Scientists expose plug-in hybrid cars as climate killers – the most important facts

Plug-in hybrids such as the BMW 330e charge their electricity by cable.Image: bmw
Celebrated as a clean drive, ostracized as a climate killer – the plug-in hybrid is controversial. Plug-in hybrids can drive at least short distances without emissions. But they rarely do that, as practice shows.

Markus Abrahamczyk / t-online

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A clean, economical drive – and when you buy it in Germany there is still a substantial subsidy from the state: this simple formula makes the plug-in hybrid a successful model. Around every tenth new car in Europe and also in Switzerland is powered by the supposedly clean drive.
However, researchers have long since proved that the plug-in hybrid is far less clean than is often claimed. Now there is a new investigation. And in this respect, new models perform even worse than older ones.
Plug-in hybrids (PHEV) have a market share of 8.9% for new vehicles in Switzerland. Electric cars (BEV) 15.3% and hybrid cars (HEV) 25.3%.

Real consumption up to five times higher

For the study (PDF), the German Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT, a non-profit research organization) examined usage data from around 9,000 plug-in hybrids from across Europe. The most important result: the cars consume many times more than their manufacturers state.
"On average, the real fuel consumption and CO2 emissions of plug-in hybrid vehicles for private owners in Germany and other European countries are around three times higher than in the official test cycle, while the values for company cars are even around five times higher."

Patrick Ploetz, Fraunhofer Institute

The main results

According to official test procedures, the cars consume an average of around 1.6 to 1.7 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers. Their real consumption, however, is around 4.0 to 4.4 liters per 100 kilometers (for private plug-in hybrids). Company cars even consume 7.6 to 8.4 liters. This means that the discrepancies between stated and measured consumption are much higher than for cars with conventional combustion engines.
But why are company cars so much dirtier than private plug-in hybrids? It's not the technology – it's the same, of course. The reason is usage behavior: Private plug-in hybrids drive 45 to 49 percent of their routes largely electrically, company cars only 11 to 15 percent.
Mitsubishi Outlander: It is one of the most popular plug-in hybrids in Europe – but apparently not nearly as clean as many of its buyers believe. Image: Mitsubishi

What is a plug-in hybrid?

The "normal" hybrid car combines a combustion engine (usually a petrol engine) with an electric motor. Its battery is charged by the combustion engine and by recuperation, i.e. by recovering energy when braking. With the plug-in hybrid (also called PHEV because of its English name Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle), the battery can also be charged at the socket. It offers a very short electric range, while its heavy weight of around 200 kilograms significantly increases fuel consumption. The federal government still pays buyers of such a PHEV a high subsidy premium – but that will change soon.
So the driver can have a say in how clean a plug-in hybrid actually is. However, only to a certain extent. A deviation from the manufacturer's specification is installed in all cars, confirms Georg Bieker. The co-author of the study says: "Plug-in hybrids that are certified according to the new WLTP standard tend to show an even greater deviation than older, NEDC-certified models."
VW Touareg: The plug-in variant only covers a distance of just under 50 kilometers purely electrically – and mostly only in theory, say critics. For this reason, it is to be excluded from state subsidies in Germany in the future.
WLTP and NEDC are the standards according to which manufacturers have to determine the fuel consumption of their cars. Industry has a say in how these standards are designed. And this design is so unrealistic that the cars appear clean on the test bench. But only there.
The authors of the study therefore call for the test standard to be adapted to real usage behavior. Then the cars would no longer even look clean in the laboratory. In addition, subsidies for plug-in hybrids should be linked to proof that large sections of the route are exhaust-free.
Best-selling plug-in hybrids in Switzerland from January to May 2022
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