EVs vs. PHEVs: The Battle of the Plugs

One of the weird little psychodramas that plays out among some electric car fans is a turf war between EVs and PHEVs.[1] At first, and perhaps even second, blush this is just silly. We’re all on the same side, and we all want people shunning gasoline and driving on electrons as much as possible, right? So why is there so often a urination-for-distance contest between fans of EVs and PHEVs?

Part of it is simply the usual internal division that inevitably crops up in subcultures. Pickup truck drivers separate into Ford vs. Chevy vs. Dodge camps, woodworkers have their favorite brand of power tools which are obviously superior to other brands in every way possible[2], and so on. There’s nothing we like more once we “find our tribe” than to subdivide it into smaller tribes and cook up some meaningless reason for a civil war. This behavior is probably a genetic afterthought we developed when making it through the night without becoming tiger kibble was a really pressing concern.

But in the case of “cars with plugs”, there really is a significant difference, and it has to do with how the vehicles are used out here in the infinitely messy and fascinating real world. And, as you probably have already guessed, it comes down to how often people plug in the vehicle, and therefore how close any one driver gets to traveling as many of his or her miles purely on electrons as possible, subject to things like daily routine. I call this a person’s ERM, electric range maximization.

When someone buys/leases a Leaf, say, you know that whatever else happens, that person will never put gasoline into that car. And no, driving your Leaf to a gas station so you can fill up the two-gallon can you use to refuel your snow blower — something I’ve done a few times while laughing maniacally — doesn’t count, no matter how much fun it is. For a pure EV, the ERM is, by definition, 100%.

But a PHEV is a horse of a different technicolor. Many PHEV drivers, like many early Volt adopters, made it their personal mission to push their ERM as high as possible, and some can amazingly close to 100%. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Volt’s roughly 40-mile electric range is enough to cover a lot of errands, plus many of the early adopters were somewhere between diligent and borderline psychotic about plugging in the car all the time. And I would love to hug every one of them.

I wonder about three groups of PHEV drivers: [1] those same early adopters after they’ve had a Volt or whatever for four or five years, [2] non-early adopters who aren’t as zealous about the whole “plugging in your car every night” thing, and [3] the people who buy much more expensive PHEVs.

As an example of the last group, consider the BMW X5 xDrive40e, a vehicle which is likely to be pretty expensive (the gasoline only version starts at $53,900; expect the PHEV version to add several thousand to that, I’d guess). Or there’s the announced plan from Mercedes Benz to add 10 new PHEVs to their product lineup by 2017. I’m not expecting any bargains there, either. But more to the point, I’m also not expecting the people who drive such vehicles to care much at all about plugging in overnight, especially after the first few months of ownership.[3] I would not be surprised to find out that such vehicles have an effective ERM of well under 20%, meaning there’s very little benefit to the driver (increased convenience, reduced fuel costs) and the world in general (lower CO2 emissions).

None of this is to say that I don’t want BMW, Mercedes, and other big-buck car makers to add plugs to their vehicles. I think it’s inevitable, and the sooner all car companies (and their customers) are on board, the better. But it’s also accurate to say that not all cars with plugs are created or used equally. I’m happy to see any car with a plug as opposed to a car without a plug, but I’ll also be happier to see a Volt than an electrified BMW X5 once the latter are available, and I am and will continue to be positively giddy when I see an EV on the road.

[1] Again: When I say “EV” I mean a purely electric car, like the Nissan Leaf, which has no liquid fuel engine at all, just an electric motor and big honkin’ battery. A PHEV is a hybrid that can drive for some distance purely on electric power, but has a conventional liquid fueled engine that either drives the wheels directly or runs a generator to recharge the online batteries. The most popular PHEV currently is the Chevy Volt.

[2] I’m a Bosch guy in the shop, and I will not tolerate a single word of dissent on the matter.

[3] The fact that the BMW will have a paltry 19 mile electric range means that owners will very likely still have to stop for gasoline on a regular basis. This makes plugging in more of an additional task rather than a replacement one, and therefore one that people won’t embrace quite as often. I love plugging in my Leaf, simply because every time I do it I know I’m saving money, reducing the environmental impact of my driving, and avoiding standing at a pump filling my tank and making my hands smell like gasoline.

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