In the old days, cars came with a gasoline engine and trucks with a diesel engine. Those days of a single choice are long gone. Now there are hybrids, PHEVs, and BEVs on the road.
Wait, what? What are these acronyms and new-fangled vehicles, and why should you care about them?
A hybrid-powered car has both a gasoline and an electric motor under the hood to power the wheels. It uses a combination of the two – hence “hybrid” – to find the best balance at any given time of power and fuel efficiency. The car charges the electric motor as it drives, taking friction from the wheels and brakes as a form of dynamo, and then uses the electric power to boost the regular engine.
Perhaps the best-known hybrid car is the Toyota Prius, introduced more than 20 years ago and now in its fourth generation. Its first version would only use the electric motor to supplement the gas engine, which always had to run to drive the wheels. The second generation allowed the Prius to drive for short distances at slower speeds completely on the electric motor, switching off the gas engine to use no fuel. Each of the later generations can drive farther and faster on electric power alone.
Some hybrid engines in performance cars use the electric motor primarily to boost the power, but most use it to replace the gasoline engine for short distances, saving fuel as they do.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)
More complicated (and so, more expensive), a plug-in hybrid also has two power plants under the hood: There’s a gas engine and an electric motor, but the motor can be charged by plugging in to a regular household power supply. This removes any drain on the gas engine for recharging, and saves even more fuel.
Only a couple of years ago, there were just a handful of PHEVs on the road, but now, almost every manufacturer offers one, usually as a variation on an existing model. For example, Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV sport utility vehicle, new this year, has a smaller four-cylinder gas engine than the “regular” Outlander, but it’s supplemented by an electric motor for either adding power (when your foot is hard on the throttle) or relieving the strain to save fuel (when you’re driving at a steady speed). It also has a second electric motor for driving the rear wheels, since this is an all-wheel drive SUV.
Like all PHEVs, the Outlander can recharge its batteries while driving, or it can be plugged in to an outside power supply to recharge from the grid. It has an all-electric range of just 35 kilometres, but that might be enough for your commute. You can choose whether to drive it under electric power alone (for example, if you’re in city traffic) or both, or even under only gas power, to save your electric motor for when you reach the city.
The drawback is that all the extra technology costs money. The Outlander PHEV costs $43,000, but the conventionally-powered Outlander in an equivalent trim is about $10,000 less expensive. That’s a lot of outlay to save some gas.
Battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs)
A true electric vehicle has only an electric motor and a large stack of batteries to power it. It can only be recharged by plugging into an outside power supply. Its advantages are that you’ll never need to buy gasoline, and it’s quiet and smooth and easy to drive. There are no gears, and it can be astonishingly quick: You don’t rev the engine to build power, but just put your foot on the throttle.
The disadvantages are, once again, the extra cost of the new technology, and the inconvenience of recharging the batteries. It takes a long time to recharge such a lot of available power – about a day for most EVs if they’re just plugged into a regular 110-volt outlet, for perhaps a couple of hours of driving. “Range anxiety” is the big issue: Nobody wants to be stranded beside the road with flat batteries. You can’t just go get a jerry can of electricity, after all.
Today’s EVs travel much farther than before on a full charge – the best-selling Nissan Leaf is rated for 243 kilometres, while the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will travel 400 kilometres or more. Charging is considerably faster at a 240-volt plug (the standard supply in Europe and much of the world), which can be installed at home if you have the space for it, or found at more and more commercial outlets. Plug in each night and you’ll always have a full charge. And on the road, a 480-volt “fast charger” will do the job in less than an hour.