Why hybrids may be better for the future of electric vehicles than all-electric cars

A major electric vehicle (EV) pilot project in the US throws up some unexpected learnings

Owners of electric cars are more likely to use public chargers than owners of hybrid-electric vehicles, right? It stands to reason, since electric-car drivers are entirely dependent on their battery whereas hybrid drivers, who also have a combustion engine, don’t need to plug in at every opportunity.

Well, it turns out that the reverse is true, as I heard from Ravi Brar of ECOtality, a maker of electric vehicle chargers part-owned by ABB, at the Automation and Power World event in Orlando.

Pilot project learnings

Brar was presenting findings from the EV Project, a $230 million EV infrastructure pilot in the US whose participants either own a Chevy Volt, a hybrid, or a Nissan Leaf, a pure battery vehicle. Half of the funds are from ECOtality and its partners, and the other half from the Department of Energy, which is also why the data that is collected is publicly available on the EV Project website.

“Interestingly, owners of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, even though they are carrying around a combustion engine with them, have a higher propensity to plug in their cars to recharge when they are out and about,” said Brar. Volt drivers , he explained, use chargers on average 1.4 times per outing, compared with 1.1 times for Leaf drivers.

Unexpected consequences

This surprising learning from the EV Project leaves me with two thoughts. One is that the current trend at car manufacturers toward hybrid-electric models rather than electric-only vehicles may actually increase demand for charging infrastructure around the world, and thereby support the transition to all-electric vehicles in the longer term. Take note of this, all you prevaricating buyers out there.

The other is that it’s the consumer who decides how to use a technology, not its provider. It’s a basic insight but it’s easily forgotten.  I wonder how many new products have fizzled because the R&D department or the marketing team thought they knew best, and how many have succeeded in ways no-one had expected?

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About the author

Malcolm Shearmur

I'm chief editor at ABB and joined the company in 2006 after more than a decade in financial journalism and radio. The tangle of challenges around making energy available, affordable and sustainable is one of my main interests.
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