Making the Case for 'Electric First'

By Bill Moore

Posted: 04 Dec 2009

I lost the naming game a couple year back when "Plug-In Hybrid" became the accepted term to describe converted hybrids like the one siting out in my garage (Nebraska license plate LIVN GRN). Even I can't remember now what I was arguing for, but I recall it wasn't as nebulous as PHEV or now PHV, a new term coined by Toyota for their just-unveiled Plug-In Hybrid (see above image). Presumably, Toyota chose PHV to emphasize the "hybrid" aspect of the car the not the "E" or electric side.

Then there was my suggestion we call cars like the Volt "range-extended electric vehicles," but General Motors insisted it be called by another acronym, E-REV or "extended range electric vehicle."

The recently released Electrification Roadmap has now introduced yet another term, GEV or grid-connected electric vehicle, though technically, most EVs would be that anyway, unless they got their power entirely from some off-grid system, in which case shouldn't they be considered OGEVs?

This is starting to get silly, isn't it?

Well, in true Don Quixote fashion, I am going to tilt at yet another EV world windmill and dang it, I want this one to stick!

It's the term, "Electric First."

I've been using the term for months now to try an help people understand how a PHEV/PHV/E-REV/REEV or just plain plug-in hybrid works. Just this week I came across comments on another web site that clearly indicated most people just don't understand the concept. Even David Letterman was confused as late as this past summer, noting erroneously on his late night television show that "you couldn't drive the Volt down to the mail box and back without running out of juice," or something to that effect. That prompted GM's Bob Lutz to put in an appearance on Letterman's show to rectify the misconception.

The driving range of any PHEV/PHV/EREV/REEV or plug-in hybrid isn't limited to the amount of electric energy stored in its battery pack. It's only limited by the amount of energy stored in its fuel tank just like any other car.

What sets them apart is that they are "Electric First" hybrids.

Simply put, the first X number of miles is typically on electric power and when that is depleted, the car more or less becomes a standard hybrid. In the Volt, the X is reputed to be 40 miles; in the new Prius PHV it's up to 13 miles. In LIVN GRN it's up around 20 miles, though there is some fuel being burned initially and especially now that local temperatures have plunged into the upper teens. (It was 19 F here this morning).' We need the engine running to provide defrost and cabin heat.

"Electric First" emphasizes that your first few miles every day are provided all or mostly by electric power; after that, its a combination of both liquid fuel and electricity, preferably with the former being some type of bio-fuel: ethanol, methanol, biodiesel. For the time being, LIVN GRN still uses gasoline: some eight gallons in November to drive 640 miles; the rest came from about 50 kWh of electric energy. As long as you have fuel in the tank, you don't have to fear running out of electric power before reaching a charging station.

How far your "Electric First" range is depends largely on the battery pack: how many kilowatt hours of energy it can store, as well as driving conditions, including ambient outside air temperature, terrain, driving style, etc. Knowing most American motorists drive less an 30 miles a day to and from work, General Motors sized the Volt's battery pack for 40 miles of "Electric First" range. Toyota is being more cautious and wants to let consumers decide how much range they want to pay for, starting with a seemingly modest 13 miles, which could meet the needs of a fair fraction of American commutes: it would my wife's for sure.

Using Bob Lutz's rule of thumb that 1 kWh equals 5 miles, means the pack in the PHV Prius is probably about 3-4 kWh in capacity, which at today's estimated $1000/kWh cost means it adds about $3-4 to the price of the car, though by the time the car actually hits production stride in 2012, it'll probably be under $3K and headed towards $2K, around the same price as the current NiMH pack in the standard Prius.

When those PHV Priuses start to hit the bricks in Japan and Europe, there are going to be hundreds of drivers who are going to be stopped and asked in French, German, English and Japanese how the car works and what happens when the battery runs out of juice. They can tell their inquisitors that the car's "Electric First" driving range is X-miles; after which it can be driven hundreds of miles.

So, remember that term "Electric First" and remember that you heard it first here on EV World.

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