Are PHEVs The Future or Just a Transition Vehicle?

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

The 2013 Ford C-Max Energi is Ford’s first PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle).

Some industry leaders believe the plug-in hybrid electrified vehicle (PHEV) is the future for vehicles.  There are only two PHEVs on the market today, the Prius Plug-in and the C-Max Energi.  A PHEV has a drivetrain where the electric and gasoline motors power the vehicle together.  GM and BMW are either selling or developing extended range electric vehicles (EREV), such as GM’s Chevrolet Volt.  These are electric vehicles with an added gasoline generator to recharge the battery.  The generator extends the range of the electric vehicle.  Others believe these PHEV and EREV vehicles are just a step toward full adoption of the electric vehicle (BEV), like the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf.  A third alternative, the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is similar to the EREV, but the generator in a FCV uses a fuel cell that consumes hydrogen to extend the range of the vehicle.

Andrew Frank, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at UC Davis, is the father of the plug-in hybrid electrified vehicle, PHEV. Prof. Frank is the chief technology officer at Efficient Drivetrains, Inc.  According to Wheels Columnist Kelly Taylor, Prof. Frank and Mike Tinskey, director of the Ford Electric Vehicle Initiative, joined a panel discussion on electrification of vehicles hosted by Ford as part of the launch of the C-Max Energi. During the discussion, Dr Frank said, “I think the end-game is plug-in hybrids — not hydrogen, not electric,” he said. “Why? Because it’s dual fuel. … If you get a plug-in hybrid with 40 to 60 miles of EV range, you can displace 90 per cent of the fossil fuels with no loss of performance,” he said.

I’ve blogged on a Ph.D. dissertation by Baha Mohammed Al-Alawi.  In this interesting Ph.D. dissertation, “Techno-economic analysis and decision making for PHEV benefits to society, consumers, policymakers and automakers,” it states that Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles with 20 miles of electric range (PHEVs such as the C-Max Energi) are more cost effective than conventional hybrids (such as the Prius or C-Max) or ones with larger battery storage with a 60-mile range.  In addition, it states that the only way for automakers to meet the new CAFE standards is with PHEVs.  If this conclusion is correct, the C-Max Energi appears to be positioned well in the marketplace.

Another solution is the EREV.  The BMW i3 will be released as a BEV and as an EREV, like the Volt.  Anton Wahlman wrote an article for The Street recently where he noted an exception that the California board is making that could apply to the BMW i3 as an EREV.  Unlike the Volt, the “extended range” gasoline engine/tank will be very small.  It addresses the “range anxiety” that EV owners have about running out of electricity before being able to charge.  The new California rules may allow the gasoline engine to propel the car no farther than the battery and still qualify the vehicle for the White unlimited HOV Sticker.  The BMW i3 is rumored to have a 22-32 kWh battery, which should allow it to travel about 70-110 miles on a charge.  Add a small gasoline generator/tank and it could travel about 140-220 miles.  That’s decent range.  One could always buy a couple of gallons of gasoline when necessary.

I’m skeptical that pure electric vehicles (BEV), such as the Tesla or Nissan Leaf will become commonplace within the next 20-30 years.  For multiple-car families they can make a lot of financial sense today with current manufacturer and government incentives.  The big advantage for the BEV is less maintenance.  There is a huge advantage to being dual fuel though.  A PHEV, like the C-Max Energi, with a range of about 20 miles, provides a significant savings in gasoline.  The average driver spends 55 minutes a day behind the wheel and drives just 29 miles per day.  Most of these miles could be driven on battery power.  One advantage of the PHEV over the EREV is mileage range.  Another advantage is the HEV, a hybrid with a small battery and no ability to plug it in such as the Prius Liftback or C-Max Hybrid, is the most cost effective way today to improve mpg without government incentives today.  In other words, the HEV is a high mpg transition choice toward the PHEV.

At the present time, the Volt is the only EREV choice.  The problem with the Volt is it’s low to the ground and confining.  I’ve asked my wife to consider it twice and she just doesn’t like it.  She won’t even test drive it.  Today, there aren’t many choices for BEV, EREV and PHEV vehicles.  As more passenger-cargo model variations become available, the technology preference for the drivetrain will play a bigger factor.

I like the flexibility of the new Ford Michigan Assembly Plant for building cars with different drivetrains on the same assembly line.  It would be nice if Ford offered the C-Max with all the possible electrified drivetrain options.  However, with battery location in the C-Max Energi taking up so much cargo space, it’s clear there are challenges to offering one model with more than one drivetrain option even if the assembly plant can support this manufacturing method.

At the present time, the choice of models for electrified drivetrains is very limited.  With Toyota making it clear they are disappointed with electrified drivetrains other than the HEV,  it is beginning to look like Ford and Honda will be the main manufacturers making PHEVs.  Ford is shipping the C-Max Energi now and will ship the Fusion Energi next year.  Honda will ship the Accord Plug-In Hybrid next year.  It will take many years to see how the PHEV-EREV-BEV competition is resolved.  Will PHEVs be the future or are there more advantages to BEV and EREV vehicles?  What’s do you think will be the future?  If you’re trying to decide whether any of these drivetrains make sense for you, “Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Electric Vehicles” by Rebecca Matulka at the Department of Energy is a must read.


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