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the road ahead

Sometimes, zero-emissions isn’t exactly zero-emissions.

Ottawa has a target for 100 per cent of new cars to be zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) by 2035.

But that doesn’t mean all new cars should be powered solely by batteries or hydrogen by then. That number includes plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) that run on gas and produce CO2. So why should a ZEV goal include PHEVs?

“We will have to think about some of these solutions that will be needed for rural and remote communities,” said Joanna Kyriazis, a senior policy adviser at Clean Energy Canada. “We may be seeing [PHEVs] playing an important role there.”

The PHEVs sold in Canada right now have batteries with range varying from 24 to 98 km. They switch to gas when the battery runs out. To recharge the batteries to full, you have to plug them in.

A 2020 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that, in real-world use, PHEVs fuel consumption and CO2 emissions were two to four times more than what car companies showed in official tests.

That’s mainly because some drivers, especially drivers in commercial fleets, don’t keep them fully charged.

“It’s true they perform much worse in real life than they’re supposed to because more kilometres end up being driven using the gas tank than was predicted,” Kyriazis said.

Could PHEVs slow the transition to EVs?

PHEVs still appeal to buyers who are on the fence about EVs or who regularly drive longer distances through areas without many chargers.

They’re considered “a gateway drug” to EVs, said Cara Clairman, president and CEO of Plug n’ Drive, a not-for-profit that promotes EVs.

“What tends to happen is that they get a full EV the next time,” Clairman said. “So it’s a good bridge for people.”

When it comes to plug-in hybrid range, is more always better?

Why do automakers place electric-vehicle charging ports on the driver’s side instead of the passenger side?

However, most of us will, on average, keep a new car for the next 10 to 15 years that means PHEVs will be on the road for a while.

“When I speak with people who purchased a PHEV, they regret not going fully electric,” Kyriazis said.

But do PHEVs muddy the market? With PHEVs around, might who’d consider buying a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) choose a PHEV instead, just because of range anxiety?

Kyriazis doesn’t think so.

“I think that may be a moot point because consumers are jumping straight into battery electric,” she said.

BEVs are outselling PHEVs now – and that should only increase car companies offer more EVs, including upcoming SUVs and trucks.

“Canadian consumers and carmakers are already leapfrogging PHEVs altogether,” Kyriazis said. “Last year nearly three-quarters of new EVs sold were battery electric.”

Policies may change

Kyriazis predicts that automakers will make fewer PHEVs as demand for increase rises.

“Carmakers have to follow demand and, looking at sales trends, demand is for fully electric,” Kyriazis said.

But if they don’t stop making PHEVs, Ottawa can look at adjusting its policy.

That will likely have to happen anyway. There are already concerns that current federal policies aren’t enough to meet the 2035 target.

“In the future as we cut emissions more and more, we’ll get more nit-picky,” Kyriazis said. “In the next five years, we’ll start to see government policies phasing out PHEVs.”

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