Why EVs won’t replace hybrid cars anytime soon
The end could be near for cars as we know them.
To limit global warming to 1.5 degC, the 2015 international Paris climate agreement set 2050 as a worldwide deadline to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions. Gas-powered cars will be off the road by then. And since cars typically have a lifetime of 15 to 20 years, reaching net zero in 2050 would likely mean no new production of gas-powered cars after about 2035.
Several major car companies, including GM and Volvo, have announced plans to produce only electric cars by or before 2035, in anticipation of the transition. However, not all automakers agree on this.
Notably, Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, has emphasized that it plans to offer a range of options, including hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, instead of focusing exclusively on electric vehicles. According to MIT Technology Review, a Toyota spokesperson stated that the company’s focus is on reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible and not how many vehicles it can sell.
The company continues to release new hybrid vehicles, including plug in hybrids that can drive short distances using electricity and a small battery. In November, Toyota announced the 2023 edition of its Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid.
Some environmental groups have criticized the company’s slow approach to EVs. They argue that all-electric vehicles are necessary to achieve zero emissions. The sooner we can do this, the better.
But in recent interviews, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has raised doubts about just how fast the auto industry can pull a U-turn on fossil fuels, calling the US target of making EVs reach half of new car sales by 2030 a “tough ask.” While Toyota plans for EV sales to reach 3.5 million by 2030 (or 35% of its current annual sales), the company also sees hybrids as an affordable option customers will want, and one that can play a key role in cutting emissions.
A tale of two hybrids
Two different categories of vehicles are referred to as hybrids. The small battery in conventional hybrid electric vehicles helps to recharge the engine’s gas-powered motor. This is similar to how a brake system would capture energy. They can only drive a few miles on their battery power and they are slow. The battery is used to increase gas mileage and provide additional torque. The most well-known traditional hybrid vehicle is the Toyota Prius.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, have a battery about 10 times larger than the one in a traditional hybrid, and that battery can be plugged in and charged using electricity. Plug-in hybrids can typically run 25 to 50 miles on electricity, switching over to their gasoline engine for longer distances. The Prius Prime, introduced in 2012, is a plug-in hybrid.
Conventional hybrids are more common in the US that all-electric or plug–in hybrid vehicles. However, electric vehicles have seen a rapid rise in sales over the past few years.
Hybrid vehicles are a straightforward story when it comes to climate effects: switching from a fully gas-powered vehicle to a hybrid version of the same model will mean reducing emissions about 20% while driving.
Plug-in hybrids or EVs can make a significant impact on reducing emissions, but it can be difficult to determine how much. The answer largely depends on driving and charging habits, says Georg Bieker, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
Electric vehicles produce less carbon emissions over their lifetime than their gas-powered counterparts. A significant portion of an EV’s emissions can be attributed to manufacturing, particularly the production of their batteries. The electricity used to charge EVs’ batteries also affects their total emissions.
EVs in the US correspond to between 60% and 68% lower lifetime emissions than gas-powered vehicles. In Europe, savings are higher, between 66% and 69%. In China, where the grid is powered by a higher fraction of highly polluting coal power, cuts are lower, between 37% and 45%.
The gap between EVs, and gas-powered cars is expected to widen as the grid becomes more renewable and less dependent on fossil fuels like coal. For example, EVs that hit the road in China in 2030 could produce 64% less in lifetime emissions than a gas car, compared with a maximum saving of 45% today.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles can offer significant emissions savings too: as much as 46% (compared with gas-powered vehicles) in the US.
The difference in climate impact of plugin hybrids between the US market and other countries is largely due to driving habits. The US has higher fuel consumption so switching to electric will have a greater impact.
Driving and charging habits are the core of the debate about plug-in hybrids. The vehicles’ climate effects depend on how they are used. The vehicles can run on electricity for the majority of their mileage in ideal cases. Most new plug-in hybrids today have a range of between 30 and 50 miles on electricity, which is enough for many people’s daily commuting needs, says David Gohlke, an energy and environment analyst at Argonne National Laboratory.
“I’m not necessarily a representative example of how someone uses the vehicle, but my plug-in hybrid is an electric vehicle for nine months of the year,” Gohlke says. He plugs his vehicle in every day when he returns home. This usually gives him enough power to get to work. He says that cold weather can reduce the range so he uses more gasoline in winter.
The driving habits of plug-in hybrid drivers can vary greatly. “There’s a large gap between what is assumed in regulation and what the real performance looks like,” says Zifei Yang, head of light-duty vehicles at the ICCT. While some official EU estimates assume that drivers use electricity about 70 to 85% of the time, self-reported data show that the share for personal cars is closer to 45 to 50%. Drivers in the US have similar charging habits.
The road forward
In the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act in the US, new tax credits apply to both plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, provided they meet requirements on price and domestic manufacturing.
But in major markets, policy pushes favor electric vehicles over plugs. Germany and other European countries are starting to eliminate subsidies for plug-in hybrids. In China, subsidies for plug-in vehicles are lower than those for electric vehicles, and they require a minimum electric range of around 50 miles, Yang says.
The policies reflect a variety of consumer attitudes. In particular, many Americans still hesitate to buy EVs.
Concerns about range and lack of charging are two of the top reasons why Americans wouldn’t consider electric vehicles, according to Mark Singer, a researcher from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He says that some consumers are more open to plug-in hybrids than electric vehicles because of these concerns.
In the US, there are just over 6,000 fast charging stations, and about 50,000 total locations that house EV chargers, as of the end of 2021. By comparison, there are about 150,000 fuel stations for gas-powered cars. Many drivers still have concerns about charging access, especially on interstate highways where only 6% are located.
Today, drivers can travel hundreds of miles to reach fast charging stations, especially in rural areas. The situation is rapidly changing: the number of charging stations in the US has doubled in the past few years. Federal funding will continue to support this network’s growth.
The transition from internal-combustion engines is well underway. EV sales continue to grow: they hit 10% of global sales in 2022. The picture isn’t the same everywhere, though: China saw nearly double the global average, at 19%, and the US lags behind at 5.5%.
The EU recently banned new sales of gas-powered cars, including plug-in hybrids and anything else that can burn fossil fuels, starting in 2035. California and New York enacted similar bans that also take effect in 2035, though sales of some plug-in hybrids will still be allowed there.
Transportation’s decarbonization won’t look the same everywhere. It remains to be seen how plug-in hybrids will fit into this transition, especially in the short term and in markets that have not yet passed strict regulations regarding future vehicle sales.
Even though hybrids don’t contribute to aspirational climate goals, some people may still choose to drive them, at least in the near future. Toyota, for example, believes that consumers will accept plug-in hybrids as well as conventional hybrid models. It’s not hard to argue that the largest automaker in the world doesn’t know how cars sell.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.