The Case for 'Electric Hybrids'

By Bill Moore

Posted: 23 Nov 2010

I don't know about you, but I'd wager that a lot of people are confused about cars like the Fisker Karma, the Chevrolet Volt, the Toyota Prius PHV, and the Opel Ampera, the Volt's European cousin. The recent imbroglio over what exactly the Volt is: an electric car or a hybrid, clearly underscores the problem. Revelations of how its planetary gear system worked put conservative pundits shorts in a bunch, as they and other observers accused General Motors of duplicity and deception. Gratefully, three automotive awards in a row… no make that four now… seems to have somewhat taken the bluster out of their sails.

Still, what are we to expect of the average non-technical passerby when confronted with baffling insider acronyms: E-REV, BEV, PHEV, GEV, ZEV, HEV ? So, I'd like to propose a solution. It's not perfect, of course, and I've argued for it before, but now that we finally have product coming to market and survey, after survey indicating people are becoming increasingly interested in electric-drive vehicles, it's time to consider adopting the following term when talking about vehicles that incorporate some of the characteristics of a battery electric vehicle (BEV), like the Nissan LEAF, and a hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) like the Toyota Prius.

I propose we call vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, Opel Ampera and Fisker Karma "Electric Hybrids."

Now before you scoff, think about this for a moment. If a Prius, a Ford Fusion Hybrid, or a Honda Civic Hybrid can be a gasoline-electric hybrid, in which the gasoline engine plays the dominate role and the electric drive largely a supporting role, then what should we call a vehicle where the reverse is true, where the electric drive is the lead actor and the gasoline or diesel engine plays the supporting role? Regardless of what GM says, the Volt really isn't an electric car, but neither is it a hybrid, Mr. Will. It is, in effect, a "hybrid" of an electric car, thus the term "electric hybrid."

Semantically it expresses, at least to me, the very essence of what the Volt or the Karma and their successors are. They incorporate qualities of both technologies, with the key emphasis on their electric-ness. Isn't that easier than trying to explain E-REV means "extended-range electric vehicle" or PHEV refers to a "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle." I mean, if it's electric, it has to be plugged into something, right? Why all the extra verbiage and falderal? Same with GEV, grid-connected or grid-charged electric vehicle, even I am not sure which. Frankly folks, it's redundant. Unless we're talking about a 100% solar electric car like those raced from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia every couple years -- and they are electric -- you have to plug it in to charge it. Anything else is a hybrid: be they series hybrid, parallel or a little of both. They're still hybrids.

The minute you give a vehicle an augmented IC engine (or fuel cell stack) and the ability to tap into an external electrical power source: solar panels, wind turbine, nuclear power plant, what have you, it becomes an electric hybrid. We immediately understand that this is an electric car, but one that also has some of the qualities of "conventional" hybrid, which means it can run on an energy source other than electricity stored in its batteries. In the case of Neil Young's lamentably emulated "LincVolt" Lincoln Continental conversion, its Capstone Microturbine generator could run on four different fuels, in addition to the electricity stored in its lithium iron phosphate batteries.

Imagine how much more illuminating reporting of the tragic fire that consumed the car on November 9th in Santa Clara, California would have been had the media simply referred to it for what it really was?

"Famed Rocker's Electric Hybrid Consumed in Warehouse Fire. Untested charging system thought responsible."

Instead, it was referred to as a series hybrid (whatever that is, the average reader will shrug) or as an electric car -- neither of which are true. Before it became a burned-out hulk, the half century-old, 19-feet long example of classic Detroit Iron (pictured above before the fire) could cruise 400 miles as a series hybrid with the microturbine spinning a generator supplying electrical energy to the 30kW UQM electric motor. But Young could also turn off the turbine and drive another 50 miles as a pure electric car.

That is, in my book, an electric hybrid. The Fisker Karma operates essentially in the same fashion: 50 miles as a EV, a couple hundred more at least as a hybrid. Volt and Ampera: ditto.

So, how about it? As we start to get into the swing of talking about this new generation of electric-drive vehicles, let's agree to clear the air and make it simple for everyone.

There are hybrids. Toyota Prius. Honda Insight. Ford Fusion. Chevy Yukon.

There are electric cars. Nissan Leaf. Think city. Coda EV.

There are electric hybrids: Volt, Karma, Ampera.

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