Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, full electric vehicles. The world of electrified cars can be complicated. We break down the basics, including cost, efficiency, and environmental impact.
Car people love the faint scent of diesel wafting on the breeze, the reassuring burble of a finely tuned engine, the grease beneath their fingernails worn like badges of honor from an exclusive club. Car people also live going fast. And, despite those few who insist on rolling-coal, car people don’t actually love all the smog and CO2 pollution that come as unfortunate consequences of using fossil fuels. The good news for car people is this: modern hybrid and electric cars are the opposite of boring and they pollute a lot less than traditional cars.
That doesn’t mean the subject of electrified vehicles (EVs) is simple. When you think of electric vehicles, you might think of the Toyota Prius or maybe the Tesla Model X. One is a hybrid, the other fully electric. Seems simple enough. But then you start hearing about plug-in hybrids, mild hybrids, charging infrastructure and range anxiety, and then there’s the confusing conversation surrounding environmental impacts. Now things are looking much murkier than before.
What are the different types of hybrids? Are fully electric vehicles more efficient than hybrids, or less? What’s the cost of ownership for electrified vehicles compared to ICE (internal combustion engines) vehicles? We answer these questions and more below.
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First off, what exactly are hybrids and how do they work? Hybrids combine a traditional ICE system with an electric motor and a battery pack to power a vehicle and use regenerative braking (collecting kinetic energy from brake friction that would otherwise be lost as heat) to charge their batteries. They spend at least some of their time pulling power from just the battery, but when and how much depends on the kind of hybrid.
There are two different varieties of hybrids, mild and full hybrids, and they differ in their ratio of ICE to electric power. The biggest difference is that full hybrids make much more use of their electric motors, actually using them to propel the vehicle, sometimes dropping into full electric mode. Mild hybrids, on the other hand, don’t use their electric motors to exclusively propel the vehicle and don’t have a full electric mode. While mild hybrids do offer fuel savings and lower emissions compared to ICEs, they don’t come close to the numbers you get from full hybrids.
Both forms of hybrids offer greater range, fuel economy, and lower emissions when compared to ICE vehicles.
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Like full hybrids, plug-in hybrids also combine an ICE and one or more electric motors. There are two key differences between plug-in hybrids and basic hybrids. First, plug-in hybrids, well, plug in to charge their batteries. Second, rather than simply assisting the ICE, plug-in hybrids can run on electric only power for a limited range (typically 20-40 miles). That means plug-in hybrids are often running exclusively on electric power, since many people don’t drive more than 30 miles in a single day.
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Full electric vehicles operate solely on power from their battery packs to run one or more electric motors. Examples include all Tesla models, the Nissan Leaf, and the Porsche Taycan. These vehicles charge either at proprietary charging stations (like Volkswagen’s Electrify America stations or Tesla’s Supercharger network) or at built-in home charging units.
EVs range widely in their appearance and performance. The Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf are full electric vehicles designed to be economical, emissions-free, and supremely practical. They follow in the footsteps of their hybrid predecessor, the Toyota Prius. But as Elon Musk demonstrated over a decade ago with the Tesla Roadster, electric cars don’t have to be boring people movers, rather, they can be just as exciting to drive as anything burning gas.
Indeed, one of greatest attractions of modern EVs are how fast they are. And they are fast, like crazy, fighter jet off the line fast. Their electric motors provide instant torque, which is why so many supercars, including the Porsche 918 Spyder and the new Koenigsegg Gemera are hybrids. And the quickest car in the world? That title will soon be held by the upcoming Aspark Owl, a fully electric hypercar, which the builders claim will launch you 0-60mph in just 1.69 seconds (no, that’s not a typo).
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Electric vehicles and hybrids do have their downsides. Chief among them is their sticker price. Hybrids and EVs command a price premium, typically running around 30% more than their ICE counterparts. But there are federal, state, and local tax incentives that offset a lot of those, up to $7,500 depending on the vehicle and locality.
On average, driving EVs cost around 50% less to drive per mile, but that number varies widely depending on what part of the country you live in. Even at half the cost per-mile and tax incentives, it can be difficult for most current EVs and hybrids to fully make up for the initial price bump.
We all know that ICE engines, with their hundreds of moving parts are complex machines. EVs, by comparison, are much simpler mechanically and have fewer moving parts. Hybrids, because they combine both technologies, are more complex than either.
The real winners when it comes to maintenance are full electric vehicles, which don’t have timing belts, pistons, oil pumps, and all the rest to worry about. Turns out, not having hundreds of small metal parts moving thousands of times a minute under extreme heat and pressure reduces a vehicle’s repair costs.
Why do we care? Because the more complex a vehicle is, with more moving parts to wear out over time, the more frequent and expensive the repairs. And while hybrid systems would appear to carry the biggest liabilities, because their ICEs tend not to work as hard as traditional ICEs, hybrids don’t typically end up requiring more repairs than non-hybrids (and, in many cases, fewer).
Another knock against EVs are their limited range compared to ICE vehicles. The Nissan Leaf’s range is just 150 miles before it needs a recharge. Teslas, depending on the size of their battery packs, have ranges between 200 and 300 miles on a single charge. The typical ICE vehicle gets between 300 and 400 miles from a single tank of fuel, but this can be extended in the case of diesel engines and vehicles with large fuel tanks.
It’s important to note that adding range to EVs is a delicate balancing act. Adding range, in the form of additional batteries, also adds considerable weight. Pound per pound, gasoline and diesel fuel pack much more energy than modern lithium-ion batteries. So while you can strap on a couple jerry cans to your Jeep and roll out on your overlanding adventure, confident you’ll make it back home, you can’t just add batteries to your EV to get the same additional range.
Hybrids, as you might have suspected, offer the best of both worlds. The additional help from their electric motors greatly extends the per-mile range of each gallon of fuel. For example, Toyota’s Prius can get upwards of 500 miles out of its relatively small 11-gallon tank. Even the longest-range Tesla Model S can only get you 370 miles before needing a recharge (and that EPA number is hotly contested as a generous estimate).
Unfortunately, EV ranges are limited by current battery technology. But the likes of Tesla, Mercedes, and others are working hard on solutions. Tesla, for its part, claims the new version of the Roadster will boast an eye-brow-raising 620-mile range.
Some contend that electric vehicles aren’t as clean as companies like Tesla would have you believe. It is true that while these vehicles aren’t producing emissions as they make their way down the road, the ultimate sources of the electricity they operate on aren’t always so green.
This criticism, however, fails on two counts. Yes, depending on what part of the country, the electricity you charge your EV with might come from a coal burning powerplant rather than a renewable source like hydroelectric, wind, or solar power. But even taking into account these geographical variations in net emission, an electric vehicle still produces fewer emissions on a per mile basis. Annually, the average ICE produces over 11,000 lbs. of CO2 compared to just over 4,000 lbs. for a fully electric vehicle. You can see the state-by-state variations in energy sourcing and their effects on emission here.
Even if EVs and hybrids clearly beat ICEs when it comes to emissions, that doesn’t mean they are an environmental free ride. The mining of precious metals like the lithium used in most EV batteries are directly linked to environmental damage and the misappropriation of scarce resources. The hope is that, as battery technology and recycling processes improve, fewer resources will be needed per vehicle.
Last year, EV sales accounted for just 2.2% of all new vehicles sold. The biggest hurdles to wider adoption of EVs and hybrids comes down to cost and infrastructure. Gas prices have been low and look to be diving even lower. Add the premium to the initial sticker price and many car buyers find it difficult to switch to cleaner, more efficient EVs and hybrids. Expanding tax incentives would normally help hasten the transition, but many of these programs have been expiring and the near-term prospects for renewal appears dim.
The same can be said for current infrastructure, which is still limited in large swaths of the country. A bigger push from states and the federal government could help, but again, the political will and financial resources aren’t there right now. And yet, emissions regulations, even those that are currently in flux in the US, still puts the world’s transportation fleet on a path toward greater electrification.
Hopefully, as technologies and government incentives improve, price will cease to be an impediment to EV and hybrid adoption. Because doing the right thing for the environment (and going really, really fast while doing it) should be within reach for every car buyer.