Why the humble hybrid vehicle isn’t going anywhere yet

In the first nine months of the year, drivers bought almost 2 million hybrids, a 45 per cent increase year-on-year

Employees work on the production line at the Bentley Motors Ltd.  headquarters in Crewe, UK, on Wednesday, Dec.  7, 2022.  Bentley plans to offer only plug-in hybrid and electric cars by 2026 and switch its entire lineup to fully battery-powered vehicles by the end of the decade.  Photographer: Chris J.  Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
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At 78, Jim Beermann realises his carbon footprint will be zero sometime in the not-too-distant future. He’s just hoping to keep it relatively low in the meantime. So Beermann was frustrated to find that his senior centre in Juno Beach, Florida, doesn’t have electric vehicle chargers or plans to build them any time soon.

Like many people on the cusp of EV adoption, Beermann bought himself a hybrid instead. In a typical week, he drives his 2019 Ford Fusion — a plugless car — about 140 miles and uses fewer three gallons of petrol. “More than anything it’s the footprint I’m leaving,” he says. “I appreciate the fact that I’m using less gasoline … and the fact that I’m not using the car a lot is also reducing my footprint.”

The humble hybrid vehicle, long considered a half-step on the road to electrified transport, is sticking around longer than many anticipated, as carmakers work out the kinks on manufacturing full EVs at scale and consumers deal with sticker shock. In the first nine months of the year, drivers around the world bought almost 2 million hybrid vehicles, a 45 per cent increase from the year-earlier period, according to BloombergNEF. Full EVs are far more popular — they outsell hybrids at a pace almost three to one — but the two technologies have accelerated in parallel. Over the past three years, EV sales are up almost five-fold, while hybrid sales have quadrupled.

For many drivers, it appears, a few electric miles are enough — and certainly better than none at all.

For carmakers, hybrids present a pragmatic way to dip a toe into electrification and capitalise on the wide swath of drivers who are both EV-curious and EV-sceptical. While a fully electric vehicle requires dedicated architecture to accommodate a massive battery, engineers can easily tuck away the smaller power plant found in most hybrids. That means almost any car can be hybridised without too much additional cost. Three of the most popular BMW models, for example, come in a full-petrol or a plug-in version that can manage up to 48km entirely on electrons. The story is similar at Hyundai, where two of the best-selling models can be bought in three fuel forms: fuel, plugless hybrid or a more robust plug-in hybrid.

Toyota, in particular, is capitalising on the trend: one quarter of the vehicles it sold globally this year have both a petrol engine and an electric motor. The company has unveiled the fifth iteration of its Prius, 25 years after the car first appeared.

Toyota is keeping a hybrid-heavy lineup in part because it expects battery materials and charging infrastructure to remain scarce for at least the coming decade. “We need to employ systems thinking,” Gill Pratt, Toyota’s chief scientist, recently told Bloomberg. “Battery cells should be put where they will do the most good.” From a carbon perspective, Pratt says dozens of hybrids in a fleet of cars is cleaner than a few EVs.

The extension of hybrids’ half-step moment has a lot to do with the electric future’s faltering start. EV fever is rising faster than most auto executives expected, and car companies are fighting to catch up. For some countries, the gap between demand and supply is closing quickly. In Norway, for example, every fifth car on the road is an EV, and in China one quarter of new car sales are electric. But as factories rush to link battery supply chains and spool up new assembly lines, many places won't see supply meet demand for years. In the US, one quarter of potential car buyers wanted to go electric in the first half of this year, but only 4 per cent of vehicles coming out of North American factories fit the bill.

The new Toyota Prius on display at the 2022 Los Angeles Auto Show.  AFP

That imbalance has made it tough to find an electric car, especially at a decent price. The average sticker price for an EV in October was almost $59,000 in the US, nearly a quarter more than the industry at large, according to Edmunds. Hybrids were more expensive than petrol cars, but only slightly.

“They make sense for someone looking to maximise value,” says Edmunds analyst Ivan Drury. “They’re not nearly as costly as full EVs, nor do they come with compromises.”

There’s also a growing awareness that full EVs come with a notable carbon footprint of their own. Driving an electric car generates little in the way of emissions, but mining rare earth metals for giant batteries and shipping those ponderous power plants around the world emits far more than stamping out an engine to burn fuel — up to twice as much, according to CarbonCounter.com, a model developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Trancik Lab. And while a full electric vehicle is always the cleaner option over the life of a car, some consumers — particularly those who don’t drive much — figure a hybrid is a fairly similar shade of green.

“I don’t know that we necessarily need two cars, but we sort of need 1.5 cars,” says Kate Buckens, a food stylist who lives in rural Connecticut with her husband and toddler. In May, the couple bought a hybrid Toyota Rav4 Prime to supplement their fuel-powered 2015 Subaru Forester. When Ms Buckens travels to New York for a styling job, about half of the trip — each way — is entirely on electrons.

“The full electric vehicle is in our future, but we’re not ready for it right now,” she says. “And if we’re in our 30-mile [48km] radius, which is how we tend to live when I’m not working, then we use very little gas, often none at all.”

The Buckens’ Rav4 didn’t take much carbon to make, at least not much more than a standard Rav4 that runs on petrol. Over its lifetime, a Toyota bZ4X, the company’s new EV, will emit 46 per cent less carbon than a standard Rav4, according to CarbonCounter. The hybrid Rav4 Prime, however, is no carbon slouch; its emissions will be about 36 per cent lower than its internal-combustion cousin by the time it rolls into a recycling centre.

“On average, your emissions are substantially lower if you go for the full electric,” says Jessika Trancik, an MIT professor and architect of the school’s CarbonCounter. “But we could probably think of extreme-edge cases where a hybrid is just as good.”

A small, lighter hybrid car, for example, closes the carbon gap on a bulky gasoline-powered vehicle. Likewise, the difference in emissions between a hybrid and a full EV is lower in parts of the country where the power grid is still rich with fossil-fuel generation — for example, the Mountain West. Topping up a Tesla in Wyoming is a dirtier exercise than doing so in Texas, a gusher of renewable energy.

Ultimately, Trancik says people should try to electrify as much of their travel as they are able, particularly because any new vehicle is going to be around for at least 10 to 15 years.

Updated: December 20, 2022, 4:30 AM
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