CIAS 2014: How ‘green’ are new hybrids and electrics?

Not all full-hybrids are the same. Unfortunately, the instant a hybrid badge is applied to a car, the inference is that it is the same as all the others wearing said badge. It is, to use an analogy, like the world of waterfowl — all ducks are birds, but not all birds are ducks.

The full-hybrid world (those vehicles that can be powered by the electric motor alone) includes all of BMW’s ActiveHybrids, Ford/Lincoln hybrids, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti and Kia hybrids along with those from the VW Group (Audi, Porsche and VW). This list breaks down into two basic categories — those with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and those with six-, seven or eight-speed transmissions.

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The difference between the two groups boils down to highway ability. Those cars with a CVT, and that list would include the Ford/Lincoln, Honda and Toyota/Lexus hybrids, can only use the electric motor to power the car up to a specified speed — it varies, but none can exceed 75 kilometres an hour. This means the instant the car exceeds this speed it begins to operate like a non-hybrid — the gasoline engine does all of the driving. This negates the electric advantage, which has an impact on the overall efficiency for those who do a lot of highway driving.

The hybrids with multi-speed transmissions (most use automatics, although VW uses a twin-clutch transmission) can be driven on the highway using electric power alone. Again, the speeds vary, but I have driven the Kia Optima Hybrid on the highway at 110 km/h on electric power alone. Porsche’s Panamera has a top electric-only speed of 160 km/h! Granted, the conditions must be ideal — a level road and little or no head wind — but the ability to enjoy the electric advantage above urban speeds is a big plus.

2014 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid

2014 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.
John LeBlanc, National Post

A segment of the automotive world that’s beginning to expand is the so-called “plug-in hybrid.” Where the plug-in hybrid differs from a conventional hybrid is its operational strategy. A traditional hybrid uses its engine as the primary driving force. The electric motor’s contribution is secondary and is used in one of three ways. The electric motor can drive the car on its own, it can supplement the engine’s output under hard acceleration and it is used to capture otherwise waste energy (regenerative braking), which charges the main battery.

The hitch is that the electric-only driving range of a traditional hybrid is token at best — most cannot travel more than one or two kilometres on the power stored in the battery. The plug-in hybrid’s focus changes dramatically. Upsizing the battery and charging it through the electric grid (hence the plug-in term) allows the electric motor to become the primary motivator as long as there is enough juice in the battery. Fully recharging the battery overnight increases the plug-ins driving range from basically nothing to somewhere around 50 or 60 kilometres — the engine only comes to life if the driver demands more power than the electric side can deliver (hard acceleration) or when the main battery nears depletion. At this point, the plug-in hybrid operates in the same manner as a conventional hybrid.

Nissan LEAF

Nissan’s LEAF and the Renault ZOE top 100,000 sales across the globe
Handout photo, Nissan

Going one further is the all-electric car. As it stands, the Ford Focus, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf and the Tesla models are the key players. The other is the Chevrolet Volt. While some would argue the Volt is a hybrid because it has a gasoline engine, but it drives a generator and not the car. This means the electric motor is the primary motivator, and so I consider it to be an electric offering. This select group is going to grow in the next few months with the addition of the BMW i3 and Kia Soul EV.

In all cases, except the Volt, a battery and an electric motor provide the motivation. While these cars deliver plenty of punch off the line and they deliver a strong mid-range, any extended high-speed usage sees the driving range plummet. Under ideal conditions most have a claimed range of around 160 km.

The problem is the use of the headlights, heater, rear defroster and other high-consumption electrical devices drains the very battery that is supposed to deliver the driving range. In the real world, this means that most, on a good day, deliver 100 km (or less) of driving. Until this changes, and, in fairness, the technology involved in lithium-ion batteries is changing almost daily, this breed is destined to remain a second car at best. Heck, using a regular 110-volt outlet and the 24-hour charge time it typically takes to replenish a depleted battery, it would take the better part of a month to drive from Toronto to Tampa Bay, and that’s averaging 160 km from every charge!

The other argument against electric cars is they only shift the pollution from one place to another. Granted, shifting the pollution from a major urban centre and dumping elsewhere (namely the stacks of non-hydroelectric power generating stations) has benefits, but there is an overriding consideration. Comparing the emissions of a compact electric car and its gasoline counterpart is a telling story. The electric car in Norway is five times cleaner than its gasoline sibling. In Canada, the two produce about the same level of pollution. In China, however, the electric car is five times dirtier than the gasoline car. It boils down to how the electricity is produced. In Norway, it is all hydroelectric (or clean) power. In Canada it is a blend of coal, hydroelectric (59% of production in 2010) and natural gas. In China, the production is predominantly coal-fired.

Until all of the electricity consumed by electric cars is produced from clean, renewable resources, the electric conveyance will never be as green as so many claim.

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