General Motors makes some really, really confusing decisions sometimes. For example, the company somehow thought customers buying a sensible car like a Chevy Equinox crossover would be interested in a diesel variant (a total bust, and everyone knew it would be); GM somehow thought it made sense to offer an Opel-derived Buick convertible (a very slow seller, and everyone knew it would be); and GM somehow thought that skipping hybrids in favor of fully-electric cars made sense (a silly move, and everyone knew it would be). Luckily, GM has now reversed course on its no-more-PHEVs stance, and now we’re getting new GM plug-in hybrids. Plus, we can expect many more from competitors as well, as everyone wisens up to the obvious fact that PHEVs make sense for the U.S., especially given battery-sourcing limitations. But here’s the thing: So far, America’s PHEVs haven’t been good enough. Here’s what I mean.
You’ll have to excuse me for giving GM a hard time. Maybe there was some carbon credits reason for the Equinox diesel; according to Automotive News GM does claim that the Buick Cascada “played its role in the portfolio perfectly, outselling many other premium convertibles while bringing in [six of every 10] buyers from outside GM” even though I don’t buy that it was anything but a flop; and maybe GM’s “no PHEVs” policy was based on some kind of solid data, but all of those seemed dumb at the time, and they ended up indeed being dumb in the end. Anyway, for this very first installment of the “David’s Takes” weekly Sunday op-ed, let’s have a look at the pure-EV range figures of some of America’s most popular plug-in hybrids:
- 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
- Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV: 31 miles
- BMW X5 xDrive45e: 31 miles
- BMW 330e: 23 miles
- Toyota Prius Prime: 44 miles
- Lexus RX450H+: 37 miles
These numbers are pathetic.
Many of these cars don’t even have enough range to get the average American to work and back without recharging, and even if you can plug in these low-range PHEVs at work, plenty of Americans will still not be able to do a full home-work-home commute.
I myself have a 17-mile commute to work (that’s a little more than average, which I’ve seen listed at between 12 and 16 miles), and I own an electric car with 25 miles of range — similar to the Wrangler and BMW 330e PHEV. I can tell you straight up: That range is just not enough if you want to drive in EV-mode the vast majority of the time. If I can’t charge at work, I’m screwed; and if I’m going to go to the grocery store after work or pick up a friend from the airport or drive across town to hang out with friends on the weekend? Forget about it.
You might still be thinking: “Who cares? It’s a gasoline car that I can drive in electric mode sometimes to save gas, and if I have an at-home charger I can save money every day; it’s perfect!”
But that mentality is precisely my problem with the current crop of plug-in hybrids: 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 — and this is just an opinion, as this is the first installment of the “David’s Takes” weekly Sunday op-ed — that transition point from gas car first to EV first starts to happen at about 50-100 miles of range.
And you know how many mainstream plug-in hybrids in the U.S. currently offer more than 50 miles of range? Zero.
I believe that the fastest way to get as many people driving electric as often as possible (ostensibly the U.S’s goal, since it should theoretically have positive climate change implications) is to offer range-extended electric cars — in other words, PHEVs that are electric cars first, gasoline cars second. And I think not offering these cars has jeopardized perhaps one of the biggest opportunities the auto industry has at having a positive climate impact.
The current crop of cars offered in the U.S. forces people interested in driving electric to choose between 30-mile PHEVs and fully electric cars. Lots of people don’t want to buy fully electric cars; this has been established, especially in recent news stories about softening demand and infrastructure concerns and range anxiety and cost, and on and on. So those people will buy a gas car and keep shooting CO2 and NOx into the air every time they get behind the wheel, or they’ll buy a 30-mile PHEV like the ones mentioned before.
Here’s the issue: PHEV critics argue against the technology because people just don’t charge enough. In fact, Consumer Reports writes that PHEV fuel consumption is higher than what’s on the sticker because of how infrequently PHEV owners plug in their vehicles:
“The fuel consumption of PHEVs in real-world usage is, on average, more than twice as high as EPA estimates,” says Georg Bieker, a researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation Europe who studies PHEVs. That difference is largely because most PHEV drivers don’t charge frequently enough to maximize driving time on electricity and thus rely too much on the gas engine. Bieker says that, unsurprisingly, drivers who choose PHEVs with higher electric-only ranges tend to get higher real-world mileage.
No shit. Am I really going to recharge my PHEV every 25 minutes of highway driving during a road trip? That’s just far too much stopping; I’ll only be saving 1.5-ish gallons of fuel (depending upon the car) by plugging in, so the incentive just isn’t there. I’d rather just keep driving.
As for commuting, if I have at-home charging, sure, I’ll plug in. And even then, as I mentioned before, I probably won’t make it to work and back in my Jeep 4xe or BMW 330e. And in the winter if I lived somewhere cold? I might not make it to work and back in EV mode in any of the plug-in hybrids available on the market today. Not to mention, if I don’t have at-home charging, am I really going to run to a public charger every single day, or multiple times a day, to fill my little battery up? There’s no way in hell.
Now imagine a PHEV that — unlike those in the bulleted list above — is an electric car first and a gas car second. A car like, say, a 2014 BMW i3. It has a range of about 75 miles in pure electric mode. That will get me to work and back easily, and if I have to grab groceries or do an airport run, I’m still only ever using electricity. On road trips, I have an incentive to charge up, because that’s going to save me three gallons of gas (and as the PHEV range increases, so does this incentive. A 2020 BMW i3, for example, will go 120 miles, making plugging in even more worthwhile during a road trip). Plus, with my i3, I only have to plug in once every hour or so, and not once every 25 minutes as with a modern PHEV.
With my i3, if I have at-home charging, I just plug it in every night and I’ll basically never have to use gasoline unless I go on a rare road trip. If I don’t have at-home charging, the range is high enough to where I only have to go to a public charger at most, once a day, but if I’m just commuting I can charge once every two days and still only use electric-mode.
But with the death of the i3 (and the second-gen Chevy Volt, which actually offered 53 miles of EV-only range; quite impressive), if I want a car today that I can comfortably drive in EV mode 95 percent of the time, I have no choice but to buy a BEV. It means I’ll have to spend a bunch of money on a big battery that I’d probably use less than half of on a daily basis, meaning I’d be dragging around hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds of expensive, relatively-dirty-to-manufacture weight just so I can occasionally go on a road trip. This is silly.
Honestly, the way the industry has been trending towards humongous batteries so that folks can have long-range vehicles is absurd, and it’s not just me saying it. Here’s a quote from Jim Farley, via Green Car Reports, talking about how it doesn’t make sense for automakers, either:
“I have no idea what’s going on in this industry right now. All I hear is all these announcements of 450-mile range, a 500-mile range, there was another one today about a three-row crossover, it’s going to go electric. These batteries are huge; if you have those kind of batteries you will not make money.”
So if not everyone wants to drive a battery-electric vehicle (maybe because the range isn’t high enough, and that’s not something that will be fixed anytime soon without shoving in a massive battery, which we’ve established is dumb), but we as a society want to get lots of people sometimes driving electric as soon as humanly possible, the current PHEVs will work. But if we want to maximize the product of how many people we get driving electric and how often they’re driving electric (which is what would have the greatest climate impact), then it seems to me that we need to focus on higher-range PHEVs. And I think range-extended PHEVs make the most sense.
Range-extended PHEVs basically just use the gasoline engine as a generator. There’s no transmission, there are no driveshafts, the engine’s revs/load is a lot more predictable (meaning it can theoretically run at an efficient operating point more often than a typical ICE) — it’s simple, and it saves space, which is good, because that lets you easily fit in a battery that will get you 50 to 100 miles. The modern PHEVs on the bulleted list, though, are set up like gasoline cars — with transmissions and drivetrains that take up a lot of space. This adds complexity and, you would think, cost.
Actually, there is one brand that’s heading in the right direction in my view, and that’s Ram. The upcoming 2025 Ram Ramcharger will have a relatively modest 92 kWh battery (this is modest because EV pickups set up for towing have much larger battery packs to handle the range-hit. The Ram 1500 REV’s pack is a whopping 168 kWh) that will get you 145 miles in pure-EV mode when unladen. That’ll get me three or four days to and from work without having to recharge. This is reasonably practical whether I have at-home charging or not.
But when I need more range when towing or road-tripping, instead of having another 76 kW worth of expensive and dirty-to-mine lithium-ion batteries that I lug around for no reason 95 percent of the time, I have a V6 engine that I lug around for no reason 95 percent of the time. Depending upon how often one uses the gas motor, I bet this setup could be even environmentally friendlier than the fully-electric Ram 1500 REV with its huge battery pack, and part of me guesses that it’ll be cheaper, though that’s hard to know. (Maybe integrating that gas engine and generator is pricier than another 76kWh worth of batteries, but I don’t know).
Even if it’s not cheaper, this electric-first PHEV will be hugely appealing to folks not ready to make the full-EV plunge, and yet it will get them driving in electric mode probably 95 percent of the time. And isn’t that what the goal is (at least, in theory)?
Seriously, if the government’s goal is what they say it is — to get folks driving electric — then we need higher-range PHEVs, ideally relatively-simple, range-extended models that are clearly EVs first, gas cars second. If we can get reasonably-priced, 70-ish-mile PHEVs out there, I bet we’d see a lot more folks driving electric sooner than we think.