayed the introduction of more realistic electric-only driving assumptions to 2031 from 2027. In one scenario, the EPA foresees PHEVs increasing to 13% of total sales by 2032, from around 2% today, and the regulator sounded optimistic that consumers will learn to charge their cars more frequently.

This may be reasonable given expected improvements in public-charging infrastructure, but it’s imperative the EPA continues to closely monitor how much these vehicles pollute.

Volvo Car AB told investors in February that its plug-in hybrids were being used as intended, with more than 50% of energy used by cars coming from charged electricity (as opposed to the engine). Still, the onus is on manufacturers to keep improving PHEVs so they can drive further without having to be recharged.

Happily, several new plug-in models offer in excess of 50 miles of electric-only range, which is the amount the California Air Resources Board (CARB) says manufacturers will need to offer in 2035 to keep selling PHEVs. For example, the new hybrid Porsche AG’s Panamera sedan claims 56 miles of electric-only range, while Mercedes-Benz Group AG’s GLC SUV boasts a whopping 81 miles, and can fully recharge in just 30 minutes. Admittedly, both are quite expensive.

Automakers and company car providers also need to help drivers use these complex vehicles more efficiently. Kudos to BMW for adding technology that automatically switches to electric driving in cities that have low-emission zones. Meanwhile Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius Prime plug-in hybrid comes with an optional $600 solar roof that tops up the battery, without the customer having to lift a finger.

I still expect PHEVs to remain a niche product, especially in Europe. Unless the European Union changes tack following this year’s parliamentary elections, plug-in hybrids will effectively be banned from 2035. The technology faces a similar squeeze in the UK, which is steadily ratcheting up the number of zero-emission vehicles manufacturers must sell. In the meantime, battery-electric vehicles will also continue to improve in terms of performance and price, reducing the appeal of PHEVs.   

So by all means check out a PHEV if you think you can’t live without a combustion engine and have somewhere to recharge. But for goodness sake plug it in.

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