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5 Plug-in Hybrid EV Myths Battery-Electric Purists Wish Were True

Some battery-electric vehicle fans are passionate about which green vehicle technology is “right” and which is “wrong.” Here are some of the myths they repeat in order to dismiss the effectiveness of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles in meeting green car buyers’ needs.
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A rift has opened in the electric vehicle world. On one side are battery-electric vehicle (BEV) EVangelists that feel any green vehicle technology but the one they prefer should be banned, ignored, or disparaged. On the other side are drivers looking for any technology that makes a meaningful impact on vehicle emissions in a cost-effective way that works well for them.

One favorite target of BEV-only crusaders is the plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV). Let’s look at some of the common myths employed by those who wish to cast one of the world’s best passenger vehicle emissions-reducing technologies in a bad light.

A little background on EVs. A battery-electric vehicle (BEV) uses just a battery-powered motor to propel the vehicle. A plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) is one that has an electric motor for all-electric driving, but also a gas engine for use when hybrid-electric driving makes more sense, or when the all-electric mode is unavailable due to its traction battery’s state of charge. Examples of battery-electric vehicles are the Chevy Bolt, the Tesla Model 3, Tesla Model Y, or Ford’s New Mustang Mach-E. Examples of PHEVs include the Toyota Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime and the upcoming Ford Escape PHEV. Some owners include the discontinued Chevy Volt in this group.

Myth One - PHEVs Have “All The Problems” of an ICE Vehicle
The most common myth that BEV EVangelists use to denigrate PHEVs is that the PHEV carries with it the baggage of old-school internal combustion engine (ICE) problems and hassles. In particular, high maintenance and repair costs, and low reliability.

This myth has been disproven by studies conducted by Consumer Reports. Owners report that PHEVs on sale today have similar cost of ownership advantages to BEVs when compared to older ICE vehicles. In fact, the PHEVs come out ahead in some cases. These studies were not theoretical. They are based on owner-reported costs for maintenance and repair. Our evaluation of the required maintenance of the Tesla Model Y vs. the Toyota RAV4 Prime reached the same conclusion based on a tally of the required maintenance each vehicle’s manufacturer recommends.

The misconception stems mainly from BEV fans preferring to ignore the advances that have been made in modern PHEV vehicle design. Most of the failure points and maintenance-intensive parts from traditional ICE vehicles have been designed out of modern PHEVs. For example, there are no drive belts in a RAV4 Prime. Nor is there a timing belt. Toyota also eliminated the starter and alternator, and all modern vehicles use electronic steering, rather than hydraulic.Toyota’s all-wheel drive system is similar in its design to how BEVs with AWD operate. There is no front to rear driveshaft, saving space, weight, and cost. Over the years that Toyota has built PHEVs, they have proven very reliable. By contrast, Tesla’s battery-electric vehicle reliability scores are mixed at best.

To point out the “silliness” of an internal combustion engine, some BEV fans will ask “How many parts are in an internal combustion engine?” The point is to imply these are all likely failure points. Yet Tesla’s most modern battery has 960 individual cells. Each of which has multiple parts.

Myth Two - Once the Battery Runs Out PHEVs Are Typical ICE Vehicles
One way BEV fans downplay the effectiveness of PHEVs in reducing energy use and emissions is by claiming that once the traction battery is depleted they are “just normal ICE vehicles.” This is incorrect on many levels.

First, the traction battery is never fully depleted. All modern hybrids of all types reserve battery power for starts and to operate their electric all-wheel drive system. By using energy recapture and in some cases, intelligent charging via the engine, PHEVs don’t revert to being your dad’s ‘72 Chevelle when the traction battery is depleted. Rather, they operate as ultra-efficient hybrid-electric vehicles with efficiency advantages of 30 to 50% beyond traditional vehicles in their class. For example, when a Prius Prime is operated as a hybrid, its MPG rating is 54 MPG. When we tested the RAV4 Prime and purposely operated it without its traction battery to gauge its efficiency as a hybrid, it returned a 45 MPG result.

Myth Three - Owners of PHEVs Don’t Charge Them, Thus They Are Not Really Green
This myth is so far from reality it is hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the many PHEV owners’ groups where owners show off their percent EV vs. gas usage. Or the posts that brag about not having to buy gas for weeks or months. The fact is, most owners of PHEVs like the Volt or RAV4 Prime will tell you that the vehicle is an electric vehicle in their day-to-day use. Yet, the plug-in hybrid technology allows these drivers to also use the vehicle on occasional long trips, eliminating the need for a second vehicle.

Myth Four - PHEVs Are More Polluting Than Carmakers Claim
This myth was started by a European advocacy publication whose goal is to end the use of liquid fuels in vehicles. A worthy goal, but the claim deserves scrutiny.

First of all, in the United States automakers do not make pollution or MPG claims. They only report what the EPA testing mandates provide as results. Automakers will sometimes make predictions about efficiency or emissions based on EPA-format testing, but the EPA and the EPA alone rates US-model vehicles for emissions and efficiency.

Automakers do participate in testing, and some have cheated on MPG-related issues in the past. Humans are often tempted to cheat for financial gain. In the case of US-spec vehicles, automakers don’t advertise any efficiency or emission claims other than what the EPA’s testing mandate will yield. Torque News maintains contacts at the EPA. Our primary contact for technology at the EPA drives a PHEV. This person is not doing so because there is some kind of trick involved.

Like all good myths, there is a nugget of knowledge behind this myth. Anti-liquid-fuel advocacy groups point to the way hybrids and PHEVs operate as a fatal flaw. They know that gas-powered vehicles require catalytic converters to reduce polluting emissions. These converters need to be hot in order to function properly. The anti-PHEV folks claim that since the PHEV's engine cycles on and off, the converters are never properly heated, thus emissions are higher than “claimed.”

The problem with this false narrative is that Toyota addressed this technical challenge before PHEVs arrived. For over a decade, hybrids like the Prius have had heat rapture technology to help warm engines and catalytic converters more rapidly than conventional vehicles. They also store this heat so a few engine cycles on a short trip don’t negate the ability of the converters to work properly. This is why the Prius earns the same perfect 10/10 EPA smog ratings as the all-electric Chevy Bolt.

In the RAV4 Prime PHEV, Toyota employs multiple technologies to ensure its gas engine operates cleanly. One of the most pertinent to this story is Warm Up Control. This technology uses an electric water pump and electric thermostat, two technologies not found in conventional engines. Employed when the engine is initially started, this system enables the RAV4 Prime to purify emissions at an earlier stage than other vehicles.

This myth also suffers from a logic problem. If the driver of a RAV4 Prime covers 40 miles in a daily commute and uses only electricity, there are zero tailpipe emissions. If another RAV4 Prime driver covers 60 miles and uses a cold engine for part of the trip, which is the emissions standard based on? Is it based on 20 miles of gas operation alone? Why would or should it be? We will let the EPA’s perfect 10/10 emissions score the RAV4 Prime earns from the EPA answer that question.

Myth Five - Once Batteries and Charge Rates Improve, PHEVs Lose Their Appeal
Battery technology has not solved the problem of EV range anxiety because the problem isn’t a fixed number. The Nissan Leaf’s range has tripled in ten years as a result of better batteries. Yet, Leaf sales went down.

The fact is, if battery range and costs improve by 50%, all types of EVs get better, including PHEVs. In the case of a RAV4 Prime, if this occurred the vehicle would have a range of 63 miles on one charge. At that point, why would anyone need or want a battery-only vehicle? The Prime would satisfy nearly everyone’s single-day needs as an EV, yet it could also go on long uninterrupted trips and never need to worry about charging hassles. As you can see, the attractiveness of PHEVs rises with improving battery technology, rather than it diminishing.

The same arguments also point to PHEVs as benefitting from faster charging technology. PHEVs can already charge from empty to full overnight using a standard 115 V outlet. If battery charging speeds improve by a whopping 2X, that will still not be true for BEVs.

In America, the US government and individual states operate diesel-burning commuter rail systems all over the map. Nearly all homes in America above the Mason-Dixon line are warmed by fossil fuels. Much of the electricity we generate is from fossil fuels. All of the aviation industry is fossil-fuel powered. The massively-polluting container ships that haul EVs from manufacturing locations to places of use are among the most carbon-intensive machines ever built. All of America’s freight is transported by diesel trucks and diesel trains. Vilifying an effective green passenger vehicle technology because it is imperfect in its current state or not one’s preference seems crazy. Particularly when the myths used to cast PHEVs in a poor light are so easily proven baseless.

John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's interest in EVs goes back to 1990 when he designed the thermal control system for an EV battery as part of an academic team. After earning his mechanical engineering degree, John completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers, in the semiconductor industry, and in biotech. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on TikTok @ToknCars, on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin

Image courtesy of Kate Silbaugh.


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Comments

You make a very good argument. I would add "Don't make the Good the enemy of the Perfect"
That sums it up!
Yeah I get really frustrated with the BEV people in my neighborhood and my community for casting aspersions at the phev crowd. I've had hybrids for the better part of the last 15 years. I currently own a Mitsubishi outlander plug-in hybrid since it was the only real four-wheel drive option available 3 years ago when I needed it. I'm able to do the vast majority of my around town commuting under electric propulsion and I charge exclusively at my house using my solar panels. but I do have a condo in the mountains that's 400 miles away (that I visit 15 to 20 times a year) so the ability to use an ice on those long trips is critical. when my wife's car comes up for replacements in the next year or so we will probably end up getting a Bev for her since we can afford to have one of each in the house.
Good to see reason, with facts to support. I meet a lot of resistance in forums when I insist that there is simply no BEV available that meets my needs. As a driver that requires a full-size truck to tow long distances (380+ miles) on a monthly one-day trip, mild hybrids and BEVs are simply incapable of meeting my needs. In my opinion, BEV trucks will certainly sell well, and have a significant market. However, they will not be capable of replacing "working trucks" for more than another decade. Range and price will be the co-limiting factors. For me, the best answer is to change our definition of a PHEV. Instead of continuing to make PHEVs an ICE-first design, with engine power to the ground, they should be made EV-first, with all drive power coming from the electric motors. (Essentially range-extended EVs.) With this design, full-size trucks would have enough battery to handle peak output of the motor(s) and a minimum range to handle daily commutes. Once the battery draws down enough, the ICE would provide enough power to handle the "average" power needs of the motor. This allows the ICE to be sized-down, run at peak efficiency, and not adjust to road conditions. An all-BEV future is coming... It just won't be tomorrow.
I like that idea. Like the Volt or i3 ER, but scaled up. That work truck design would also make a great portable generator.
I am optimistic about the Ford Maverick, it won't be a plug in(at least initially) but it is being speced with more towing capacity than my father's F150 and the ability to hit 40 mpg when not towing, while also having a lower bed so you can actually reach a tool box in it if you are less than 6'8"(it is insane that I am at or above average hight for a man in every country in the world, but I can't reach a toolbox in the bed of pretty much any modern pickup without standing on the tire)
Good to see reason, with facts to support. I meet a lot of resistance in forums when I insist that there is simply no BEV available that meets my needs. As a driver that requires a full-size truck to tow long distances (380+ miles) on a monthly one-day trip, mild hybrids and BEVs are simply incapable of meeting my needs. In my opinion, BEV trucks will certainly sell well, and have a significant market. However, they will not be capable of replacing "working trucks" for more than another decade. Range and price will be the co-limiting factors. For me, the best answer is to change our definition of a PHEV. Instead of continuing to make PHEVs an ICE-first design, with engine power to the ground, they should be made EV-first, with all drive power coming from the electric motors. (Essentially range-extended EVs.) With this design, full-size trucks would have enough battery to handle peak output of the motor(s) and a minimum range to handle daily commutes. Once the battery draws down enough, the ICE would provide enough power to handle the "average" power needs of the motor. This allows the ICE to be sized-down, run at peak efficiency, and not adjust to road conditions. An all-BEV future is coming... It just won't be tomorrow.
When BEVs can either be fully recharged in < 10 minutes for 300-600 mile range or they can drive for a full day (think road trip 600+ miles) without charge AND charging stations are everywhere (even side of the road motels), then BEVs will make sense for most people. Without those, I'll stick with a PHEV where most of my local driving is electric only, but I can still dirve a few hundred miles away and come home with a simple fill-up at a gas station.
All true. But there's one truth that needs mention: plugin hybrid vehicles combine a robust EV driving experience on short trips with the long distance driving convenience of a gasoline vehicle. When the federal tax credit is available, it does so with a net purchase price that can be lower than the respective hybrid.
Overall it would be much better if every vehicle sold was a PHEV with a good range (50 miles) than just selling a minority number of BEVs. The society would be better served with all PHEVs than some amount of BEVs as battery material constraints, fast charging, high upfront costs,etc. ... All this can alleviated with PHEVs in the near term, as transition happens over the next decade.
Exactly my thoughts. PHEVs offer flexible versatility, performance, practicality. They don't require as many batteries and address the green issues very capably. No charging infrastucture reauired if none available on long trips.
What is the worth of not needing to buy a second car because your plug-in hybrid can do local trips and long trips, lots of carbon not emitted. Ebikes are also a great replacement for second car.
Great points Vince. Watch for more e-Bike coverage here. I'm hoping to do some testing this summer.
eBikes a replacement for second cars? Not for most Americans. You can't go on highways, they're unsafe to drive after dark, unsafe in general on a road filled with distracted drivers looking at their phones (especially where I live with lots of windy roads and blind turns), unusable in bad weather, and when you get where you're going, you have to find some place to lock it up so it's not stolen.
Problem is PHEV's need regular maintanance like oil change etc at regular intervals. Reputed manufacturers like Toyota will not make a BEV's and at best make compliance cars as they generate revenues over spares/service. Infact Toyota opposed california emissions.
The Tesla Model Y and Model 3 require service every 6,250 miles or sooner. Toyota built a RAV4 EV before Tesla was in business. Drive the RAV4 Prime and tell us if you think it is a compliance car. I think you will be very surprised.
Wev'e really enjoyed our Pacifica PHEV for the last 3yrs, the majority of our driving is in town and pure EV, while we can still go on long trips to the in-laws with no hassles and lots of room, averaging 50+ MPGe overall.
This article is written by an engineer that understands practical reality. My 2009 Escape hybrid confirms all the positive points of a married ICE with electric. It just rolled past 700,000 km this past weekend. It has saved a ton of fuel-burn. Replaced brakes twice, replaced shocks once, one 12 volt battery, rear wiper motor, windshield fluid reservoir. It has been an amazing vehicle. I'd keep driving it another 300,000 km but the body-rust is getting quite bad. Was so disappointed when Ford canceled their previous generation PHEV version as that was to be my next car but... wasn't needed due to such a long lasting vehicle! Do have myself on a Toyota Rav4 Prime waitlist as it makes perfect sense to me. PHEV ALL THE WAY!!!
The problem for PHEV is cost. Imagine without tax rebate.
No need to imagine. RAV4 Primes have been selling at above MSRP for 10 months.
I am in Japan. For me, the biggest problem is the price difference. It may be that some energy is saved, but the cost is much higher. Is it that we must be willing to pay a much higher cost for travel? For example, the basic model Toyota RAV4 petrol is about ¥2,700,000 but RAV4 as PHEV is ¥4,700,000 (base model), and as a hybrid around ¥4,000,000 (base model). The break even on costs comparing the hybrid/PHV with the standard petrol, on just comparing petrol cost and distance are as follows: (Toyota-published data) Petrol 15.2 km/L Hybrid 20.6 km/L PHV 22.2 km/L (but also can travel 95km in electric mode) Current petrol price is about ¥150 per litre. The price difference between the petrol and the PHEV is about ¥2,000,000. So you would have to travel 200,000km in the petrol car to break even providing the PHEV is continuously used in electric mode (ie don’t use petrol). This does not consider the cost of electricity to charge the PHV. The price difference between the petrol and the hybrid is about ¥1,300,000, but the petrol consumption difference is only 5km/L. At 10,000 km in one year, the petrol cost advantage of the hybrid is only ¥25,000 (500 litres of petrol for the hybrid and 666 litres of petrol for the petrol engine car: the difference of 166 litres at ¥150 per litre is ¥24,900). So the break even between the standard petrol and the hybrid is ¥1,300,000 divided by ¥25,000, which gives 52 years at 10,000km per year, or 520,000km. Toyota give only a 160,000km distance guarantee on their batteries. I have only considered the running cost regarding petrol, but there are other considerations regarding the costs and carbon footprint of making the vehicle and disposing of it after use. Standard petrol cars certainly have a lower manufacturing carbon footprint than hybrid and PHEV cars. There are other factors such as differences in costs of maintenance, insurance, government subsidies that are paid for by ordinary tax payers, and so on. Thus I find that PHEV cars are a difficult choice, because considering initial price, running costs etc, they are more expensive per km than ordinary petrol cars, and although they may reduce fuel use, there is stil the factor of manufacture carbon footprint and the cost of disposal after use. My view is that we should leap straight to electric cars. There is already a wide network of possible charge points, such as current petrol stations, highway service stations, and (eg) convenience stores (especially in Japan). Currently electric cars are also very expensive due to the cost of batteries, but those prices should decrease, which will also help to reduce prices of hybrids and PHEV of course, as mentioned elsewhere in these comments. However, batteries in hybdrids and PHEVs are smaller than electric cars, so the effects of price reduction would be similarly smaller.
Thank you Egdir, for your thoughtful comment. We appreciate your input. You make very good points.
My Subaru Crosstrek hybrid is great. Don't need gas for months on end, normal commutes are all electric, and I have a full charge before I drive anywhere. I have even managed to get 25.5mi before the engine turned on! I have always gotten over 40mpg on a tank and my best is 190mpg!
this reads like Toyota paid for it. Hybrids are still crap compared to battery EVs and there is nothing anyone can say to change that.
My Prius prime goes 6 months between fill-up and then it's only 35 ltr, in car computer says 85% driving is ev and I'm getting 55km on one charge 0 such a fantastic car
How much carbon emissions does it create to build a second car? Around 24 tonnes of CO2! We own PEHV 133 mpge, ~30 miles electric and 650 miles a tank. Use one tank a year for trips! No second car needed or wanted, or cost for it!
Hi, John, thank you for your very well-reasoned article. I concur on all points. One question I did have concerns the amazing 45 mpg you tested for the Rav 4 Prime when in hybrid mode ("....without its traction battery...."). This is a substantial amount higher than the EPA value of 38 mpg. Do you have a thought about why you were able to measure 45? Or conversely, is the 38 mpg figure intentionally very conservative? Looking toward a PHEV purchase, and having narrowed it down to Prius Prime and Rav 4 Prime, both come across as awesome vehicles, but the 54 (Prius) vs. 38 (Rav 4) comparison is definitely one that makes me swallow hard (it's mostly made up for, however, with the 25 EV/Prius vs. 42 EV/Rav 4 mileages, however). If Rav 4 Prime truly is a 45 mpg vehicle in hybrid mode, that difference between it and Prius Prime is substantially smaller. Look forward to your thoughts.
What is the Carbon Footprint of building the 2nd car you don't need to buy with the BEH? 6 to 10 tons.