Beyond the boardroom: giving up on PHEVs would be an own goal

citroen c5x 2022 front quarter static charging

Was pushing PHEVs to company car drivers doing big mileages the wrong approach?

The latest generation of plug-in hybrids is on the cusp of delivering the efficiency gains promised by the tech

I read from our own Nick Gibbs the other day that a dramatic swerve of UK public transport policy may be in the offing. What a staggering turn of events that would be. 

Having done its own research on the real-world emissions of plug-in hybrid cars, as well as reading fairly critical reports from third parties, apparently the DfT is all set to change its line on exactly how long PHEVs will be allowed to remain on sale in the UK, as well as other kinds of hybrid cars, before the total ban of all combustion-engined new cars comes into force in 2035. 

And so, having given a struggling car industry the bare bones of a working schedule by which to switch its models away from the combustion engine and towards wholesale electrification – on the strength of which hundreds of millions of pounds will have been spent, balanced against amortisation very likely well beyond 2030 in some cases, let’s not forget – it’s about to uproot the goalposts. Or just take a flamethrower to them, actually. Cue all sorts of quite understandable gesturing and loud, creative swearing, in many European languages, in car-industry boardrooms continent-wide.  

The mandarins will seek to justify their thinking in all the right ways. There have been independent reports claiming that PHEVs emit, in general, between three- and five times more CO2 in the real world than the lab tests suggest they should. That’s only what every Autocar Road Test on a PHEV has reported for the last decade, by the way. God forbid someone consider that it might actually be the lab test that’s the problem.

So what will they finally conclude? That the industry has conned everyone – yet again? That PHEVs simply don’t work, and need to be removed from our ‘net-zero’ roadmap as soon as possible? Will a thought be spared for how they’ve been tested or incentivised? Or how much charging infrastructure there is to support them, and whether it’s easy enough to use them as their designers intend? Well, what do you think?

PHEVs do have an efficiency problem; this is not news. They are inherently heavy and complicated, because they depend on two working powertrains rather than one. But if they’re not driven down emissions as quickly as they might have, I would suggest it’s not because they don’t work.

Might it actually be because they’ve been pushed at the fleet market, rather than at private buyers, through those benefit-in-kind tax savings, perhaps? To users who tend to do greater commuting and business mileage, rather than those who do the sort of short-hop, to-and-from-home daily motoring to which a PHEV might be better suited?

If we’d given plug-in hybrid cars VAT reductions as private buys, rather than making them default-pick company cars, would they not have worked better? Imagine how different your driveway might look today if, a decade ago, HMRC had done just that. If the tax system had been used to move smaller, more affordable compact cars towards electrification more widely and more quickly; and in bigger ones, other drivers of efficiency had been pursued. How much closer would we be to ‘net zero’ then? And might a system with some kind of check on how often these PHEVs are actually plugged in not have been a good idea?

What makes me sigh the deepest is that, if this does turn into another round of Dieselgate-style car industry-bashing, the reputation of a great many cars I really like will be the worse as a result. The Polestar 1; BMW i3 REX; BMW 545e; Peugeot 508 PSE; even the Toyota Prius PHEV (solar panel on the roof, anyone?). 

Cars like that don’t deserve to be tarred and feathered – and those who know them well, and use them daily, know as much. Plug-in hybrid powertrains have an important contribution to make to this great electrification switch – and the ones coming through now, with their 50-mile-plus electric ranges, might just achieve the most, provided they’re subsidised in the right way, and sold to the right people. 

Whatever happens in the next few months, I hope it’s remembered that PHEV technology itself isn’t the problem. And if it’s been misapplied, before anyone at the DfT blames the car industry, they should take a long, hard look at themselves.

Source: Autocar

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