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What’s Better: A Fully Electric Car Or A Plug-In Hybrid EV?

ByDAVID MURRAY, Editor

BEV purists take note, PHEVs might be the future, at least for the time being.

If you are one of those “EV Purists” who believe that PHEVs are “dirty gas guzzlers” then you probably shouldn’t read any further. You probably won’t agree with anything that will be said here. However, when it comes to EV education and increased adoption, this analysis is necessary.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the future of PHEVs. I also own and have owned several BEV and PHEVs, so I speak from a lot of experience behind the wheel of both kinds of vehicle. I’ll go ahead and give you a little spoiler. I do truly believe the BEV is the future of the automobile. Myself, in most cases would prefer a BEV with at least 150 miles of range over a PHEV. However, I’m also a fan of PHEVs. Most people will agree the PHEV is a transitional technology. The only question is, how long will they be relevant? 5 More years? 10? Maybe 20? Well, let’s look into that by tackling some interesting questions.

Background

How Much EV Range is Enough?

If you ask any PHEV driver if they wished their car had more range, almost 100% of people would say yes. I’m guilty as charged. I think we’ve all had that scenario where we are 1 mile from home and the gas engine comes on because the battery ran out and we feel defeated somehow.

I created this little chart showing the relationship between EV range and what percentage of driving the average American can expect, based on the idea that the average commute is between 30-40 miles per day. Obviously this chart might be different for different people, since some people only drive 20 miles per day, while others drive 80 miles per day.

But, let’s be realistic here. The reality is, there isn’t that much benefit in having more than 50 miles of range in a PHEV. As you can see more visually with this chart, you get diminishing returns for each mile of range you add beyond 50. Adding more range will continue to increase the price of the vehicle and consume more interior space with little added benefit. People who demand that they need 80 miles of EV range every day don’t need a PHEV, they need a BEV. That’s the bottom line.

I believe vehicles like the Toyota Prius Prime and the Kia Niro PHEV are at the bottom end of the sweet spot, and the Chevy Volt(RIP) and Honda Clarity PHEV are at the upper end of the sweet spot. I suspect a lot of vehicles with less than 20 miles of EV range probably wind up not getting plugged in a lot. After all, if you can only drive 20% to 30% of your regular miles on battery power, you probably don’t have much incentive to even bother charging the car.

Falling Battery Prices

So here’s the $64,000 question that I’ve been asking myself for years now. With the price of batteries continuing to fall, which type of vehicle benefits more? BEV or PHEV?

Well, honestly, it helps both. But there are certain fixed costs with producing a car that go beyond the battery cost. A BEV needs a larger battery to be a viable car, so we’re talking at least 40 kilowatt-hours, but preferably more. A decent PHEV can get by with a 10 kilowatt-hour pack. However, if you remove the battery from both cars and just look at the fixed costs to build the rest of the car, a PHEV will always cost more. So, once the battery prices fall below $150 per kilowatt-hour (which has already happened for some volume manufacturers) then the BEV starts to become cheaper to build. However, this chart isn’t entirely perfect because it is hard to account for the fact that some cars, like a Tesla with a 100 kilowatt-hour battery pack will cost quite a bit more than a car with a 40 kilowatt-hour pack.

So, I think this is what we’re going to see over the next 5 to 10 years. An EV with 150 miles of range or less will be cost competitive with a PHEV, and even possibly cost competitive with regular ICE cars. However, for any car that will be considered “long range” the PHEV or ICE will still be the most competitive on price. However, we’re just talking about purchase price. If you look at it from a total-cost-of-ownership scenario, both PHEV and EV will most likely be the winners over a traditional ICE. Much of this will depend on the cost of fuel over the next few years. It’s harder to make that argument while gasoline costs $2.00 per gallon. But we know that won’t last forever.

There is another consideration to be made with falling battery prices, though. Many manufacturers are already producing regular hybrid vehicles without a plug. With cheaper batteries it almost becomes a no-brainer to just cram in 8 Kwh worth of battery and a plug and call it a PHEV. The development cost is minimal because the car was already 95% designed beforehand. What is the significance? Well, I believe that falling battery prices means a lot more PHEVs are going to start popping up in the near term as compared to BEVs, which generally require a lot more engineering effort. Also, if a manufacturer was already selling the hybrid version at a profit, then chances are the PHEV will be profitable too, thus PHEV conversions tend to be a lot less risk.

Should a PHEV have DC fast charging?

Here’s an age-old argument. Currently, only a few models offer this, such as the BMW i3 Rex, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, and the Toyota Prius Prime (only on Japanese models). In fact, most PHEVs have a regular charging speed somewhere around 3.3 Kw. Although a few models such as the Honda Clarity are offering faster options. What this boils down to is that PHEV drivers often find themselves wanting to drive on electric power as often as possible. And I’m guilty as charged. Even when driving a PHEV I will often make an effort to plug in at my destination if charging is available. I’ve even been known to go out of my way and sit in the car if I am not in a hurry, just to charge up to avoid using gas.

However, this behavior is irrational. There’s really no good reason to do this other than for “the challenge.” PHEVs are not dependent on charging infrastructure to get you where you are going. It’s also important to realize that if you have an ICE in your vehicle, it needs to run every so often anyway for its own good.

That aside, customers are often willing to pay for things that they don’t really need, but rather just want. So, what if we just want DC fast charging on our PHEV? Well, that’s fine I guess. But there is one important realization to consider. With level-1 or level-2 charging, the smaller batteries of a PHEV tend to charge much faster. Basically, its a fraction of the time of charging a BEV.

DC Fast Charging

However, when you start talking about DC fast chargers, things change. So, let’s imagine you have a BEV and you can get an 80% charge in 30 minutes. You might think that a DC fast charge would only take 5 minutes on your PHEV because the battery is smaller, right? Well, you’d be wrong. It’s still going to take around 30 minutes because the smaller battery pack cannot accept as much current as the larger one. So, while in your BEV you can sit at a fast charger for 30 minutes and get maybe 100 miles of range during that time, the same 30 minutes in your PHEV will probably get you 20 miles. I’m not saying it is pointless, but it certainly isn’t as advantageous as you might think.

Reasons customers might choose a PHEV over a BEV

OK, so a person has decided they want to drive electric. What are some of the reasons they might pick a PHEV over a BEV. Some of these might surprise you.

Availability – That’s right, not all plug-in vehicles are available in all areas. Outside of California, many areas have very few plug-in cars to choose from. Many BEVs are simply not available in a lot of areas.

Body Style – Believe it or not, this plays a big role and it is somewhat related to the above reason. If a person wants an EV, but they also want a particular body style, this limits the options even more. Right now, there are more PHEV options than BEV.

Affordability – Again, there are more PHEV options right now than BEV. Many of those PHEVs are more affordable than their BEV counterparts or competitors.

Lack of Charging Infrastructure – This is a big one. 90% of the country has limited or no charging infrastructure. What little we have is often broken or ICE’d. I’m not just talking about for long trips, but even if you are needing to do a lot of city driving in a single day.

Here in Texas we have enough charging stations to barely get by, but it requires planning out exactly where you are going to stop and charge, and then praying the spot won’t be ICE’d when you get there. Realistically, for the general public to get on board we need 20 times as many chargers as we have and they need to be working and available.

Dealerships – Dealers don’t really like anything with a plug on it. But they are less hostile to PHEVs since they don’t have to worry about charging them up and thus can treat the entire sales process just like an ICE vehicle.

Ignorance – This covers many areas, including possible ignorance of the customer or dealership of the advantages of a BEV. However, with my experience renting EVs and PHEVs out on Turo to the general public, I can assure you that the general public is not ready for BEVs, especially where I live. It’s going to take time for regular people to learn how to charge a car. It seems so simple to us, but for some people it’s like learning quantum mechanics.

Reasons to consider an BEV instead.

OK, so those are some good reasons to consider a PHEV. But, there are definitely some reasons to consider a BEV instead:

Less Maintenance – Yep, PHEVs still require oil changes and all the other maintenance associated with an ICE.

More Regen – For those that like one-pedal driving, you almost have to get a BEV in order for the battery and drive motor to be able to provide that sort of regenerative braking.

More Torque – BEVs generally have larger batteries, thus they are able to pump out a lot more juice. BEVs are almost always faster than a similar PHEV. This is especially true if operating the PHEV in EV-Mode, which relies on a much smaller drive motor.

More Interior Space – In most cases, a purpose built EV will have more interior space and storage since the battery will be placed under the floor. PHEVs often have even less space that an ICE vehicle because they have to fit the battery as well as an ICE.

Larger Tax Credit – At least for the moment while the credit still exists, you do get $7,500 for an EV, whereas most PHEVs wind up getting between $3,000 and $4,500.

My Final Prediction.

OK, what do I predict?

Tesla has been the only manufacturer so far that has produced an electric car of any sort that reached out into the masses, and that has been the Model 3. However, even the Model 3 is still somewhat expensive and seems “exotic” to a lot of people. However, this is generating more interest in vehicles with plugs.

I think over the next 5 to 10 years we’re going to see a lot more PHEVs popping up as more affordable “me too” products. Most of these are going to have EV ranges in the lower-end of the sweet spot between 20 and 30 miles of range. I don’t expect any of these products to sell in numbers greater than 25,000 per year. This is because a PHEV will always cost more than a standard ICE vehicle.

Most serious EVs with large engineering budgets coming out will be purpose-built BEVs. I do think PHEVs will be very common for the next 10 to 15 years. Once it is clear to the regular public that BEVs are the future of automobiles, PHEVs will likely disappear. The main reason is that, by that point, a PHEV will cost more than an ICE and probably cost more than most BEV models too.

ICE vehicles will hang around a bit longer on the really low-end vehicles where the main selling point is low-cost. Potentially, PHEV trucks might be the last PHEV hold-outs because with the large batteries they will need for long-distance travel and towing, a PHEV might still end up being more cost effective than putting 200 kWh into a pickup truck. But, we’ll see.

Keep in mind, this is all based on my opinions after owning multiple EVs. Feel free to provide your insight and options in the comment section below.

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