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When is an electric car not an electric car?

Phrases marketing like "extended range electric vehicle" serve a marketing purpose while creating confusion about the meaning of phrases like "electric car", "plug-in hybrid," and can lead to poor decisions by misinformed car purchasers.


I drive an electric car, not one of the new electric cars from a major manufacturer, but a home built electric conversion of a classic car. My 1971 Karmann Ghia is extremely well restored and catches a lot of attention, after which people notice it's also an electric car, which gives them a whole new level of appreciation for the car. Almost every time I drive this car someone will approach and start asking questions. Today's questions included one about "fuel efficiency" of the car, and when I answered this car does not take "gallons", she exclaimed "Oh, it's an all electric car like a Chevy Volt?" Ignoring the inner sigh, I mumbled "yes" and, because I was blocking traffic, drove away.

The problem is that the Chevy Volt, while an excellent car, it is not an all electric car. Technically the Volt is a plug-in hybrid, but GM muddies the waters by insisting on the phrase "extended range electric vehicle" (EREV). Enough are confused that it's worth going over the distinction between an all electric car, and a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt. The confusion is not just among the random passerby, but extends to "journalists" for some major news outlets, one of whom published an article over the weekend claiming the Prius Plug-in is an all-electric car when in fact it is a plug-in hybrid.

An all electric car (AEV) or battery electric car (BEV) has only an electric drive train, and uses batteries to store electricity. These cars of course plug into some kind of electrical outlet to recharge. My Karmann Ghia plugs into regular power outlets, or through a converter box, can charge at a J1772 charging station. In the era before manufactured electric cars were available, those of us who wanted electric cars had to build our own by converting gasoline powered cars. Manufactured electric cars include the Coda electric car, the Ford Focus Electric, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Model S.

Generally hybrid cars combine two (or more) sorts of power systems into one vehicle. The popular hybrid cars combine either a diesel or gasoline engine, with an ingenious transmission, to an electric motor and battery pack, allowing the car to shift back and forth between electric drive power, and fossil fuel drive power. There are several variations on hybrid cars.

The normal hybrid car (HEV), like the Toyota Prius, does not allow the car owner to recharge the battery pack from the electrical grid. Every joule of energy sent to the wheels ultimately comes from burning gasoline. The hybrid drive train is there mostly to increase the efficiency of gasoline use, but does nothing to erase the need for gasoline.

A plug-in hybrid car (PHEV) is organized a little differently in that the battery pack is larger, and can be independently charged from the electrical grid. This means you can drive some distance, determined by the size of the battery pack, purely on electricity and not burn any gasoline. With care you can extend the electric-only driving quite a ways, with some Chevy Volt owners spending months between going to the gasoline station to buy gas.

General Motors, in its infinite wisdom, muddies the water a bit by insisting the Chevy Volt is an "electric car" with a range extending gasoline engine/generator. This is a very pragmatic choice on GM's part, and clearly the Chevy Volt's strong sales indicate it was a strategically wise move. GM's marketing effort notwithstanding, the Volt combines two sorts of power systems into one vehicle, and the car can be plugged in to recharge the battery pack, making it a plug-in hybrid. Indeed the EPA sticker for the Volt says "plug-in hybrid," and likewise on the Volt is shown alongside the Fisker Karma and the Toyota Prius Plug-in, all of which are plug-in hybrids. Fisker Automotive, to muddy the waters even further, created yet another phrase, "electric vehicle with extended range" (EVER) to describe their plug-in hybrid drive train.

Another word which confuses some is "electrified", a word invented by Ford Motors to describe any vehicle with "electrification" features. The usage of the term applies to every drive train type from "mild hybrid" to "plug-in hybrid" to "all electric" (battery electric) vehicles. The words "electrified" and "electrification" are useful to Ford to describe the company's overall strategy of working with a variety of drive train technology developments in parallel. However some get confused by the word and think that Ford's projection that in 2020 electrified vehicles will represent 20% of the company's sales, that means 20% of Ford's vehicles will be electric. No, it's that 20% will be electrified. These are different words, with different meanings.

We want to be using the correct words, to contribute to a better understanding of the things we talking about. Using one phrase like "extended range electric vehicle" for a widget with a well known description like "plug-in hybrid vehicle" simply causes confusion. There are significant distinctions between a plug-in hybrid and an all electric car, and those confused over these distinctions could make poor decisions. There is a parallel here to the "Label GMO's" movement, in that by labeling those foods which contain GMO's we can be better informed on the distinction between one kind of food and another kind of food. We are talking about two kinds of efficient electrified cars, and by being better informed about the distinction between the types of electrified cars we can make better decisions on which to buy.

For a comprehensive list of green transportation acronyms see: Vehicle type acronyms


Mark (not verified)    July 10, 2012 - 12:32AM

Although it muddies the waters further and although I'm a PEV purist being a LEAF driver, the distinction between a PHEV like the Volt and one like the Prius Plug-in Hybrid is substantial. The Volt, under all normal driving circumstances will not start its internal combustion engine (ICE) in its first 35 miles. After the battery pack is depleted, the ICE will come on, but only (again under normal driving circumstances) to generate electricity for the electric motor. On the other hand, the Prius uses its ICE in normal driving like under heavy acceleration or above 62 mph. For folks who want to use as little gasoline as possible but can't live with a BEV, the distinction is important. Of course to muddy things further, since the Prius is so much more efficient in hybrid operation than the Volt, folks who drive fewer than its 13 mile range or further than about 75 miles daily will use less gas with the Prius. The Volt excels in the middle range.

Nicolas Zart    July 10, 2012 - 1:10PM

In reply to by cwerdna (not verified)

There are many ways to move a plug-in hybrid, whether it's through a pure parallel system where the gasoline engine and electric motor spin the wheels or in a series configuration where only the electric motor spins the wheels, relegating the gasoline engine to a generator. Mutsibishi is about to come out with the best of both world where its new Outlander PHEV will do both, S-PHEV and P-PHEV. None the less, they are plug-in hybrids and fall under the category of hybrids.

GM discredits itself by calling its great Volt an electric car. It has two source of energy, a battery pack and a gasoline engine with a gas tank, therefore it is a hybrid. In fact, it is a Series and Parallel PHEV. We can call beige off-white, it still doesn't change the fundamental and principle of the drive system. It only confuses potential clients.

I saw the same article from a reporter who called the Prius PHEV an all-electric car. Sigh!

In the meantime, I still see people go up to a full-electric car, like the Leaf or Focus Electric and ask where the gasoline engine is. Marketing has to reflect reality and appeal to people, not distort it. It's counter-productive calling an electric car with an extended range. It's technically an oxymoron :)

Don Bain    July 10, 2012 - 1:04PM

Which brings up another point. How to distinguish between Plug-in Hybrids with engines that drive wheels and engines that only generate electricity - they are two different animals and the latter is far more efficient.

ViperRT10Matt (not verified)    July 11, 2012 - 4:08PM

In reply to by Don Bain

Nope. Converting mechanical energy to electricity, and then electricity back to mechanical energy, is most certainly NOT more efficient than driving the wheels directly. In fact it's about 15% worse, which is why the Volt is engineered to drive the wheels directly above 62mph when the gas engine is running.

John Carroll (not verified)    July 10, 2012 - 2:18PM

As a Volt owner of 7 months, working as an engineer for the last 17 years, I've learned almost all there is to know about the Volt.
It's not even close to being a hybrid. I've gone over 5000 miles on a 10 gallon tank of gasoline. No hybrid comes close when operated in the "100 miles per day" mode, charging multiple times per day.
I have a 42-44 mile (depending on route) commute 5 days a week, and charge both ways. I usually make it all the way electric, at the speed limit (or above:)).
Bottom line in MY case is a fuel cost savings of over $500 monthly, because of my high miles and charging both ways. Hybrids cant touch this.
This vehicle IS AN EV when it's battery range is not exceeded - and I can get 50 miles out of mine if I choose to...
I've had access to the GM trainers and engineer a few times and I've been taught that there is NEVER mechanical energy transmitted to the drivetrain by the ICE - it ONLY turns the generator. Yes, I've seen diagrams that seem to indicate otherwise, but I also have the experience of operating on the ICE - there's NO corrolation between engine RPM and "road speed".

David Herron    July 11, 2012 - 12:46PM

In reply to by John Carroll (not verified)

Yes, I hang out with enough Volt owners to know that some have arranged things such that they can drive EV only for the vast majority of their driving. That doesn't change the fact that the Volt has two sorts of power systems on-board, and doesn't change the fact that the EPA label reads "Plug-in Hybrid".

Nicolas Zart    July 11, 2012 - 2:49PM

In reply to by David Herron

The definition of a hybrid is that of having two sources of energy. The volt is a hybrid, it's not an electric car. It has a gasoline engine and a battery pack with an electric motor. both gasoline engine and electric motor spin the wheels, therefore it is a hybrid, albeit, a great one.

Most dictionaries define hybrid power as suh:
"A hybrid vehicle is a vehicle that uses two or more distinct power sources to move the vehicle.[1] The term most commonly refers to hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), which combine an internal combustion engine and one or more electric motors."

I've been covering electric cars and hybrids for 6 years and saw people getting confused right when some companies started calling plug-in hybrids electric cars. Why can't we call the Volt what it is, a great plugin hybrid? Is a plugin hybrid a bad thing all the sudden for GM? Then what do we call real electric cars? Plug in electric vehicles? It's silly and confuses people. Plus, when people start to see the differences it reinforces the negative image they have of the company, that same image it is trying to shed. It's a convoluted way to deal with something instead of just saying:"Hey guys, we have a great plugin hybrid that can go 40 miles or so on electricity alone".

Anonymous (not verified)    July 10, 2012 - 3:55PM

There is another hybrid category that thankfully has not been pushed in the market enough to also add to the muddying of the EV vs hybrid waters.

A mild or micro hybrid is actually not much of either, but another way for automakers to cheaply squeeze another mpge out of their gas-guzzlers. It usually involves adding a start-stop mechanism to the ice (gas engine) that allows the ice to stop (turn-off) at red lights, and instantly start up again at the green light when the foot is taken off the brake pedal. Turning your own key on and off is about the same thing but the normal ice starter is not designed to last than long for that constant type of use.

I strongly suggest that the public should never rely on the media for anything other than entertainment. To really know some topic, the public should go to people who use that item(s). In this case, to know the pros and cons of EVs, the public should talk to the members at their nearest EAA chapter or EV group or association. Those people are daily drivers and know their stuff without any monetary bias. {}

David Herron    July 11, 2012 - 12:48PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Bruce, long time no see. I agree completely about the EAA chapters, I've gone to my local EAA chapter for over 10 years. It's possible nowadays to do something different than just wring your hands over how the Media is not to be trusted. You can become the Media, like I have done.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 10, 2012 - 7:10PM

A couple of words to describe the Volt would be:

- Compromise
- Bridge Technology

The same words could be used to describe hybrids.

The "difference" is that the Volt is that is a much BETTER compromise and a much BETTER bridge technology.

The Volt allows people to reduce their gasoline consumption as close to 100% as possible without the current EV limitations of charge times and limited range, and without compromising performance. That is "one heck of an accomplishment".

Who cares if you call it an EV or hybrid or PHEV or EREV. Just acknowledge the Volt is simply BETTER.

David Herron    July 11, 2012 - 12:54PM

In reply to by Dave - Phoenix (not verified)

Yes, what matters most is that better cars are in the hands of more people. Maybe the groupthink of society needs to have this transition point so that the groupthink can become accustomed to a different fuel, while having a method to cling to gasoline because that's seen as safe.

I wrote this in a perhaps futile effort to get more accuracy on the phrases we use to describe the vehicles. Whether we're using the phrases accurately is a separate thing from whether or not the Volt is a BETTER compromise.

Whether the Volt is a BETTER compromise as you say is, I think, a matter of personal perspective and goals and circumstances.

Also - there is the matter of the Tesla Model S which also helps people reduce gasoline consumption, without current EV limitations. Its capabilities blow right through EV limitations, into a whole new realm of EV capabilities. If you can afford the purchase price, that is.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 11, 2012 - 7:17PM

In reply to by David Herron

It is true that it is up to the individual whether the Volt (or any EV) is the right solution, but............

as far "compromises" go in dealing with the limitations of a pure BEV, I still would have to put the Volt at the top of the list....

Tesla "reduced" the limitations (for a price), by building an EV with range of over 200 miles, but they did not eliminate the limitation of long charge times. It takes 1 KWH to go 4 miles, so when you use up 200 miles of range, you have to put 50 KWH back into the battery to be able to go another 200 miles. That takes a very long time even with fast charging (in the few places you can find fast charging).

Here's an example of where the Volt is a BETTER compromise....

I took a road trip in my Volt from Phoenix to LA last weekend, and drove 900 miles without ever plugging it in. I could not have done that in a Tesla, or any pure BEV. The compromise is that I used gas, but I still got nearly 40 mpg and never had to worry about where to find a charging station, so it was still a pretty good compromise.

Now I could do the same thing in a hybrid, or ICE vehicle, so what's the big deal???? The big deal is that I will probably not buy gas again until the "next" time I take a long road trip, which may be months from now. I have gone as long as 3 months without putting any gas in my Volt, and the reason was because I did not go out of town for 3 months.

A hybrid or even a diesel is a good compromise for long trips which is usually about 10% of most people's driving.

The Volt is a good compromise for the other 90% of people's driving; the daily commute and in-town driving...

Anonymous (not verified)    July 13, 2012 - 2:45PM

In reply to by Dave - Phoenix (not verified)

Actually that very long charge time in the Tesla is only about 1 hour. 50% charge on one of Teslas charger in 30 mins . Not too long too wait as you have your lunch or dinner and you are back out on the road. So, guess the excuse of a tesla doesn't work for that one.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 13, 2012 - 6:04PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

"IF" you find a suitable location to charge along your route that can deliver that level of charging.

Even if you find that charge location, waiting 1 hour to charge is still an issue. on long trips, for every 3 hours of driving, you must spend 1 hour charging.

......and that is "only" in the very high priced Tesla that this is possible. None of the other BEV's on the market can currently charge in that time.

Any way you slice it..... it takes 50KWH of electricity to go 200 miles and it takes a lot of time, effort and equipment to put 50 KWH of electricity back into the battery...

This does not mean I don't like EV's. I love them. They are capable of meeting 90% of my driving needs even with today's limitations......

.........But I am aware that long charge time is, and will continue to be, a limitation for EV's for quite some time. The Chevy Volt is specifically designed to overcome this limitation.

Rich (not verified)    July 16, 2012 - 6:35AM

The Volt is an EREV, the PHEV Prius is not. It's not GM trying to muddy things up, it is the Federal Government and I think it is a useful clarification: H-EV Vehicles are certified using the US06 drive cycle, or FTP (Federal Test Procedure). If a vehicle can complete the US06 drive cycle as an EV then it is an EV, but of course an EV with a range extender needs to be differentiated from a BEV (don't you agree?). The Volt can do the US06 cycle as an EV, the Prius PHEV cannot. Case closed. As far as the Government is concerned, based upon its FTP, the Volt is NOT a hybrid, the Prius and others of its ilk are. As for confusion, I have been making presentations about these technologies to the public for years and have found that once all this is explained, most people get it.

Nicolas Zart    July 16, 2012 - 1:34PM

In reply to by Rich (not verified)

Again, it defies any dictionary's definition of hybrid. Hybrid has two sources of energy. The Volt is a Series/Parallel plug-in hybrid. An electric car has a battery pack, period, regardless government lingo In the end, people are confused and it serves no purpose calling an plug-in hybrid an extended range EV.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 16, 2012 - 4:12PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

Trying to use a generic dictionary definition to describe a Volt limits us. Any joining of two technologies could be called a hybrid according to the dictionary. I have hybrid golf clubs...

The fact that the Volt is designed to operate as a fully functioning EV for 40 miles at all speeds does justify using "EV" in the name/description. Many BEV's, especially ones made with EV kits, have an EV range less than 40 miles.

The Prius Plugin Hybrid, by design, uses the gas engine any time the situation calls for it. The PIP is not designed to operate exclusively as an EV at all speeds. It is designed to act as a hybrid even when the battery is fully charged. This is a very big distinction, and why the Prius Plugin Hybrid is appropriately called a hybrid, and why the Volt is called an EREV.

David Herron    July 16, 2012 - 6:21PM

In reply to by Dave - Phoenix (not verified)

Yes - I sometimes jokingly refer to my electric bicycle as a human-electric-hybrid ..

However, in the case of the Volt, the industry already had phrases that adequately described the characteristics of that car. PHEV (Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and Series Hybrid.

It's GM that went and invented new terminology.

The industry already had adequate terminology.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 17, 2012 - 2:06AM

In reply to by David Herron

Sure terms like PHEV and series hybrid already existed, but the Chevy Volt didn't......

By building a vehicle that is like no other vehicle on the market, GM earned naming rights to call it whatever they wanted.

Folks trying to label the Volt using existing terms are ignoring the fact that the Volt is the only vehicle of its kind currently in production.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 17, 2012 - 2:07AM

In reply to by David Herron

Sure terms like PHEV and series hybrid already existed, but the Chevy Volt didn't......

By building a vehicle that is like no other vehicle on the market, GM earned naming rights to call it whatever they wanted.

Folks trying to label the Volt using existing terms are ignoring the fact that the Volt is the only vehicle of its kind currently in production.

Dave - Phoenix (not verified)    July 17, 2012 - 5:41PM

In reply to by Nicolas Zart

The best description is that the Prius PHEV "might" drive solely on electricity for up to 13 miles. It is still designed to use a combination of electricity and gasoline (at any time) to get the most efficient propulsion possible. We can all agree that the Volt "not" designed like this, so why should it have the same name?

As far as series hybrid.....

A better example of a series hybrid is a Diesel Electric Locomotive. The diesel engine generates electricity which is applied directly to an electric motor to drive the train. There is no battery in this topology so the train cannot move if the engine is not running. The reason for this design is that the instant torque of the electric motor helps the train to move more quickly than a straight diesel engine could.....Once again.....The Volt is not designed like this, so why should it have the same name?

The Volt is conceptually an improved EV1 with a Lithium battery and a range extender added.

GM did not invent the term "range extender" with the Volt. GM already had a device that they called a range extender that was used with the EV1 for testing. It was a generator on a trailer that was cabled to the EV1 charge port. Turn the generator switch on and it recharged the EV1 battery to allow the EV1 to continue to operate indefinitely without stopping to recharge. This allowed GM to test the EV1 24 X 7.

GM "actually considered" putting the range extender in the EV1, but decided against it, going for a pure EV instead. Who knows how much differently things might have turned out if they did....

With the Chevy Volt, GM learned their lesson and added the range extender/generator. They simply took the range extender off the trailer and put it under the hood.

So...... GM did not invent the term EREV just to be different than a PHEV or series hybrid. EREV describes exactly what GM designed when they built the Volt.

Nicolas Zart    July 18, 2012 - 12:37PM

In reply to by Dave - Phoenix (not verified)

Yes, we have been making hybrid locomotive since the late 30s and the reason why it's called "hybrid" is that it has a diesel engine and electric motors. Thus the definition "hybrid".

The regular Prius, not the PHEV also uses an electric motor and according to your definition should also be an "electric vehicle", since after all, it also runs on electricity alone, albeit for a little while at slow speed.

The point is moot. A vehicle that has two sources of energy, an electric motor and a gasoline engine is a hybrid. If you can recharge the battery pack, it becomes simply a plug-in hybrid. An extended range electric vehicle is an oxymoron. It's electric or not. It doesn't matter if its a Series or parallel layout. It's just that simple and it takes away any confusion people have. But as long as GM uses the money graceously donated to lobby governments to accept the twisted definition of EREV, so it goes.

David Herron    July 16, 2012 - 6:10PM

In reply to by Rich (not verified)

@Rich - The existing term in the industry at the time GM designed the Volt is "PHEV". That term has existed for a long time and is a well known acronym/phrase. Additionally, the Chevy Volt is also described as a Series Hybrid, another term with a long history.

EREV is a term invented by GM's marketing department. The company obviously needed a way to claim they'd built an electric car because everybody sees GM as the killer of the electric car thanks to a certain movie. Hence they invented EREV so they could call the Volt an electric car, when the existing terms in the industry are PHEV and Series Hybrid.

As for whether the Government thinks the Volt is a PHEV ... take a look at the EPA sticker. Take a look at fueleconomy.GOV .. both say the Volt is a PHEV.