Why PHEVs Like GM's Next Volt Need At Least 60 Miles Of Real EV Range

With recent news that GM is going to re-introduce plugin hybrids in 2027, it’s likely that the company is still figuring out the design. So, I wanted to offer some unsolicited advice GM and everyone else going back to PHEVs need to think as they put new designs together and bring them to production.

How Much Range Is Enough Range?

My first EV was a bit of a failure. I bought a used 2011 Nissan LEAF that had spent a good part of its life roasting in the Phoenix sun sitting at 100% battery. By the time I got it, the thing had only 50 miles of range, and that was assuming city driving. I didn’t have it in my budget to buy a Tesla Model S or X, and this was before anything else with normal range came out. So, I had to look at affordable alternatives that would let me drive electric and still provide for my needs.

What I ended up getting was a Chevy Volt. It was a 2013 model, and got between 30 and 40 miles of electric range. When the range was depleted, the car made a groaning sound and its 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine would come to life, going from being an EV to being a hybrid. Initially, I charged it at home using a standard 120-volt outlet in my little makeshift add-on garage. 

But it didn’t take me long to find that I needed a little more power. I’d take the kids to school in the morning, drive home, work on stuff at home while it charged back up, and then go pick the kids up. On most days, I had just enough electric range to do what I needed to do, and when the gas tank got low, I didn’t fill it back up. Though, one day one of the kids forgot a backpack at home, and I didn’t have enough range to make the trip again on electric power. 

So, I upgraded the wiring in my garage and then upgraded my EVSE to feed the Volt with 3.3 kilowatts of power instead of 1.4 kilowatts. This meant I could easily do 2 and maybe even 3 full charges in a day, which effectively upped my capacity from around 10 kWh to roughly 30, which translated to around 100 miles of electric driving a day. So, there were almost no days when the vehicle would need to use gas unless I was taking a road trip or something, even when I had an unusual number of places to go for family and work needs.

Since then, I’ve had a newer Nissan LEAF with 40 kWh of battery (~150 miles), and then a Bolt EUV with almost 250 miles of EPA-rated range using about 60 kWh of battery. For almost everybody in most situations, that’s more than enough range to never worry about running out, especially for local driving. There’s still a lot of work to do to get the charging network for BEVs ready for everybody, but the range isn’t a problem for affordable EVs these days.

Beyond My Anecdote

While I found that around 100 miles of range was more than enough, that’s just my odd story. I lived out of district and had the kids under my ex’s address, so I had to drive a lot more and a lot longer to drop them off. I also had a business (architectural photography) that often required driving all over town to get to different jobs for real estate agents, architectural firms, and engineers. In other words, my need for around 100 miles to get gas mostly out of my daily life was probably more than most people.

Fortunately, there is a study from the ICCT that gives us a lot better info on what people’s needs are, and, more importantly, what kind of range they need to get them to actually plug the car in and use it as an EV. Here’s a key chart from the study:

Chart by the ICCT.

The horizontal axis is how much EPA-rated EV range a plugin hybrid vehicle has. The vertical axis shows us how much of the time the vehicle gets driven under electric power (zero is self explanatory, and 1 is 100%, so for example, .5 is 50%). 

It’s pretty clear that there’s a relationship between these numbers. The more electric range there is, the more often people plug the vehicle in and the more time it’s actually operating on electric power. For lower-range EVs, this is particularly bad because even people who plug them in use them a lot on gas power, as the battery doesn’t have enough range for people to do all of their local driving. 

My interpretation of this data is a little different from the ICCT’s. If we ignore everything below 30 miles (about the average miles Americans drive daily) to exclude crazy small batteries, it’s pretty clear that the line is more linear than they’re saying. It even fits in the data at the top-right corner of the graph, showing electric usage for cars with around 80 miles of range being used about 90% of the time under EV power!

What A New PHEV Needs To Be Legitimate In The 2020s

Today, a PHEV can’t really be compared to an ICE vehicle. That’s 2010 standards, where we were thankful for any amount of electric driving people were doing. Today, we have to have higher standards. If a PHEV is going to be useful today, it needs to be plugged in and driven electric most of the time, not driven on ICE except in very rare cases.

And it’s clear that anything under about 60 miles of range is too little, because real people in the real world simply aren’t driving many electric miles in those vehicles. And, really, 80–100 miles is what it takes for people to drive them almost exclusively on electric power, so that’s even better. But we have to set a reasonable floor, and I’m putting that at about 60% EV miles.

More importantly, though, the vehicle had better have some bona fide electric range. Many nonsense bull**it PHEVs have come out that didn’t even have an EV mode. Sure, they got better mileage running on a mix of plugin and gas power, but that means every drive is going to be using gas.

So, at the end of the day, it needs to be 60+ miles of all-electric range. If manufacturers can’t produce that, they’re selling cheap excuses.

Featured image: two first-generation Chevrolet Volts charging. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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