Is the automotive industry heading for PHEVgate?

03 December 2020

3 December 2020

As the automotive industry continues to deal with the damage dealt by Dieselgate, environmental campaign group Transport and Environment (T&E) is asking whether another perfect storm is forming around plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

With manufacturers aiming for emissions regulations targets, low-emission vehicles are essential. So in a period of electrification, PHEVs are bridging the gap between internal combustion engines (ICEs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), for carmakers and consumers alike. Demand for PHEVs in the EU increased by 368.1% in Q3 2020, when compared with the same period last year. But results of a recent T&E study point to PHEVs as a bridge waiting to collapse.

‘Fake electric cars’

T&E commissioned testing of three of the most popular PHEVs sold in 2019; the BMW X5, Volvo XC60 and the Mitsubishi Outlander. The results revealed that in the real world, even when under the mildest testing conditions with a full battery, the cars’ emissions were higher than advertised. The Outlander emitted 86g/km of CO2, overshooting official WLTP values by 89%. The XC60 produced 115g/km, exceeding its official values by 62%. Meanwhile, the X5, surpassed its CO2 values by 28%, releasing 41g/km.

‘Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving,’ said Julia Poliscanova, senior director for clean vehicles at T&E. ‘Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute more than advertised. Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts.’

T&E

Source: Transport and Environment

T&E estimates that once their batteries are depleted, the X5, the Outlander and the XC50 can only drive in engine mode for 11km, 19km and 23km respectively, before overshooting their official CO2 emissions per kilometre. The group argues, therefore, that PHEVs are not suited to long-distance journeys, and would require much more frequent charging than BEVs to keep their low-emissions label. 

‘Carmakers blame drivers for plug-in hybrids’ high emissions. But the truth is that most PHEVs are just not well made. They have weak electric motors, big, polluting engines, and usually can’t fast charge. The only way plug-ins are going to have a future is if we completely overhaul how we reward them in EU car CO2 tests and regulations. Otherwise, PHEVs will soon join diesel in the dustbin of history,’ she said.

Poliscanova called for governments to stop subsidising the purchasing of these cars with taxpayer money. T&E added that the EU’s current practice of handing out additional emissions credits for PHEVs needs to end when it reviews the CO2 targets for 2025 and 2030.

In defence of PHEVs

When approached by Autovista Group, the manufacturers of the XC60, X5, and Outlander came to the defence of their respective PHEVs and their emissions testing. Volvo insisted that all of its cars are certified and fully compliant with emissions legislation, but do come with a real-world caveat. ‘The existing emissions-testing regime provides a useful industry standard that allows customers to make comparisons between cars, but real-world variations will apply,’ the carmaker said.

The manufacturer said that PHEVs have close-to-zero tailpipe emissions when driven in pure electric mode and its customer field data shows that its cars are driven in pure electric mode 40% of the time on average. ‘Plug-in Hybrids are an important transitional technology on the journey towards zero-emission mobility, and an important part of the mobility portfolio of the near future,’ Volvo stated.

BMW claimed that if a customer followed the exact WLTP and NEDC legislative test profile and conditions, the published fuel economy figures would be achieved. The aim of the legislative test profile, however, is not the promise of a particular fuel economy figure in real customer life, but rather a basis to make vehicles of different brands, sizes and technologies comparable,’ the carmaker said. ‘A car with a good WLTP/NEDC figure will also convince in comparison with others in real customer life.’

BMW pointed to the potential for PHEV figures to also include a number to represent when a consumer does not charge the vehicle’s battery. ‘This might be a suitable step to increase the credibility around WLTP/NEDC and PHEV because the real-world fuel economy of a PHEV is heavily dependent on the charging state of the battery,’ BMW concluded.

Mitsubishi highlighted that their published MPG and CO2 figures are produced via standardised WLTP testing that was designed for PHEVs. ‘Independent tests can produce unreliable/variable figures depending on conditions and a variety of other factors and we naturally contest any findings where we have no oversight of the testing or methodology,’ the carmaker said. ‘Disregarding a PHEV’s electrical powertrain during testing, for example, is like testing a petrol or diesel car and only using three of its gears.’

Transitional technology

Mitsubishi pointed to a presumption that PHEV drivers do not plug in, so it shared the results of two surveys it commissioned which investigated Mitsubishi owner usage and attitudes. The data showed that 92% of Outlander owners charge up multiple times per week (at least two to three times) and that PHEV owners drive in electric mode (using no petrol) during 72.2% of their commute and 84.3% of errand and school runs. Even on long leisure runs, 32.8% of the journey was conducted in EV mode. What is more, 70% of Outlander owners surveyed would consider a fully electric vehicle as their next purchase, compared to just 27% of ICE drivers. Mitsubishi said this was indicative of the important role that PHEVs play as a transitional technology.

‘They [PHEVs] ease people into electrification, helping them to realise they actually could live with an EV day-to-day, while they also produce lower emissions overall than traditional ICE vehicles,’ the Mitsubishi said. The manufacturer explained that EVs are still too expensive for most people, with the range at the more affordable end of the model spectrum not enough for what consumers feel comfortable with.  It went on to add, ‘that’s before you factor in the charging infrastructure which is still hopelessly inadequate even for what’s on the road now, let alone mass adoption over the next decade.’

‘We are completely on board with the need to decarbonise as soon as possible, but it needs to happen in stages and plug-in hybrids can be a very useful tool in accelerating and supporting that transition, especially if incentivised and encouraged properly by the government,’ Mitsubishi concluded.

As electrification surges on, it makes sense that consumers and carmakers alike need a transitional vehicle which can endure the cross over, while initial costs are lowered and charging infrastructure is strengthened. However, it is vital that the low-emission capabilities of these vehicles is as sold, both in terms of trust and climate change. In the wake of COVID-19, the last thing the automotive industry needs is another Dieselgate.