THE MOTORING landscape is rapidly changing, and there is now a bootful of terms to describe how different types of vehicle are powered; terms that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago. Pure-electric, plug-in hybrid, mild hybrid, full hybrid, extended-range electric — a lot of words that sound like they mean similar things.
However, when you dive under the bonnet there’s some key differences. And they’re differences that you’ll soon have to become familiar with, as the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2035 looms large.
What is an electrified car?
Anything that includes an electric element to the powertrain. These can include anything from cars with petrol or diesel engines that are supplemented with a small electric motor and battery to ones that do away with the internal combustion engine completely. All of the types of vehicle listed below can be considered “electrified”.
What is a pure-electric car?
A pure-electric car is one that combines one or more electric motors with a battery and does not have a petrol or diesel motor onboard. There are a number of different names for the same thing: the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) favours “Battery Electric Vehicle” (BEV), while some go with the term “fully electric”. Others simply call them “electric cars”, so you can generally assume they mean pure-electric, though it’s a slightly vague moniker.
The market for pure-electric vehicles is expanding rapidly, with sales tripling over the last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic causing overall car sales to plummet.
When many people think of pure-electric cars, the first name that comes to mind will be Tesla — justifiably, considering the Elon Musk-fronted marque was the pioneer of sexy, long-range, powerful electric motoring more than a decade ago. It now has four cars on sale, with two more on the way, along with a pure-electric lorry. Tesla recently became the most valuable car company in the world, overtaking the mighty Toyota.
Pure-electric cars are (for now, at least) what the future looks like, with hybrids of all forms (see below) thought of as a stepping stone towards a zero-emission road network. Even smaller sports car companies such as Lotus have announced a their intentions to go pure-electric in the foreseeable future.
What is a full (or ‘self-charging’) hybrid?
A full hybrid is a vehicle that can be powered by an electric motor, though in concert with an internal combustion engine. Electric-only power is available only for very short distances, usually up to a mile, due to the battery pack being very small compared with a plug in car.
Although brands like Toyota have marketed their full hybrid cars such as the Prius under the term “self-charging”, they self-charge using the petrol or (very rarely) diesel engine.
Regenerative braking, where kinetic energy from the brakes is converted to electrical energy in the battery, can improve efficiency.
Power is fed directly to the wheels by both the engine and electric motor in a “parallel hybrid”, or by the electric motor only in a series hybrid, with the engine effectively used as a generator.
Electric-only power is used in situations like parking, or gentle acceleration, before the internal combustion engine (ICE) fires up to do the heavy-lifting.
Full hybrids have proved particularly fuel efficient in urban and suburban situations, though they don’t tend to get as many miles per gallon as diesel (or even non-electrified petrol) cars on motorways.
What is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV)?
A plug-in hybrid is an evolution of a full hybrid, with a bigger emphasis on electrification. PHEVs have larger batteries than full hybrids, which means they have a much bigger electric-only range — though still much less than pure-electric cars. For example, a Range Rover Evoque PHEV has an electric-only range of up to 41 miles per charge, which is more than enough to get you to the local shop and back, or maybe even to and from work, but isn’t sufficient for long journeys — which is when the internal combustion engine kicks in.
This is convenient for longer trips, as when the car then runs out of petrol or diesel you can simply refill at a petrol station and be on your way again, though fuel economy can be even worse than a full hybrid on long motorway journeys as PHEVs carry around extra weight in the form of the bigger battery.
They make up for it around town, though, with their greatly increased zero-emission range. Depending on your circumstances, a PHEV could make visits to the petrol station very rare indeed. Running on electric power is both much cheaper and much better for the local air quality, and there are also excellent cost savings for company car drivers in terms of benefit in kind when compared with petrol, diesel car and full hybrid.
What is an extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV)?
Think of an extended-range electric car as a pure-electric vehicle with an onboard petrol or diesel generator, to allow it to keep going if there are no opportunities to plug in to recharge the battery. Unlike a plug-in hybrid, the wheels of an E-REV are solely driven by the electric motor(s) in series, so the internal combustion engine is disconnected from the drivetrain.
As with PHEVs, the aim of E-REVs is to eliminate “range anxiety”, which is oft-quoted as a reason that people are reluctant to transition to pure-electrics. As public charging infrastructure improves, and the range and recharging speed of pure-electric cars improve, however, the point of both PHEVs and E-REVs diminishes.
There aren’t many cars currently in the UK that use the E-REV powertrain, but it was found on the BMW i8 and an early version of the i3, as well as the Vauxhall Ampera and the Chevrolet Volt — all of which have now been discontinued.
What is a mild hybrid car (MHEV)?
A mild hybrid is, unsurprisingly given its name, the least electrified type of hybrid. Its small electric motor is attached directly to the engine or transmission and works in a similar way to a turbocharger, providing a little boost for the engine under acceleration. This can help improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.
The motor may also reclaim energy during deceleration. MHEVs have smaller batteries than a full hybrid, as energy is stored very temporarily before it is deployed again, and a mild hybrid isn’t able to run on electric-only power.
As the least electrified of the hybrids, mild hybrids have the smallest impact on a car’s emissions. However, it’s becoming a popular form of adding extra life to standard petrol and diesel engines, allowing them to meet toughening emissions standards. For motorists, it makes very little difference to the driving experience — MHEVs feel like traditional cars.
What is a hydrogen fuel cell car (FCEV)?
Yes, hydrogen fuel cell cars are electric cars — they’re powered by electric motors, after all. It’s just that instead of storing their energy in a battery, it’s stored as compressed hydrogen gas in steel and Kevlar-reinforced bottle. The gas is released into a fuel cell stack, where it’s combined with oxygen from the air and the reaction creates electricity, with the by-product being harmless water (H2O).
There are a number of advantages over battery electric cars. The gas bottle is much lighter than a battery pack, and it doesn’t require mining of lithium and cobalt — the latter of which has been known to come from countries that turn a blind eye to dangerous mining practices and child labour, such as Congo. Also, refuelling of a car with a 300-mile range takes five minutes, whereas you’re looking at more than half an hour for a BEV car.
You may have sensed a ‘but’, and you’re right — there are a number of problems with fuel cell cars. The main one is cost — because they’re so rare (you can count the number registered in the UK each year on your hands), the prices are high: the Hyundai Nexo pictured costs from £69,495. It also costs more than £76 to refuel, based on a hydrogen price of £12 per kg (including VAT) and the Nexo’s 6.4kg tank, so there’s no fuel cost saving over petrol or diesel.
Finding a place to fill up is even more of an issue — there are fewer than 10 publicly-accessible hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, whereas you can plug in an electric car anywhere you find a three-pin socket. What’s more, creating the hydrogen gas requires energy in the first place, as does compressing it and transporting it — electricity can be delivered to cars from power stations directly via existing cables, and the energy mix is getting cleaner every year.
Some still see hydrogen as the future but without massive investment in infrastructure, it could be the Betamax to battery electric cars’ VHS.