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Is there a future for the plug-in hybrid?

By Carl Cunanan Philippine Daily Inquirer June 26,2019

One thing we have learned over last year is that there is still a lot of confusion over what exactly all the power options for our cars really are, and how they differ. One particular area of question is the plug-in hybrid. The usual as-we-know-it motor is the Internal Combustion (or IC) engine, which ignites a fuel (gasoline, diesel, whatever) with a spark. Then we have the other much talked-about option, the Full Electric (or FE) car. The full electric will be by nature a plug-in vehicle in that you have to charge the batteries somehow, and the most usable option (until we have really good solar panels on our vehicles), is to plug it into a power source. The Hybrid system comes in between the two (IC and FE) by allowing the IC
engine to move the car and/or charge the batteries. Therefore you would generally not need to plug it in. This is what we are most used to, and what we most think of with this system is the Toyota Prius. That award-winning powertrain is in its fourth generation globally, so clearly it has some legs.

Many consider the Hybrid a transitional technology as the world goes to Full Electric. But a completely Full Electric landscape has logistical issues that won’t be solved easily in many areas of the world. You need
reliable and clean energy, an
infrastructure of charging stations, and much quicker charging just to begin with. So in cities and communities with a decidedly green attitude, the population and government may choose to make the sacrifice and go Full Electric, but that’s honestly far from feasible for many, if not most markets. So the Hybrid, because of its minimal demands for new infrastructure, is seen by many as the best option for now, and into the future until things change dramatically.

So where then is the plug-in Hybrid? As the name states, it is a Hybrid that uses both fuel-burning Internal Combustion and Electric propulsion but also allows the ability to plug into an appropriate charging station. Who wants or needs this? According to some of the companies that have adopted the system, it is meant for those who want Full Electric but can’t yet get there because of cost or infrastructure. The fuel-burning engine is just kind of a back-up. So yes it makes sense but may well appeal to a rather tight niche.

A recent study published by a group named IDTechEx has called into the question the very future of the plug-in hybrid. IDTechEX is, by its own words, an independent market research group out of Cambridge, UK that provides business intelligence and assessment, and has been doing so since 1999. Their report published June 10, 2019 basically says that while there are more plug-in hybrid vehicles on the market and more are to come, their future is actually limited. “The fundamentals are all against them,” says the report of companies including BMW, MINI, Volvo and more. For one, they aren’t the much-desired Full Electrics, for another, it seems people aren’t actually plugging them in. In their report, they stated that the UK withdrew PHEV support because since very few were plugging them in, they weren’t actually benefiting the environment much. Arguably, that makes them more just regular hybrids.

There are other points made as well by the study. Traditional car companies still rely heavily on the Internal Combustion systems, and want to continue to do so for a while. Start-ups like Tesla have no such history or hang-up, but they also don’t have the industry experience. Still, those consumers that are aggressively green sign up, and wait for Full Electrics, so there is clearly a future there. What this study says is weak, is very specific, the future of plug-in hybrids. They also don’t see anything to reverse this trend. Fuel-burners are best for the current and near-future infrastructure, Full Electrics are the dream (at least for the moment), and they get the excitement and the funding. Hybrids are the technology that can be both transitional, and as permanent as you wish.

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