How to fix PHEVs



The word is out that essentially, the EU wants to kill plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). The rationale is that PHEVs aren’t clean enough, since apparently most owners don’t charge their vehicles often enough for these vehicles to make any sense from a sustainability viewpoint. Let’s dig into why this logic is flawed in several aspects, and how these policies could be vastly improved to lead us towards a much cleaner future, much faster.

It’s all about incentives

To quote Elon Musk, whatever you incentivize will happen, and I couldn’t agree more. The crucial question is, why don’t people charge their PHEVs? The answer is as straightforward as can be: because they don’t need to. PHEVs are perfectly enjoyable and capable without an electric motor supplementing the ride. So why bother? Concerned citizens like myself do charge their PHEVs, of course, but the numbers don’t lie: most people are simply not concerned enough. They like the government grants and incentives though. So it’s pretty darn obvious that all we need to do is motivate these people to charge these vehicles. How, you might ask? My proposal is two-fold:

  1. Have an upper limit on internal combustion engine performance at 50 HP / tonne. That’s roughly equivalent to the performance of a VW Polo Mk4 1.2. I’ve been driving one for a year, and trust me, it’s most definitely not a punch to the gut.
  2. Have a lower limit on electric motor range at 100 km WLTP. That’s what the upcoming Mercedes C-Class PHEV will have, so it’s definitely a feasible construct.

What are the advantages to this approach? The point is, still having an ICE in your car certainly eliminates any and all range anxiety, but with 1) in the picture you’d be definitely incentivized to not rely on it exclusively, unless absolutely necessary. Then comes the second part: it’s not enough that you want to drive electric, you must be able to as well. The current generation of PHEVs are usually in the 40-60 km WLTP range, which is simply not an attractive deal. To many, charging becomes too much of a hassle – even if you have access to home charging, which many people don’t have, me included.

You might argue that with such sloppy engines fewer people would buy PHEVs. I say different people would buy them. At the end of the day, a PHEV purchase from a person with no intention of ever plugging in their plug-in hybrid is nothing else but wasted battery that could be much more useful somewhere else. It’s not a loss by any means.

Jack of all trades

The issue is always about range. Here’s the thing: most people don’t need 500 km most of the time. At all. They might only travel that far once a month. Or once a year. But when they do, they really need that range, and when the 3 hour ride has the potential to become a 4 hour one because you need an extra hour for charging, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince your fellow citizens that this is the shiny new future we want. This problem might be a hard one to grasp for households with multiple cars, because in that case, you can just keep an ICE car for longer trips, and ride BEVs for everything else. But most of the world’s population don’t have that kind of luxury; they have only one vehicle, and it must be able to suit all use cases.

Yes, PHEVs are a stop-gap measure. It’s not a solution we want, it’s a solution we need. We already know that having a 30-50% market share for BEVs by 2030 is the upper limit due to mineral constraints. We just can’t do better. From this perspective, having cars with 770 km electric range is a marvelous engineering achievement, yet at the same time, it’s also extremely wasteful and selfish. We need more electric cars on the streets, not less. Not many people need 770 km range on a regular basis. That means you have an enormous battery in the bottom of your car that’s not only underutilized for the most part, but which also reduces energy efficiency (due to increased weight), reduces the lifecycle of your tires (for the same reason), and so on. Not to mention that batteries are still the single most expensive part of BEVs, so if anything, this actually slows down EV adoption due to increased prices.

Yes, we’ll have more charging stations. Yes, we’ll have faster charging solutions. Yes, we’ll have cheaper batteries. In a couple of years. The emphasis is on future tense. But until then, we’ll still produce dozens of millions of cars. If a person with a finite budget (read: 99% of the population) wants to buy a car that can go the distance, right now, and the BEV candidate can’t match the requirements, they won’t wait a couple of years until a suitable one pops up, they’ll just resort to good ol’ reliable ICE. That’s what happens.

I couldn’t find exact numbers, but if we assume that the current average range of pure electric cars on the market is 300 km, that means we could have thrice as many PHEVs on the road with 100 km range. It promises way faster adoption, doesn’t it?

Closing thoughts

I truly believe the EU policymakers should re-consider this decision, and instead of killing a whole segment of vehicles, they just need to adjust their policies. It’s not even a complicated change, it’s an extremely straightforward and intuitive one. It all boils down to the fact that the current PHEV lineup consists of cars that are ICE cars first and BEVs second, but it’s supposed to be the other way around to support any kind of clean future. It’s really that simple. Just put more emphasis on the BEV part, and you’re done.