An Explainer on Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles: Are they better than conventional Hybrid Vehicles?

EVs are on the rise in India and the industry witnessed a whopping three-fold rise in sales in FY22 over the previous year. If we step out now, cars with green number plates have become a common sight and this explains much of the growth in the sales. But, did you know that even among EVs, there are various types that are based on propulsion?

Broadly, we can categorize them into 4 types: 1) Battery Electric Vehicles 2) Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (Hydrogen Powered) 3) Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles 4) Conventional Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Already overwhelmed by all the types? Well don’t worry, we’ll simplify them for you. Let’s first talk about Battery Electric Vehicles and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles then we’ll talk about the rest.

Battery Electric Vehicles(BEV): These are also known as pure EVs. These are the conventional EVs that generally run on lithium-ion batteries and can be plugged in for charging. These cars fully run on electricity and common examples in India are Tata Nexon EV and MG ZS EV etc.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles(FCEV): These are the typical hydrogen-powered cars and we have already talked about this here. The fuel cell converts the hydrogen from the fuel tank to electricity which propels the motor. The recently launched Toyota Mirai is a pilot project in India and it is also used to promote Green Hydrogen in the country.

Now let’s move on to the other types; the hybrid electric vehicles. The idea of hybrid cars does look quite fascinating, right? You get the best of both worlds- Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles and Electric Vehicles. Did you know that the first fully electric modern car and the first hybrid car were launched around the same time? The Toyota Prius was the first hybrid car that was launched in 1997, just some months after the launch of the first modern electric car, the EV1 by General Motors.

Though Tesla was able to quickly surpass GM in terms of EV market share, Toyota Prius became an instant hit and is still regarded as the top hybrid car in the world. The growth of Prius can be attributed to the rising fuel prices and growing concern about air pollution. Interesting to note here is that the battery used for Prius is Nickel-metal Hydride Battery or NiMH and not the Lithium-ion battery as seen in the conventional EVs.

Now in this story, we are not going to compare Hybrid cars to conventional EVs, we will talk about the difference between Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles and Conventional Hybrid Electric Vehicles. So, what exactly are the differences between a hybrid electric vehicle and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle?

Now let’s quickly understand how hybrid cars work. In addition to the internal combustion engine, a hybrid car contains one or more electric motors which draw its energy from the batteries. Now you may ask how these batteries are charged. Well, the batteries are charged by the internal combustion engine and through a process called regenerative braking. It’s basically a process where the wasted energy of slowing down a car is stored in the car’s battery.

To simply, hybrid cars have an internal combustion engine as well as an electric motor that it uses interchangeably. Now, what benefit do you get by having both? Well, it is mostly for the purpose of fuel efficiency and better fuel economy. Since the car is not only dependent on the engine, you can have a smaller engine and the loads can be divided between the motor and the engine. The motor can take auxiliary loads and reduce engine idling as well.

Now let’s address the most important question here – can we charge a hybrid car? NO. Well, the primary reason is that hybrid cars are mostly dependent on their fuel engine and the electric motor is just present to assist the engine in saving fuel. So, let’s introduce plug-in hybrid vehicles for you. These vehicles also abbreviated as PHEVs can be charged like normal EVs through a plug-in mechanism. Simply put, the plug-in hybrid vehicles run on electricity and when they are out of it, they switch to fuel.

Owing to their dependence on electricity, the PHEVs have a considerably larger battery and they only use the fuel engine when they are out of electricity. Sounds exciting right? Well, sure it does but let’s look at the current growth in the adoption of such vehicles.

The 2 most notable plug-in hybrid cars are the BMW 7 Series Plug-in Hybrid and the Volvo X90 Recharge. The prices of these two vehicles are just around Rs. 1.5 Crore. We have not seen the regular EV makers in India foray into the plug-in hybrid space.

With BEVs or Battery EVs starting to sweep the markets, shifting to a plug-in hybrid may seem to be a step back. Why? The plug-in hybrids only make sense when there’s a dearth of EV recharging infrastructure and you have to switch to a fuel engine or during long-range rides where you are not just dependent on the electric motor.

If it had to gain grounds, the perfect time would have been 2014-2018 when EVs couldn’t prosper due to a lack of recharging facilities. Due to the rapid infrastructure development now, consumers are more likely to buy a BEV rather than a PHEV and rely on an ICE for long-range drives. PHEVs only make sense now for long-range rides and it was mainly a transitionary technology from fuel to electricity.

Plug-in hybrid EVs have not clearly been shown interest by the top automakers. The ones which are there are also highly-priced for the median Indian consumer. Are they better than hybrid vehicles? Well, it all boils down to the needs and requirements of the individual customer. Both HEVs and PHEVs will be there in the market but these wouldn’t be the preferred mode of cars for the regular auto-buyers.

There will always be some buyers who will prefer a hybrid car or a plug-in hybrid and automakers will have a model or two for these categories. What we can safely say is that the regular battery EVs are getting cheaper and while they are growing, it is difficult for other EV types to compete with them!

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