Home » America Focusing On Electric Cars And Not Plug-In Hybrids Was A Huge Mistake

America Focusing On Electric Cars And Not Plug-In Hybrids Was A Huge Mistake

Phev Vs Bev David Take Ts9
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For years now, journalists, analysts, consultants, manufacturers and many others in the auto industry have considered plug-in hybrids a “transition technology” that will stick around for a few years until we see a mass adoption of fully electric vehicles. Because of this widely-held sentiment, a number of big players in the car world, including General Motors, have reduced plug-in hybrid development and focused heavily on fully electric cars.

“The quicker you get to our goal of zero emissions, the better, and EVs get you there faster,” GM’s CEO Mary Barra told Motor Trend back in 2019. “So why dedicate a lot of capital and engineering into a segment that doesn’t get you to the end game when we know how to do the end game?” Well, in this week’s David’s Takes (our weekly op-ed) I assert that this thinking was deeply, deeply flawed and that PHEVs should be considered not just a “transition technology,” but rather a long-term solution. And I’ll take it a step further: I think America ignoring them was a humongous mistake.

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The internal combustion engine shouldn’t be considered the enemy, but rather an ally in the world’s efforts to clean up vehicle emissions. To many, this notion may sound absurd; how can a car that burns fossil fuels possibly be advantageous over one that doesn’t? Is this some kind of anti-EV screed written by a gas-loving nutjob?

No. I like electric cars and own two of them. And as an engineer, I find them to be vastly superior to ICEs in most ways; the mechanical simplicity, the efficiency, the ability to regenerate energy while braking, the power delivery — an electric car is an objectively better way to get around than a gas car, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. Still, though I like EVs, it’s clear to me that America focusing on them instead of PHEVs has severely set the country back.

PHEVs Have Been An Afterthought In The U.S.

Model Y Vs Wrangler 4xe

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I’m going to start by establishing the premise that everyone’s goal is to make cars cleaner for the environment. I realize that there are folks out there who don’t care about climate change, and there are those who don’t think driving electric is better for the environment than driving a gas car. And while the latter assertion can be true in some cases, in the overwhelming majority of instances where you’re comparing two cars in the same class — one gas and one electric — the electric one will have been better for the environment by the time it ends up in the junkyard. That’s really not up for debate anymore.

With that out of the way, we can jump to our next premise, which is that we can improve the environmental impact of cars by — as quickly as possible — maximizing the number of people we can get to stop burning fossil fuels by replacing internal combustion cars with electric cars.

With these premises established, I’m going to spend this article arguing that, today, plug-in hybrids are the best vehicles to accomplish these goals — even better than EVs — and that America’s focus on the latter has actually hurt us.

But first, let’s talk about what I mean when I say America has ignored PHEVs and focused on EVs. Doesn’t the U.S. have plug-in hybrids for sale?

Yes, there are some plug-in hybrids available today, but there are more fully electric cars for sale than there are PHEVs (40 versus 33, per EVadoption.com), and there are key segments that offer no plug-ins at all (there are zero plug-in hybrid pickup trucks – an inefficient segment that stands to gain the most from electrification — and five fully electric pickups); that’s just absurd. Perhaps just as important as the quantity of offerings is the quality of those offerings; fully-electric models currently for sale are much more compelling than the PHEVs on the marketplace.

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One cannot possibly compare a Ford Escape PHEV to a Mustang Mach-E. One is sleek, was named “Mustang” specifically to amplify its coolness in order to compete with Tesla, and stands out. The other is just the top-of-the-range version of an economy-crossover, it’s actually more expensive than the Mach-E, and its all-electric range is a meager 37 miles. This is pretty standard across PHEVs; they’re the most expensive version of another already-existing car, and while that price can be cut by certain government incentives, the range of most PHEVs is between 25 and 40 miles; that’s just sad. What’s more, it’s not just that there are only a few good PHEVs currently on the market; the other issue is marketing. Namely, there hasn’t been enough of it.

For one, PHEVs usually don’t get their own nameplates — they’re just trim levels since most are built on platforms shared with gas cars. They also rarely get their own media drives, so reviews you read about them are mixed in with the gas variants. And most importantly, they just don’t get the same spotlight as EVs; when was the last time you saw a Ford Escape PHEV commercial? Compare that to the number of times you saw a Mustang Mach-E commercial, or even a Ford F-150 Lightning (which is basically just an electric version of an F-150) commercial.

(Note: Some of PHEVs’ marketing problems are just the nature of the beast; fully electric cars seem advanced to the layperson, while hybrids just don’t, since we’ve all been hearing about hybrids for the past 25 years. A “plug-in hybrid” just doesn’t excite people in the same way as “EV” does, even if a plug-in hybrid is often more technically advanced than an EV (for better or for worse)).

There’s a reason I wrote a few weeks ago that “America’s Plug-In Hybrids Aren’t Good Enough.” The vehicles are an afterthought. I mean, look at America’s coolest PHEVs:

  • Jeep Wrangler 4xe: 22 miles
  • Ford Escape plug-in: 37 miles
  • Chrysler Pacifica PHEV: 32 miles
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe: 26 miles
  • Hyundai Tucson PHEV: 33 miles
  • Mazda CX-90 PHEV: 26 miles
  • BMW X5 xDrive50e: 38 miles
  • BMW 330e: 23 miles
  • Toyota Prius Prime: 44 miles
  • Toyota RAV4 Prime: 42 miles
  • Lexus RX450h+: 37 miles

And compare that to these EVs:

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  • Tesla Cybertruck: up to ~340 miles
  • Rivian R1S: up to ~350 miles
  • Rivian R1T: up to ~350 miles
  • Ford Mustang Mach-E: up to ~310 miles
  • Tesla Model 3: up to ~360 miles
  • Tesla Model Y: up to ~330 miles
  • Tesla Model X: up to ~350 miles
  • Hyundai Ioniq 5: up to ~300 miles
  • Kia EV6: up to ~310 miles
  • Lucid Air: up to ~420 miles

One list is a snoozefest filled with cars that will barely get you to work and back (Prius Prime notwithstanding; Rav4 is also decent) [Editor’s note: Don’t sleep on the spacious Mazda CX-90 PHEV, the opulent X5 50e, or the excellent 330e either -TH], the other is dynamic and exciting and forward-thinking. No wonder EV sales are absolutely crushing PHEV sales by a factor of almost four to one.

Of course, things are changing, and automakers are realizing that ignoring PHEVs was a massive mistake. That’s why you’re seeing headlines like “GM Does A U-Turn: Plug-In Hybrids Are Coming Back” and “GM Hustling To Get PHEV Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra To Market” as well as “Carmakers pumped the brakes on hybrid cars too soon” and so on.

I hope these automakers build some proper PHEVs, though, and I hope they market them properly without actually calling them PHEVs. Ideally, they’ll call them what people used to call the BMW i3 — a range-extended EV (which is a much sexier term) — and I hope they build them on electric platforms so that they’re actually solidly compelling vehicles. I’ll repeat what I wrote in my op-ed “America’s Plug-In Hybrids Aren’t Good Enough”:

…precisely my problem with the current crop of plug-in hybrids [is that] they’re clearly gasoline cars first, electric cars second. The 30 miles or so of EV range is considered a nifty feature of someone’s otherwise gasoline vehicle. The issue, in my eyes, is that in America there are no plug-in hybrids that are electric cars first, gasoline cars second, and that needs to change. And I think … that transition point from gas car first to EV first starts to happen at about 50-100 miles of range.

The state of California is incentivizing automakers to crank up PHEV range, with the California Air Resources Board writing:

Plug-in hybrid, full battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles count toward an automaker’s requirement. PHEVs must have an all-electric range of at least 50 miles under real-world driving conditions.

That’s awesome, though the state loses me at “In addition, automakers will be allowed to meet no more than 20% of their overall ZEV requirement with PHEVs.” This is silly.

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Until the Ramcharger launches, America offers no such EV-first range-extended EVs — just those relatively boring, low-range PHEVs in the list above. But even if we do start cranking out great, forward-thinking range-extended EV offerings, the damage from ignoring this segment and instead focusing on EVs is already done.

The Environmental Effects Of Neglecting PHEVs

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Image: BMW

It may seem counterintuitive, but a plug-in hybrid can actually be better for the environment than a fully electric car. To best understand this, we have to consider how most Americans drive. A typical American will commute about 15 miles a day, one way. Some days they might have to buy groceries, some days they might have to take their kid to a swim meet, but for the most part, weekday commutes are reasonably regular/predictable, and not particularly long.

The very cleanest car, we can probably all agree, is a small electric one with a battery sized exactly for that commute. I myself drive 17 miles a day to work (one way), and I might drive an extra 10 miles to get groceries or do another errand). That’s 44 miles; add a few for safety, and really, all I need is a car with a 50-mile range. A car with a 50-mile range is the very cleanest car I could possibly drive, because it features the smallest battery needed to allow me to live my normal lifestyle.

If I were to drive a car with similar dimensions to, and with a similar powertrain as, a Tesla Model Y (which according to the EPA has a range of 3.57 miles per kWh of juice, though I realize this changes based on mass, but for simplicity let’s just roll with it), I would need a 14 kWh battery to live my lifestyle (50 mi/3.57 mi/kwh = 14 kWh). That’s a TINY battery, and as such, the resources needed to make it would be pretty minimal; that matters because manufacturing lithium-ion batteries is currently a dirty process.

Is anyone going to actually buy a 14kWh battery-having EV offering only 50 miles of range (Note: you would likely need a larger battery to get 50 miles in a cold climate)? Absolutely not (unless it’s hilariously cheap). Just look at the Mazda MX-30; that was an electric car with 100 miles of range, and it got laughed out of the marketplace. It was a total failure. People may only need 50 miles most days, but nobody wants to feel limited, and there will surely be instances where one has to drive 200 miles for vacation or to visit the grandparents or whatever, and charging a million times to drive what should take only a few hours is something most folks would consider absurd.

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So what’s the solution? There are two. If you look at the electrified vehicles available in the American market, it’s clear most automakers have decided that the answer is to shove another 60+ kWh of batteries into that car.

Screen Shot 2024 03 18 At 9.03.53 Am
Image: Tesla

Take the Tesla Model Y Long Range that I used as an example earlier. It’s got a 75 kWh battery (that’s usable capacity; full capacity is 82 kWh) in order to give it 330 miles of range — enough to ease up most owners’ range anxiety. Again, many folks are going to drive that vehicle under 50 miles a day, carrying around 280 miles worth of battery — 60 kWh, which is 80 percent of the total capacity — every day for no reason other than peace of mind. That’s probably 700 pounds of expensive, dirty-to-produce lithium ion batteries being hauled around daily as the car drives around going to work and doing errands.

Now let’s look at the second solution. Imagine that 14 kWh Model Y, but instead of adding a 60 kWh battery to ease people’s range anxiety, you add a small gasoline engine hooked up to a generator. The vast majority of the time, that car will be driven on battery power alone, and the gasoline engine, along with its ancillary components like the fuel tank and cooling system, will sit dormant, just as the 60 kWh worth of battery would on a Model Y Long Range.

The car that best lines up with this analogy is the BMW i3 range-extended EV, which features a 19 kWh battery and a small gasoline engine. This is what I daily drive (yes, I practice what I’m preaching):

 

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Of the two options, it’s clear that the hybrid (or range-extended EV) makes more sense. It’s lighter (which matters not just to reduce Vehicle Demand Energy (i.e. the energy needed to propel the car forward) but also because tire dust is a nasty type of pollution, and weight doesn’t help on that front), it’s cheaper (I’ll get to that in a bit), and though there are emissions associated with producing a small gasoline engine and its ancillary components, it’s clear that manufacturing a 60kWh battery is significantly dirtier. This becomes obvious when you consider that a fully electric car takes 15,000 miles (ish — this depends on a number of factors) to become cleaner than a fully-gasoline car. If the emissions associated with producing and running an EV are so high that a gasoline car has to shoot 15,000 miles worth of combustion products into the sky before the EV is cleaner, it goes without saying that a PHEV with a battery 20 percent of the size and a gas engine that rarely turns on is the cleaner solution.

There are lots of caveats to all of this, of course. If you live in an apartment, charging a PHEV every day is a huge pain in the ass, so you’ll likely run on the gas motor a lot, and this could be less efficient than just a gas car, per Consumer Reports; so really, this assessment applies mostly to folks who can easily charge their car every day. That’s not an insignificant number of people, as many have garages/driveways near their houses, and others can charge at work. It’s also worth noting that this all assumes that the small 14kWh battery can handle all the charge/discharge cycles. Many modern battery packs can, but in an instance where you have to replace the small battery because it can’t handle all the charging sessions (as was the case with my i3), the calculus will then start to favor BEVs. Another thing worth noting: If you’re running on the gasoline engine a lot, then BEVs (even with huge batteries) will of course end up winning out over a PHEV when it comes to pollution. There are a number of studies showing BEVs beating out the current crop of PHEVs when it comes to emissions reduction over gas cars, and I assume these are based on significant gas engine usage.

14 kWh may not be enough for some folks. Ideally, you’d analyze a sweep of battery sizes, assess how each of them affects the duty cycle of the gasoline engine, and weigh that against the environmental effects of producing that battery size. The ideal PHEV would be one that allowed the most people to use the gasoline engine the least, while keeping the battery size as small as possible. It’s a complicated analysis that requires an understanding of human behavior; maybe 14 kWh is enough for someone, but because it only offers 50 miles of range, they’re less incentivized to charge it when they’re on their rare road trip. If they go on that road trip enough times, perhaps a slightly larger battery could be worthwhile, since it’d lead them to stop and charge it instead of just running along on the gas engine. If someone doesn’t have a garage to charge the car in, how big does a battery need to be to where it makes sense for them to charge at a public charger instead of just driving on the gas engine?

Regardless of all the caveats, my point is that, in plenty of scenarios, a PHEV is cleaner for the environment than an EV. If you don’t trust me, the PHEV Toyota Prius Prime was just determined to be the cleanest car in America, ahead of BEVs, due to its relatively low energy usage and smaller battery.

I live in Santa Monica and commute to Van Nuys daily. I have a garage at home in which I can charge my vehicle, and I can charge at work. It’s obvious to me that a Tesla Model Y Long Range would be a complete waste of resources, and significantly dirtier for the environment than my BMW i3, which has a battery with 19kWh of usable capacity — just over 1/4 the size of the Model Y Long Range’s. I daily drive that vehicle, and maybe use the gas motor for 1 percent of the miles I drive. The emissions that my little 647 cc gasoline engine produces, along with those associated with the production of my gas engine+ancillary parts, will likely never outweigh the emissions needed to manufacture over 50 kWh of added battery. Unfortunately, my early i3’s battery ended up kicking the bucket after 135,000 miles, thereby requiring another 19kWh battery, but a later model i3 likely wouldn’t suffer from this charge/discharge longevity issue, and would almost certainly be the best environmental choice for my lifestyle, which is not a particularly uncommon one among Americans.

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Supply Constraints Make Ignoring PHEVs Even Worse Of A Decision

The calculus behind the BEV vs PHEV debate is complex, and beyond requiring a thorough understanding of well-to-wheel analyses and human behavioral patterns regarding charging, it requires an understanding of supply chain constraints. And right now, we’re seeing such constraints holding back EV manufacturing. And in a world where battery resources are causing slowdowns, a PHEV (or a range-extended EV) becomes an even more obvious first-choice for reducing climate implications of automobiles.

Why use a 75 kWh battery on a single Tesla Model Y when you could instead use those same battery resources to get four families into a cheaper plug-in hybrid, which they could potentially use in electric mode 99 percent of the time? It’s a concept I’ve been talking about for years, but I’m thrilled to now hear that Toyota — a brand that damn near every automotive publication was critical of, as it was slow to build EVs — is championing it. Recently, our friend Tom McParland from Jalopnik wrote about Toyota’s 1:6:90 rule; here’s a look at it via a dealer document sent to Tom:

Screen Shot 2024 03 17 At 10.49.53 Pm

I’m not going to get into standard hybrids in this story, but six plug-in hybrids that could potentially very rarely use their gas engines versus one pricier EV? Especially in light of supply constraints, it’s obvious which makes the most sense from an environmental standpoint.

PHEV Palatability Made Ignoring Them Even Worse Of A Decision

Right now, there’s a humongous rift in the U.S. between folks who love EVs and hate gas cars and those who prefer gas cars and hate EVs. It’s an absurdly polarizing issue; my conservative friends say they wouldn’t be caught dead in an electric car, while some of my more liberal friends think gas cars are irresponsible and inefficient and frankly just dumb.

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I don’t think this rift would exist to the degree that it does today if we’d had more compelling PHEVs on the market. The fact is that, if you look at a typical parking lot full of cars, these days you’re going to see EVs and gas cars, and not a whole lot in between. Seriously, check out this plot showing BEV sales and plug-in hybrid sales:

Screen Shot 2024 03 17 At 4.44.44 Pm
Image: US Energy Information Administration

And it’s no surprise. Like I wrote before, not only are there more fully electric cars on the market than there are PHEVs, but the BEVs are much, much more compelling than the PHEVs. America hasn’t put enough effort into PHEVs.

And that’s a problem because many Americans aren’t ready to commit to fully-electric cars; it’s a scary, big step, especially in light of infrastructural/power grid concerns and cost. For these people, a PHEV would be the ultimate gateway towards reducing fossil fuel usage.

Today consumers get to choose between cool but too-expensive electric vehicles (especially pickups, though to be sure prices are dropping quickly); gasoline vehicles; and boring, derivative, low-range, also-expensive, simply-not-good-enough PHEVs. The result is that, while more and more people are driving fully electric cars than ever (it’s the fastest growing segment in the U.S. — S&P Global says that “Despite slowing consumer demand for electric vehicles, reports of the demise of EVs have been greatly exaggerated. S&P Global Mobility’s 2024 global sales forecast projects battery electric passenger vehicles to be on track to post 13.3 million units worldwide for 2024 – accounting for an estimated 16.2% of global passenger vehicle sales. For reference, 2023 posted an estimated 9.6 million BEVs, for 12% market share.”), I believe far more people would be driving electric every day if there were more compelling PHEVs on the market.

And far more would then feel comfortable transitioning to fully electric cars once they’d driven a plug-in hybrid. They’d tell their friends, and their friends would tell their friends, and we’d have a lot less polarizing a world when it comes to electric cars vs gas cars than we do today. But that’s just not where we are. Today, if you want a pickup truck, you get to choose between gas and electric, with a few regular hybrids sprinkled in. And because there’s not a plug-in hybrid pickup truck on the lot to win over an anti-EV pickup truck driver and get them to think “You know what? This has a gas motor in it, so it’s not an electric truck. I think I’ll buy this,” only for them to drive around in electric mode the vast majority of the time and gradually change their mind on electric vehicles, the rift continues and skeptics remain skeptics.

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The truth is, plug-in hybrids are just more palatable for more people (and because of their small batteries, they don’t require a special Level 2 charger; a regular 110 outlet will general do just fine in my experience), and the importance of that should be extremely obvious to anyone who watches today’s political commercials, which often use EVs to divide a nation that should collectively realize just how great electrification is.

Cost

Let’s talk about cost, because I mentioned it a few times above; we’re seeing PHEVs that cost more than EVs, and yet I claimed before that PHEVs have the potential to be cheaper than EVs, adding to their mass-market palatability.

I haven’t been able to get an exact cost delta between that 75 kWh Model Y and a theoretical 14 kWh one, though I’ve put in a request to my friends at Munro & Associates, the premier EV benchmarking company in the world. Still, I was on Munro’s podcast recently and spoke with Sr. Design Consultant Kevin Harty, who told me that PHEVs are indeed cheaper. And if you look at current lithium-ion battery pricing, it’s easy to understand why.

Batteries currently cost about $120 to $140 per kWh, and though they’re expected to drop below $100 by 2025, an extra 65 kWh worth of battery would still cost $6,500 — that’s probably at least double what a small gasoline engine, generator, and auxiliary components (like the fuel tank, cooling system, and accessories) would cost in a PHEV.

Obviously, the cost equation is complicated by government rebates; when huge numbers like $7500 are being thrown around, that cost delta between a big-battery EV and a small-battery PHEV can shrink. Today, though, PHEVs are eligible for that full $7500 figure, but local rebates (like those offered by power companies) can vary.

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Still, if we’re talking just resource-wise, PHEVs have the potential to cost less, and actually still do; from Consumer Reports:

Concern about charging logistics, such as where and when to charge, is a primary reason people are reluctant to purchase an electric vehicle. For many car buyers, a PHEV provides most of the benefits of driving an EV without worries about how and where to charge, Fisher says.

In general, a PHEV costs less to purchase than an EV and is less pricey to fuel than gas or hybrid vehicles.

PHEVs Were The Right Answer, And Still Are

Let me begin by saying that fully-electric cars are ultimately a better answer than plug-in hybrids, and I’m thrilled to see that EV sales are still strong and growing. The truth is that, if we can get our electricity grid cleaned up to where we’re using only renewables, and especially if we can figure out fast-charging battery tech that’s cleaner and cheaper to manufacture, then gasoline engines and the infrastructure that supports them will have no place outside of perhaps commercial applications. But that’s not happening anytime soon, and we need to focus on — as quickly as possible — getting as many butts driving electric as possible. And to do that, range-extended PHEVs (which, yes, add additional complexity/failure modes to EVs, and are packaging compromises) are the answer, at least for the next decade or two.

I’ll repeat a quote from GM president Mark Reuss — one quite similar to the one from Mary Barra in my lede paragraph. This one’s from The Wall Street Journal:

If I had a dollar more to invest, would I spend it on a hybrid?…Or would I spend it on the answer that we all know is going to happen, and get there faster and better than anybody else?”

Let’s put this quote into different terms. Reuss is implying that it makes more sense to spend limited battery resources to get one V8 Chevy Silverado driver to trade in for a ridiculous 200 kWh (!) Silverado EV than it does to take that hideously large battery, split it into four, and get four Silverado V8 drivers to stop cruising around getting 13 MPG and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s nonsense, but this is exactly what GM chose: fewer, pricier EVs instead of more, cheaper, more palatable (especially to EV skeptics not ready to go full-BEV), lighter PHEVs that could potentially each be better for the environment than their EV counterpart (and certainly, when you factor in the number of people now able to drive around predominantly electricity instead of gas, overall it’s much, much better for the environment, as Toyota concludes with its 1:6:90 rule).

How’s that working out for GM? Let’s check out S&P global’s 2024 EV forecast to get a general idea of the state of the industry:

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Despite the slowdown in consumer sentiment toward EVs, there is nonetheless an ongoing necessity for emissions reductions – with EV regulations and milestones largely intact and looming a year closer. However, slowing consumer desire for existing EVs could boost profitable internal combustion engine (ICE) markets and legacy automaker portfolios, driving consolidation and attracting private equity interest.

Crucial strategic decisions regarding capital expenditures in the electrification space need to be made in the near term. Several OEMs are beyond the point of no return in their shift to EVs, while some suppliers might be questioning the wisdom of going “all in” on EVs quite so soon.

Now let’s peek at GM specifically — from Reuters:

General Motors Co said on Tuesday it will delay production of electric pickup trucks at its plant in Michigan’s Orion Township by a year as the No. 1 U.S. automaker grapples with flattening demand for electric vehicle.

The move is the latest sign that electric vehicle production and demand may not be as strong as forecast. GM had been set to begin production of the electric Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra in late 2024 at the suburban Detroit plant. The company said the plan now is to start it in late 2025.
This one’s from Forbes‘ story “GM Does A U-Turn: Plug-In Hybrids Are Coming Back”:

During its earnings call on January 30, GM announced that the pace of electric vehicle (EV) sales had slowed—a serious concern for a company that doubled down on a pure-EV future just three years ago. As a result, the company has reversed direction and will alter its future product strategy to include plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in its vehicle lineup.

“Our forward plans include bringing our plug-in hybrid technology to select vehicles in North America,” said CEO Mary Barra. “Let me be clear: GM remains committed to eliminating tailpipe emissions from our light-duty vehicles by 2035. But in the interim, deploying plug-in technology in strategic segments will deliver some of the environmental benefits of EVs as the nation continues to build its charging infrastructure. We are timing the launches to help us comply with the more stringent fuel economy and tailpipe emission standards that are being proposed.”

It’s quite clear: Neglecting PHEVs was an industry-wide flub of epic proportions.

Addendum: I’d like to add a bit more about pickup trucks, because they, specifically, drive home my point. Currently, you essentially have two options if you want decent range: Buy a 200kWh electric pickup or buy a gas-guzzling pickup. There’s not much in between. The problem is that that gigantic 200kWh battery is needed to give the vehicle any reasonable towing range. The result is that the truck is huge, expensive, and dirty to manufacture. A plug-in pickup requires a battery less than half the size to handle most people’s around-town commuting, and allows for good towing range. “But when they’re towing, they’ll spew CO2 into the atmosphere!” you might argue. Not if they don’t tow. And most Americans don’t tow. They just want to be ABLE to tow. What’s more, the presence of that gas engine could be enough to win over EV skeptics, and even if not all of them plug in daily, if half of them do — that could still be lots of folks driving electric every day instead of riding around in their guzzler. So yes, folks may not ever tow, and folks may just want a gas engine to bring them comfort to cross that great gas-electric divide, but again, human psychology is key to all of this.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not implying that the U.S. should have focused on PHEVs over EVs. No, focusing on EVs is a smart call for a number of reasons, including cultural ones and practical ones (for example: infrastructure buildout requires pain points, and PHEVs are there to minimize those by providing a convenient backup. Having plenty of EVs on the market definitely expedites solutions to our infrastructure issues more than PHEVs would). I just think PHEVs shouldn’t have been neglected like they were.

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Kalieaire
Kalieaire
23 days ago

Why aren’t we revisiting the Obrist Range Extender for the Model 3?

https://electrek.co/2020/01/06/tesla-model-3-hybrid/

Six
Six
25 days ago

The PHEV is a good way to improve emissions for folks that have access to a plug and who would not otherwise consider a full BEV, but it feels like the full BEV has a lot of advantages now. Having two complete drivetrains in a car as a PHEV does adds a lot of complexity. A well-designed BEV is actually refreshingly simple.

Bill Garcia
Bill Garcia
25 days ago

I’m definitely on David’s side here – I’ve had an i3 REx and had to go for more space, ending in my current Volvo XC60 T8. I miss the i3 setup every day! Range-extended EVs make way more sense than electrified internal combustiom cars to me.

My Volvo lease is up soon and I’d love to replace with sth better (knowing I need the size for the family, unfortunately).

Headfullofair
Headfullofair
26 days ago

Counterpoint- most car commutes suck. Why electrify a terrible experience? It’s the least fun time to be in a car. All the money being dumped into accelerating the EV transition would be better spent on alternatives to car commuting.

Cars should be for spontaneous trips, weekend getaways, etc. and they should be fun to drive. The EV transition is funding the continuation of crappy commutes. And car regulations are creating boring, annoying app-cars.

Erick Buell is right— motorcycles, e-bikes, and bicycles are not only more fun, they’re a more efficient use of space and resources. And they’d be a lot safer with proper infrastructure and fewer drivers clogging the roads. The resources in one hypothetical PHEV with a 14kwh battery could make 3-7 light electric motorcycles or two dozen e-bikes.

Also: trains! You can BYOB on the LIRR. Beer-compatible transportation is excellent. You can’t even have a beer before getting into a boring PHEV crossover!

Sure, if we went on a crash program of two-wheeled infrastructure and public transit, lots of people would still drive to work in gas vehicles. But the roads would be less crowded, the drive would be better, and the total resource consumption would likely be lower than the path that we’re on.

Another Engineer
Another Engineer
25 days ago
Reply to  Headfullofair

Yes, people buying Hellcats and full size pickups to commute in them is an amazing waste of resources. Commute options are good for everyone and cost efficient, but it isn’t a “freedom” that politicos are willing to pursue.

It is actually a 1:6:90:300 rule with BEV:PHEV:Hybrid:Ebike.

John McMillin
John McMillin
26 days ago

There’s a lot of wisdom in this article. It would be easier to find if there had been a reasonable word count limit, though. Even as a person keen on this topic, I found myself scanning through.

As a PHEV driver for seven years, I have a few observations:

1) I don’t desire more EV range than my Ford’s original 20 miles. It’s overall efficiency that matters, not how often I use the gas engine. The EV range usually gets used up every day, so none of the battery capacity is wasted. I don’t feel guilty about driving a 40+mpg car back home, either.

2) Ordinary short-term testing never shows the PHEV advantage. The EPA rating of my C-Max Energi was only 2 mpg above the comparable Hybrid model. In six years of using both cars in my family fleet, the PHEV got 65 mpg, demolishing the Hybrid’s record of 38.

3) The EV-ICE debate has gotten way too polarized, thus it’s gotten dumber. Full EV adoption became a political and diplomatic goal, demanding that you be for it or against it, on a moral, non-negotiable level. As as a pragmatist, I almost always see the best path as something in between the extremes.

4) Nobody hates Hybrids more than EV owners – online, at least. PHEVs are considered “a half-assed solution.” But we live in a half-assed, partially electrified time, with a patchy and incomplete charging network. The most effective technologies are the ones that come at the right point in time, like PHEVs in the here and now.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  John McMillin

If you’re going by the on board C-Max Energi mpg guage, it assumes that EV mode is 999.9 mpg, whereas the EPA methodology actually imputes a gallon gas equivalent based on kwh/100mi and energy content.

https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=34662

I wonder what it would show if the onboard computer imputed mpge instead of assumed 999.9.

John Burkhart
John Burkhart
25 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

Not sure I understand the comment about C-Max Energi EV mode. My wife has one, when she was able to charge both at work and home her life time average MPG was like 150 mpg. To be clear it took two months before she bought her second tank of gas. When she started working from home and we started using it like a small plane to drive 500 miles almost every weekend, the life time average MPG began dropping to eventually hit 55 MPG, but the car is 10 years old and the long distance stuff has gone on for 4 years. Over all I think the PHEV with 50 to 100 miles of range is a great solution for many people. I have been preaching David’s basic argument for years and when I explain real world usage scenarios most skeptics see the benefits. They don’t just emit less, they save $ and THAT is a solid differentiator.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
25 days ago
Reply to  John Burkhart

The “150mpg” that it is showing for your wife is exactly the problem I’m trying to highlight. There is no way to actually get 150mpg (gallon gas equivalent) if the computer accurately accounts for the fact that energy content is being used in EV mode, to the tune of 37kwh/100mi.

As a simplified example, driving 1000 miles and using 6.5 gallons of gas works out to be approximately 150mpg. But: assume that the driver drove 250 miles in hybrid mode and 750 miles in EV mode (approximately 40mpg in hybrid mode). Then the actual energy content used would be 750* 37/100 / 33.7 =~ 8.25 gallon gas equivalent. So the actual mpge over that time period would be 1000 miles / 14.75 gallon equivalents = 67.8 mpge.

In a sickening trend, my local electric monopoly charges about 20 cents / kwh to charge after hours, which means that the cost equivalence in EV mode is 0.20 * 33.7 =~ $6.75 per gge, and dividing by the published mpge at EPA that’s roughly $2.91 a gallon if I simply didn’t plug in and use it in hybrid mode instead.

If battery replacement costs exceed $0.025 a mile then it’s simply cheaper to drive a regular hybrid. Which is why i’m really hoping there is a third party battery replacement industry for EVs.

In my ideal world EVs would have standard modules that get fit into the chassis, e.g. 20x 2kwh packs that are standardized and don’t have vendor lock in, and that you can just get the skateboard on a lift and change out of spec batteries. As it is, I would really hate to dispose of the C-Max but a second battery replacement would not be worthwhile.

John Burkhart
John Burkhart
25 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

I think I see your point, which I will boil down to – miles traveled via battery only aren’t free. I believe last I did the math we were at $.12/kwh. We were aware we were trading electric for gas, but I see how that could be misleading.

Ryan L
Ryan L
26 days ago

All of these articles while full of valid points could be summed up by the fact that ALL manufacturers for all intents and purposes left the 20-30k price point and are now being punished.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
26 days ago

I like having a contrarian take here, but I totally disagree with it for a few reasons:

  1. Going all-in on PHEV would take ALL of the incentive away to build public charging infrastructure. No one would use public chargers for their car with 50 miles of range. They would charge at home, and then use gas when the range is exhausted. Not having any meaningful progress on public fast charging infrastructure would lock us into gas-only for long drives and inter-state travel.
  2. Reliability and complexity. There are only a few manufacturers I’d trust with the complexity of building what is basically two powertrains at once (a plug in EV + a gas tank and ICE engine). Would you really want a Stellantis PHEV as a daily driver? Look at the reliability reports from the Pacifica PHEV. It’s a mess. By contrast, full EVs are radically simpler than a PHEV. No oil changes! So many fewer moving parts.
  3. Supply and cost. Good luck finding a Prius Prime or a Rav4 Prime at all, or for anywhere near MSRP. They’re basically a fairy tale. I realize that’s part of your argument (investing heavier would mean building more!). But, if Toyota is the one company making a meaningful number of both hybrids and PHEVs (and spreading public commentary about the efficiency of making more PHEVs), but can’t or won’t actually make enough for people to buy them – what does that tell you?
John McMillin
John McMillin
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

I wouldn’t expect reliability form anything Stellantis, but the record of Ford hybrids and PHEVs is very good.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
25 days ago
Reply to  John McMillin
  • If you have a newer HF35 that doesn’t shred its CVT
  • If you live somewhere where parking your air-cooled battery outside in the summer doesn’t fry its cells.
Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

RAV4 Prime supply has caught up. I see them advertised for $2k off these days.

Patches O' Houlihan
Patches O' Houlihan
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

Respectfully disagree on your first point. I daily a PHEV and will often look for and use public chargers, ESPECIALLY if 1) the electricity cost isn’t too high and 2) I get premium parking for it. Even if those two aren’t the case, I’ll still often use it, which should help incentivize it, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
25 days ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Are you going to be defending this thesis for your PHD? Are we gonna need to call you Doctor Tracy soon? Great work!

Who Knows
Who Knows
26 days ago

While I mostly agree with this article, one huge, huge mistake is the assumption that 1kWh of battery is the same in a hybrid, PHEV, and EV. I’m certainly no expert on it, but I do know that different batteries are used for different applications with different amount of buffer and even chemistries, and you cannot compare directly. Saying that a 60 kWh EV battery = 60 * 1 kWh hybrid batteries is not correct, as the hybrid battery is optimized for high relative power and lots of cycles, with a lot of built in buffer, and the EV battery is optimized for energy density- https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a15345397/battery-taxonomy-the-differences-between-hybrid-and-ev-batteries/. This is like saying a 500 hp semi truck diesel engine should use the same amount of raw materials as a 500 hp sports car gas engine, just because they are both 500 hp.

Using battery pack weights isn’t perfect, but short of data on the actual materials use/manufacturing impacts of the different batteries (I’ve looked, haven’t found anything to date), it gives a bit of an idea with some rough numbers (I know, not perfect):

Chevy Bolt, 60-65 kWh, ~250 miles range, ~950 lbs (https://media.chevrolet.com/media/us/en/chevrolet/vehicles/bolt-ev/2023.tab1.html)

Escape PHEV battery, ~11 kWh usable, ~40 miles of range, ~ 360 lbs (https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a15345397/battery-taxonomy-the-differences-between-hybrid-and-ev-batteries/)

Prius/other hybrid batteries, I’ve seen anything from 80-120 lbs, probably depends on generation, NiMH vs. Li Ion, for ~0.5-1 kWh usable capacity (https://www.caranddriver.com/research/a32768969/hybrid-battery/)

The smaller the battery, the larger the buffer necessary to get the battery to last, the more the battery chemistry is tuned towards power and not energy capacity and the less kWh/weight (materials) you have.

I’m also calling BS on Toyota’s 1:6:90 rule, since the battery pack weights would indicate more on the order of 1:2.5-3:10-20. It would be interesting if someone (like Toyota) would publish the actual materials amounts used in each battery pack type to have an actual, real answer. If this 90:1 ratio was actually true, for the ~3 million vehicles Toyota sells in the US every year, they could hybridize 90+% of them with the same amount of batteries it would take for only ~30,000 EVs, which is not much at all. They could have done this years ago if that was the case.

Ben
Ben
26 days ago
Reply to  Who Knows

I doubt weight is a valid way to compare. For example, the “battery” in my Prius weighs about 140 lbs, but at least 70 lbs of that is structure around the actual cells. And that’s the old NiMH batteries, lithium ones are even lighter and provide better capacity. If Toyota says the 1:6:90 ratio is what they use for materials I’m inclined to believe them over speculation based on a metric that is not directly tied to how much battery is actually present.

SBMtbiker
SBMtbiker
26 days ago

The reason the industry got away form plug in hybrids and went all electric is that the europeans did a study finding that plug in hybrids didn’t deliver on the promise. Not sure if people in europe weren’t plugging them in. https://www.thedrive.com/news/plug-in-hybrids-pollute-more-in-the-real-world-than-advertised-study-claims. Here is one of the studys I’m talking about.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
26 days ago

I did the math with my current WRX vs the least efficient PHEV (Wrangler 4xe). Based on my commute of 56 km round trip, fuel economy of 8.0 L/100 km in the WRX and fuel economy of 11.9 l/100km in the Wrangler (estimate). Switching would save me around $900 to $1000 per year in gas.

Daniel Goldberg
Daniel Goldberg
26 days ago

Got a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV in September (when it was still impossible to get any other PHEV). After 1 Canadian winter and 7,000KM later, my average mileage is 3L/100KM (78 mpg?) and that includes a couple road trips that relied fully on gas. Really happy with the car, day to day gets my kid to daycare.

In the fall when it doesn’t need to use the motor to heat the cabin (kicks in when it’s colder than -5c or so) it really never used the engine at all.

Wish it came without the “3rd row” but that’s another story.

Sam Hoffman
Sam Hoffman
26 days ago

And while the latter assertion can be true in some cases, in the overwhelming majority of instances where you’re comparing two cars in the same class — one gas and one electric — the electric one will have been better for the environment by the time it ends up in the junkyard. That’s really not up for debate anymore.

That being not up for debate anymore is news to me. https://www.msn.com/en-us/autos/news/electric-vehicles-release-more-toxic-emissions-are-worse-for-the-environment-than-gas-powered-cars-study/ar-BB1jmXsg I just saw this article about how electric cars chew through tires way faster than gas cars causing bad particulate pollution which affects peoples health directly.

I hate automatic transmissions so I would love to have an electric car, but I’ve done the math and I can never justify the cost. PHEVs seem to have all the downsides of a gas car, and all the downsides of the electric car all wrapped up into one. I’d like to know how automakers prevent the battery from wearing out, how the engine lasts not being run for a week than is required to propel the vehicle within seconds of a cold start up. As someone who likes driving, I don’t think I can ever justify a PHEV. As someone who likes money I don’t know if PHEVs can even save anything over a proven Prius with a nimh battery that is good for 4 times the cycles, lasts well over 100,000 mile and is easy to change, and you don’t have to charge it.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
26 days ago

I would be curious how many PHEV actually get plugged in. Again, I am no EV nazi, but I just can’t do any plugging in in my living situation. 100% hybrid for me.

Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
26 days ago

It’s really really hard to take Mary Barra seriously when she’s been there her whole career and GM is a whopping 15 years post bankruptcy.

Spectre6000
Spectre6000
26 days ago

I kind of agree with the premise, but I came to a different conclusion. I feel the error was focusing on range as the marketing differentiator. Practically speaking, more than maybe 100 miles is more than 99% of people need 99% of the time. It’s often been said that most people don’t need a truck, but buy one for the 1% of the time they MIGHT need it. I’d opine that electric cars suffer the same regret avoiding tendency. Charging isn’t a problem in and around cities, and most people with EVs charge at home. The only time it’s an issue is long distance, and for those rare occasions, just like with trucks, rent. Problem solved without prolonging other problems.

The recommended solution in this case would be to focus the marketing departments on other vehicular attributes. Range is neat, what about… I dunno. Ride quality? Sound system? NVH? Safety features? Straight up design would be awesome (I don’t care for the Cybertruck’s styling, but I super appreciate that they actually did some out of the box styling).

Last edited 26 days ago by Spectre6000
Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
26 days ago
Reply to  Spectre6000

Yes. We need an avenue to develop less expensive cars that make sense as a second car for regular people. All kinds of people in rural areas can drive around in side by sides. Make the same concession for small affordable EVs in the city so you don’t even have to worry about “can the battery last 300 miles” because you won’t even be allowed to drive them on the highway to drive 300 miles. We need an American version of Japanese Kei Cars.

Because we don’t, means to me that we don’t actually care about the environment, we just want to force people to buy new vehicles. Regulatory Capture in capitalism sucks.

Last edited 26 days ago by Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
Scott Wangler
Scott Wangler
26 days ago

Oh boy are the electric car nazis gonna be big mad at you.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago

Part of me appreciates the impressive engineering that goes into the i3 REX and how it’s designed to be a range-extended EV first, and that’s also what David appreciates.

However, out in the real world with governments and incentives, that’s not what happens.

1) Tons of people take the PHEV incentives and never plug it in, taking government dollars and not reducing gas usage.
2) The presence of a gas engine makes the PHEV fall into emissions regime, where a failed battery OR any failure in the gas powertrain triggers a CEL and needing expensive repairs to pass smog. With a pure EV you could just ignore battery error conditions if it doesn’t actually impact your driving experience, not so a PHEV.
3) PHEV owners are still on the hook for all the maintenance of a gas powertrain even if rarely used.
4) The set of compromises that make the i3 REX EV first also made it a market failure. Reviewers and owners were complaining about how the scooter motor were unable to fully power the i3 when the battery is depleted, and the tiny range when on gas mode. Those both speak to drivers’ intended use cases for an REX, and also why i3 owners plug their cars in ALL THE TIME: because PHEV buyers WANT to use them as gassers first, and the i3 REX makes a terrible traditional hybrid.
5) This speaks to the problem with something like the Ramcharger: with both a large battery AND a powerful V6, will buyers just take the incentive and just run it as a hybrid (in which case a series hybrid that has a small battery would do a better job, like Nissan’s e-power), or will buyers essentially use it as a small-battery EV, in which case it will just be an EV with extra steps.

I wonder why Nissan didn’t bring the e-Power setup to the USA, since in my mind replacing the transmission with a motor is a no brainer.

PHEVs are a non-committal half-step which enables government subsidized pollution for those who aren’t all in, and brings along all the drawbacks of having a gas engine for those who are all in. They should all be replaced with traditional hybrids or lower range EVs. Imagine a low-trim 150 mile Mach-E/ID4 for under 30k after rebate? Let the market speak.

JumboG
JumboG
26 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

David actually had the answer, it was right in the 1:6:90 pic. The answer is hybrid, no PHEV. With the same amount of battery KWH used, 90 hybrids reduce emission 37 times more than 1 BEV. The nonsense about having to care for an engine and electric car is just that. My C-Max has been the most reliable and cheapest to operate vehicle I’ve ever had, and it only gets in the upper 30s MPG wise. When I replace it, I’ll get one that gets in the upper 40s. Also, no worries about electrical grid upgrades with everyone charging at home.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  JumboG

Ironically, MY C-Max has been the most unreliable POS I’ve ever owned, with failure modes across both battery and ICE powertrains.

Series hybrid non-PHEV is the answer here, I think.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

Adding: this is absolutely my own fault knowing that we bought the absolutely cheapest 2-year-old used plug in hybrid in the country with a clean title. Of course my writing skills isn’t as great as David’s so I didn’t write up the battery/transmission replacement saga of my own.

John McMillin
John McMillin
26 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

Was it the first year car, 2013? That one was truly tragic. Consumer Reports blacklisted it, but by 2016 they were recommending it, and still do.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  John McMillin

It was an early 2014, and by the time we bought it we already knew about the HF35 TSB. That coupled with the California AT-PZEV 10/150 warranty was what got us to pull the trigger.

Our dealers billed Ford like $30k for warranty work.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  David Tracy

You’re absolutely right in the sense that people aren’t logical. There are tons of people who say they don’t want the bells and whistles but being that those bells and whistles come at a marginal cost, when offered no-frills stripped cars people don’t buy them.

Probably right too that people don’t buy small battery EVs. People, however, buy the heck out of a traditional hybrid Maverick. How much do you think it would cost Ford to put in 30kwh of battery and beef up the traction motor to run at top speed, and would that be better or worse than just losing the ICE and adding in another 30kwh of battery?

In a non-distorted economy when hybrid, PHEV, and pure EV can compete on a level playing field, however, I think a long-range PHEV will become non-competitive due to cost. If the existing PHEVs aren’t competitive now, what makes you think they’d be competitive with another 30kwh of battery as added cost?

Taken from another perspective, would 2050 David Tracy rather wrench on a 2025 Wrangler hybrid, small-battery PHEV, or full EV? All are blinking CELs like a Christmas tree, two of which wouldn’t pass California smog due to CELs. I think for all the beat-up Prius cabs out there that the answer is a traditional hybrid where all the wrenching is a solved problem.

Lest you think me a Luddite, the replacement for our C-Max Energi is absolutely going to be a full EV.

Last edited 26 days ago by Mall Explorer
DysLexus
DysLexus
26 days ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I like your thinking David “ the economist“ Tracy.

Most Americans feel the need to supersize everything otherwise we feel ripped off…including the vehicle size bloat and subsequent battery-size bloat.

One thought is that we could subsidize the heck out of PHEVs by using the billions for the going towards the nationwide network of charging stations.

Like Europe, China, and most places, economic products are subsidized in some way or other.

If PHEVs are 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of equivalent ICE or BEV, then problem solved. We’d certainly figure out ways to make our charging systems work for us.

DysLexus
DysLexus
26 days ago
Reply to  DysLexus

For those who say it is damn unAmerican to subsidize. I’d say learn your American history in industry including:
Railroads, Airplanes, Electricity, Electronics, Steel, Coal, Oil, Corn, Soybeans, Beef, Education, Space Exploration, Healthcare and on and on.

Mall Explorer
Mall Explorer
26 days ago
Reply to  DysLexus

Not saying it’s un-American, but am saying that subsidizing a PHEV below the cost of a regular ICE or mild hybrid just means that people take the subsidy and never plug it in, whether the battery size is 7kwh, 14kwh, or 30kwh.

And really, if you get a PHEV and never plug it in you should have bought a traditional hybrid anyway, so why would you subsidize someone to cart around 30kwh worth of batteries when 1kwh would do?

DysLexus
DysLexus
24 days ago
Reply to  Mall Explorer

Yeah. You’re probably right (said the pessimistic side of my brain). The vast majority of Americans don’t give a rip about cars in general and/or the environment in particular. People can be lazy even if they can save a few bucks by plugging in their cars if given option.
Most are interested in getting to their destination as quickly as possible with their hair looking good while listening to the latest Taylor Swift tunes or some such.
(I’ll just walk away now with my hands buried in pockets looking glum)

DMill
DMill
26 days ago
Reply to  David Tracy

“People WILL NOT BUY low-range EVs” at LEAST 3 of us members here have!

Timbales
Timbales
26 days ago

and as the saying goes, if a frog had wings his ass wouldn’t hit the ground when he hopped

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
26 days ago

The vehicles are an afterthought. I mean, look at America’s coolest PHEVs:

Disappointed there’s not a single Volvo on this list.

S90 Recharge – 455HP, 0-60 in 4.6s and 38mi of electric range. Come on!
V60 Recharge – Same as above, faster, A WAGON!

Last edited 26 days ago by Angrycat Meowmeow
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