1969 GM XP-883 Plug-in Hybrid

1969 was a red-letter year for American muscle cars. Ford rolled out the Mustang Mach 1. MOPAR unveiled the Dodge Charger Daytona. Chevrolet had the Camaro Z-28, and Pontiac introduced “The Judge.” It was the era of rubber, Woodstock, bikinis and 426 Hemi engines.

The muscle cars are now almost gone, dissipated like the smoke from their burnouts. Yet there was another car from 1969, one never put into production, one over which nobody salivated. It was the General Motors XP-883. The car was small, smaller than a modern Honda CRX, and jury-rigged from existing GM parts. It had a top speed of 60 mph and took 28 seconds to get there. Yet it was that car, that Lilliputian four-seater with a fiberglass body that would outlast even the burliest of muscle cars.

Exit, Hare. Enter, Tortoise.

                                           2011 Chevy Volt Plug-in Hybrid

The GM XP-883 was America’s first plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV). It had a blended hybrid powertrain that paired a 35-cc internal combustion engine with a DC electric motor and six 12-volt batteries. The batteries were recharged through a standard 115-volt wall socket. “You may think this little hybrid is pretty far advanced,” wrote the editors of Popular Science in 1969, “but the fact is it could be built today.”

It was not. Two nationwide gasoline shortages and 42 years would pass before General Motors again released a PHEV: the Chevrolet Volt.

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles are the superstars of the green automobile movement. They look and drive much the same as a regular car, but they pamper the conscience. Environmental benefits include:

  • Reduced fossil fuel usage;

  • Decreased dependence on foreign oil;

  • Diminished atmospheric pollution;

  • Quelled climate change.

But all stars must die. Will PHEVs be crushed by the adoption of all-electric vehicles? Will they survive political pressure from OPEC and special interests lobbyists? Are they a final solution or a stepping stone?

The answer begins far, far away from America in the cloudy capital city of Great Britain.

PHEV Adoption: a Case Study

The London metropolitan area contains 33 bridges across the Thames, 13 million inhabitants and about that many automobiles. Its air quality is abysmal. According to Transport for London (TFL), approximately 80 percent of large-particle pollution in central London is due to motorcars, including nitrous oxides, rubber crumbs and brake dust. The government has announced plans to extend ultra-low emission zones (ULEZs), designated urban acres where gas and diesel-powered cars cannot drive.

                                    2015 Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Enter the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Formerly a wallflower on the sales charts, the Outlander PHEV rocketed into the limelight once European metropolises, like London, announced ULEZs. The Outlander can be driven for short stints on electricity only, making it eligible for ULEZs. Mitsubishi has already sold more than 30,000.

State of the PHEV Market

To borrow a butchered cliché, PHEVs offer the best of both worlds: low emissions and high range. They are a capable and diverse breed, able to inhabit high-rise condominiums, sprawled Midwestern suburbs, and anywhere else with more people than cattle.

Many Americans were first introduced to the PHEV market through the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. The Volt, from inception, was an anomaly in the alternative vehicle market. It was sleek and luxurious, everything the Toyota Prius hybrid wasn’t. It came with a plug. It offered leather upholstery and a surround-sound audio system. For the first 35 miles, the Volt sucked power solely from its battery, and once the battery was gasping for air, an 84-horsepower engine took over. Three hydraulic clutches and a planetary gearset completed the mechanical shish kabob.

                                            2014 cadillac ELR Plug-in Hybrid

Other PHEVs followed. Honda introduced the Accord Plug-In Hybrid. Cadillac one-upped the Volt with the snazzy ELR. Most automakers adopted the trend established by the Volt: Keep it sexy. Most PHEVs were not Spartan eco-mobiles like the Honda Insight (R.I.P). They came with 18-way power-adjustable seats, satellite radio subscriptions, heavyweight audio systems and carbon fiber interior trim. Many PHEVs seem to have just escaped the wormhole of science fiction. BMW released the i8, a sleek and sporty PHEV with an EPA-estimated all-electric driving range of 15 miles and acceleration to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. In the UK, there is a one-year waiting list.

                                               2014 BMW i8 Plug-in Hybrid

PHEVs have come a long way from the mishmash GM XP-883. Like the BMW i8, many are opulent, fast, and expensive. If conventional hybrids represent thrift, plug-in hybrids throw in a dash of hedonism. They are a refusal to compromise on the modern lifestyle. But are they enough?

How Do They Work?

Modern PHEVs come in three basic flavors: gasoline-electric, diesel-electric, and hydrogen-electric.

Be aware: Every team of engineers has its own ideas how a plug-in hybrid should work. The Volt, for instance, can operate in one of five modes. There are a dozen or so PHEVs on the global market and about that many powertrain designs. Most fall into one of two categories:

Series or Extended-Range: In a series PHEV, the engine turns a generator, which powers the electric motor, which rotates the front wheels. With a fully charged battery, a series PHEV (e.g., the Chevy Volt) can operate on electricity alone for short distances. Afterwards, an engine kicks in to A) recharge the battery and B) power the wheels.
Parallel or Blended: The engine can power the wheels, the electric motor can power the wheels, or both can work hand-in-hand. Anything goes. Most blended PHEVs use electricity to power the vehicle at low speeds and gasoline to provide highway horsepower and bursts acceleration. Some researchers hope that that ultracapacitors could replace internal combustion engines in future PEHVs to supply that extra power.

For more information on charging electric powertrains, please see our feature on all-electric vehicles.

Gasoline-electric PHV

Almost all modern PHEVs are gasoline-electric hybrids. A rule of thumb is that a plug-in hybrid is 30-40 percent more efficient than a conventional hybrid, although that depends on driving conditions, frequency and duration. Honda, for example, estimates that the plug-in Accord is 70 percent more efficient than a conventional Accord.

Diesel-electric PHV

A plug-in diesel-electric hybrid is a rare jewel. As of January 2015, there is a total of one (mass produced): the Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid R-Design. The wagonette, which sells for USD $90,000 in Europe, combines a 215-horsepower diesel engine with a 70-horsepower electric motor. The diesel engine drives the front wheels; the electric motor, the rear ones. A driver can rely on just the engine, just the motor, or a combination. Volvo claims that the V60 plug-in hybrid achieves 130 miles per U.S. gallon.

Audi and Volkswagen also have plans to introduce diesel PHEVs. Few, if any, will be sold in North America.

Hydrogen-electric PHV

Hydrogen-electric PHEVs are even rarer than diesel-electric ones. There aren’t any on the market.

Not that automakers haven’t tried. At the 2007 Washington D.C. Auto Show, Ford drew the wraps off the Ford HySeries Edge, the world’s first plug-in hydrogen fuel cell-powered hybrid vehicle. “The plug-in hybrid is powered by a 336-volt lithium-ion battery pack at all times,” said Ford. After the first 25 miles, the hydrogen fuel cell clocked in, adding an additional 200 miles of range. Drivers who traveled less than 50 miles a day, said Ford, could expect more than 80 mpg. Approximate cost to develop: $2 million. There went that.

*Click on Images to Enlarge*
In Order Shown - 2014 Honda Gasoline PHEV; 2014 Volvo V60 Diesel PHEV; 2007 Ford HySeries Edge Hydrogen PHEV

What Is the Environmental Impact of PHEVs?

A gasoline-powered vehicle puts all its eggs in one basket. It requires unleaded 87 gasoline and can do with no other. No gas, no go.

PHEVs are different. Yes, they drink gas, but part of their operating energy comes from the grid, which is powered by multiple fuels. Here is the fuel source data for the 2013 United States electricity generation according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

  • Coal (39 percent)

  • Natural gas (27 percent)

  • Nuclear power (19 percent)

  • Hydropower (7 percent)

  • Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass (6 percent)

  • Petroleum (1 percent)

PHEVs diversify fuel sources. Because they use energy converted by hydropower or nuclear power, they reduce dependence on foreign oil wells or domestic fracking. An economist might say that PHEVs offer “energy resilience.”

They also may contribute to decreased smog, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less acid rain and superior public health.

Lastly, PHEVs have an ace up their sleeve. Were the country to adopt hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, natural gas automobiles or all-electric cars, the grid infrastructure would require a massive overhaul. PHEVs require no such thing. No Bunyan-sized engineering is needed. A handful of larger distribution transformers here and there would allow entire neighborhoods to plug in their PHEVs.

What Is the Psychological Impact of PHEVs?

If a Styrofoam cup is recycled, does the recycling justify the existence of the Styrofoam cup in the first place? Is it atonement – or just distraction?

In the same way, does a PHEV encourage utility and sustainability, 10-minute showers and carpooling? Or does it send the message that humans can outsmart Mother Nature, that tourists can cross the country to lounge in beach-side swimming pools and never pay toll to the land over which they drive?

Perhaps the answer is not what is driven, but how it is driven - and by whom.