The looming battle between hybrid and all-electric cars

The latest news from the world of EVs

Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, a British EV newsletter. 

In today’s edition… a small amount of news plus I’ve written a long feature looking at the potential looming battle between hybrid and pure EV drivers.

As ever, do drop me an email at tomrileylondon@gmail.com if you have any feedback, questions or comments.

In the news…

TESLA PROFITS: Despite such a turbulent year, Tesla has managed to report surging profits over the last quarter. It comes as the EV car maker delivered 200,000 models during the same 3 month period. In the UK, the Tesla Model 3 is currently the most popular car. However, the immediate future might not be so rosy for Tesla. Elon Musk revealed in a call with investors that the supply issues - which all carmakers have been suffering from - is quite perilous and waiting times are growing, especially for European deliveries. Read more on the BBC.

ONTO GREATER THINGS: The British based EV car subscription service Onto has raised about £130 million ($175m) to grow in the UK as well as to enter new markets. I’m a big fan of Onto and have one of their cars sitting outside my flat right now. Read more.

MISSING CAR: The Sunday Times included a lot of stories about EVs over the weekend, including a special focus in their magazine. However, in their list of the ‘13 best electric cars to buy in 2021’, it was noticeable that the Nissan Leaf didn’t make the cut. That’s despite Nissan manufacturing the Leaf up in Sunderland and it being incredibly popular. Perhaps it’s an image thing. Read the list.

LORDS WARNING: The House of Lords science and technology committee has urged the government to shore up its supply of key EV ingredients (such as lithium) as well as to boost funding for gigafactories further in a new report published today. It comes as concern grows that China (as well as the US) is moving quickly to guarantee their own supply - which could present difficulty further down the road. One of the recommendations made by the Lords is that there should be incentives for more lithium mining in Cornwall. This sounds like a way to make Cornish Lithium (who own much of the mining rights in Cornwall now) very wealthy. Interestingly, the Tregothnan Estate owned by Lord Falmouth is apparently where much of the lithium may be. Read it here.

WATCHDOG WARNING: Right on the back of their recent call for further action, the Competition and Market Authorities CEO has written a column for inews saying we ‘urgently’ need to accelerate the roll-out of charging points. In his piece, Andrea Coscelli focuses especially on the regional disparities for chargepoints. For example, comparing London’s plentiful supply to the pittance available in Yorkshire - despite people living in the latter driving more. You can read the full column here.


The looming battle between hybrids and all-electric cars

Whenever I go on Twitter nowadays, I’m met by a stream of EV owners fawning over each other's cars, chargers, and holidays. Even the staff of oil businesses like BP and Shell get greeted warmly.

Everyone has gotten along in EV world thus far for a few reasons. Mainly, we’re all very similar. I’m painting with a broad brush but, essentially, people in the EV community at the moment are quite well paid educated environmentalists.

That’s not a criticism, we are just in a similar sort of class. However, following the government announcement last year, the picture is changing quickly. As a result, soon the EV community will face its own sort of internal battle. And it will revolve around hybrid versus fully electric cars.

Is there a battle?

As a sure-fire way to test out the theory of whether hybrids are a controversial topic, ask someone in the EV community about their views. I guarantee it’ll either evoke a passionate lecture or people looking at their shoes being careful not to trip over their words.

Why? Because hybrids, much like Brexit, lockdown, and old statues, are like marmite. Some people believe hybrids are no better than trying to cool down the Earth with a Dyson fan. Others reckon they’re critical stepping stones moving everyone in the right direction.

In the last few months, I’ve certainly noticed an increasing number of battles online between hybrid backers and critics. Often, they centre on the hybrid’s claims to cleaner air, but also on the limited availability of public chargepoints – which many hybrids use to the annoyance of pure EV owners.

Only in the last two weeks, I witnessed one spectacular keyboard war you’d only ever usually see beneath a MailOnline story. Posted on the 11,000 strong UK Electric Vehicle Owners Facebook group, one user complained about two plug-in hybrids that were occupying chargers at the Eden Project. It got so potent the group’s admin had to take it down.

Since then, it seems to have unlocked a raft of others poking their heads above the parapet to opine.

“Posts like this are exactly why I, as a PHEV driver, feel like I’m not allowed to charge anywhere other than at home,” commented one user to a critical hybrid post. To which another person responded saying: “That’s correct. Because you don’t need to.”

Elsewhere, in a bit more jest, I saw one post from a hybrid owner who asked the forum: “Do I use chargers or not? Is it bad manners to the BEV drivers? Serious question, not got overnight charging at the holiday house, so public charging to grab some electric miles is the only solution… Not planning on sitting on the charger all day, just enough to get some electrons!!”

The highest-rated reply stated: “Use them, but if you leave your car on it for hours and hours when it's fully charged it makes you a bell end.”

Evidently, there is some tension underneath this topic. While niche now amongst a close community, it could only be a matter of time before this debate spills over into the mainstream given the rising populations on both sides.

Huge growth figures

In the last year, both hybrids and all-electric vehicles have screamed ahead in growth while traditional 100% ICE cars have dropped.

Plug-in hybrids, for example, have doubled their share of the market since 2020 rising from 3% to 6.4%. Meanwhile, the growth of fully electric cars rose from 4.7% to 8.1% in 12 months.

So, while 100% electrics still have a higher market share, the trend is rising faster for PHEVs – 140% growth versus nearly 200% year-on-year for plug-in hybrids.

And it’s more complicated than that because the growth in Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicles - those are the ones that don’t require a plug - have grown astronomically in the last year. MHEVs have gone up some 300% (or from about 1 in 20 cars to 1 in 10). If those were coronavirus infections, Chris Whitty would have us in a lockdown.

What’s clear then is that, as time marches on to 2030, we’re going to see two fast-growing car types which are owned by very different people.

So what are hybrid cars?

Hybrids are halfway house to going fully electric. And there are broadly three different levels you can buy.

MHEVs are Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Think of them as like Diet Coke. Most people are probably quite comfortable with how it works as it’s no different to a normal ICE car. It just has an electric motor to assist the engine which charges up as you drive.

Then you get FHEVs, these are Full Hybrid Electric Vehicles. They are like Coke Zero. People have probably tried them quite a few times, such as riding in an Uber, and they probably don’t seem much different to MHEVs - it’s just a new acronym. Essentially FHEVs ‘self-charge’ as you drive and can, for a limited time only, run without using the engine.

Finally, the greenest of the hybrid animal tree is the Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). They’re like Coke Caffeine Free. A little bit rarer and, environmentally, give you the best of both Diet and Zero versions. They often have batteries with electric ranges of between 15 to 30 miles. This can be perfect for people in cities, albeit they do need to, as the name suggests, be plugged in occasionally.

Who is buying them?

All sorts of people are buying hybrids. It can be those testing the water before getting a full EV, folk worried about the charging infrastructure and the range of all-electrics, plus some buyers just might not know any better.

Importantly, though, hybrids are also a lot more familiar to most people as manufacturers have been pushing them out for donkey’s years – what came first the Prius or David Attenborough? This means they tend to be cheaper and more plentiful on the second-hand market.

Especially as we race towards 2030 (and 2035) where more people might make that final switch to all-electrics, plug-in and full hybrids will undoubtedly be scooped up at cheap prices by laggards.

A quick check on AutoTrader somewhat backs this theory up. Currently, there are around 6,000 pure electrics on sale (the cheapest being about £4,000). Meanwhile, there are over 22,000 hybrids (with most starting around £1,000).

Why are hybrids so controversial?

Hybrids can cause division for several reasons. The simple fact is they are nowhere near as green as manufacturers claim. Yes, hybrids are much better for the environment than traditional ICE vehicles, however, don’t expect Greta Thunberg to slap you on the back. In fact, prepare for her to call you out, especially as 2030 approaches.

Forgetting the environment for a second, the infrastructure being built in this country right now could also create clashes amongst motorists in the future.

A third of households do not have the ability to charge outside their homes, as they may be in a flat or terraced house. This means we need a bigger and better public charging infrastructure. Only last week, the competition watchdog suggested we’d need over 10 times what we have today.

The problem? The infrastructure is mainly being built with fully electric cars in mind. Thousands of rapid chargers at motorway services that have speeds of up to 350kW are going to be wasted on plug-in hybrids that can only accept a maximum of 3kWh.

And, closer to home, while many PHEV owners will choose to charge their cars up with a mains sockets, many councils may be cautious of such activities, such as when cables are trailed across pavements.

In short: hybrids aren’t much better for polar bears and they will increase pressure on public chargers. Let us not forget, they will also be totally gone by 2035, so you could argue what’s even the point?

The silver lining

The flip side of the argument is that, actually, hybrids are a great thing. As I’ve already said, not only are they cheaper and act as a gentle stepping stone for many families. But, greater usage of hybrids in the short term could also help the government and charging operators roll out the infrastructure for when everyone does go 100% electric. And that’s not just me having a mad idea, the Department for Transport acknowledged it too in a recent consultation.

It’s no wonder it looks like (based on their delivery plan) that the government is keen to allow new PHEV and FHEV sales right up until 2035.

How do we prevent issues?

An idea first mooted back in 2018 was that plug-in hybrids should be banned from using public chargers. It was a suggestion in an RAC policy paper that didn’t seem to take off. Probably because EVs themselves were still very much in their infancy.

In my view, this is a bit strong. However, I do believe there is a case to be made for plug-in hybrids to be prevented from using rapid charging devices. They physically can’t take the power and just hold up ‘fast’ charging spaces for hours.

One solution which might have dual uses is for local authorities to install normal outdoor 3-pin plugs alongside their charging plans. These could not only provide PHEV owners without a driveway somewhere to recharge, but they could also be very cheap and easy to set up.

Also, more open 3-pin plugs could have multi-use by ebike owners and electric mopeds/motorbikes which have smaller battery packs.

Final thoughts

If over the next 5 years we end up with millions of pure EVs and millions of hybrid EVs on the road, then I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see different groups call for hybrids' demise – especially if they impinge on chargepoints.

My own personal view is we need to back them. They will be an accessible way for a lot of people to start going greener – we should let the population take baby steps. However, if I see one at my local rapid charger again, I’m going to kick it very hard.

By Tom Riley