The case for rethinking the path to electrification

Confusion over EV terms and technology remains

We’ve all heard it, ad nauseum: the future of mobility is electric. You may even have seen it in this column.

If so, let me refine that statement just a little: the future of mobility may be electric but the smart path from here to there may be electrification.

Double-talk? Not exactly. When talking about automobiles, there’s a difference between the terms “electrified” and “electric.” The former involves some use of electric power to drive a vehicle; the latter uses only electric power.

Stated differently, electrified vehicles include hybrids, which rely on some other energy source to provide at least part of their power needs and/or recharge their batteries. Electric vehicles, at least in the current context, include only full-time battery electrics.

You may have read that here before, too. But it’s worth restating because it’s become a huge — some may say intentional — point of confusion in the mass media and among the general public.

It is not uncommon, for example, for sales of any plug-in vehicle to be reported as electric vehicle sales. Based on that interpretation, EV sales were said to surpass 2.2 per cent of the market in Canada in 2018.

In fact, pure electric vehicles accounted for just over 1.1 per cent of the market, with plug-in hybrids making up the balance of that figure.

Which is not to minimize the importance of that one-percent, as it did represent about a two-thirds increase from the year before and almost twice the volume of the year before that. It is worth noting, however, that almost half those total EV sales were attributed to Teslas, and the significant majority of those to the belated arrival of the Model 3.

In analyzing the significance of those results, one must ask: “How many of those Tesla customers were buying an electric vehicle and how many were buying a social statement?”

Another question to be addressed in determining the true potential of the EV market is how many buyers would be there in the absence of subsidies? While availability is certainly a factor, sales of those vehicles in provinces without subsidies were almost zero. And in some, they were zero.

For good reason. Their additional cost is significant. And their limitations in terms of range, recharge accessibility and time, and the effects of cold weather, while improving, remain very real for many people.

All of which suggests that, rather than an all-in wholesale commitment to pure electric vehicles, a phase-in by way of partial electrification — as with plug-in-hybrids — might be a more realistic approach. Not to mention a means of hedging our collective bets.

The sales success of Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV reinforces that point. While relatively new to the market, it is Canada’s top-selling plug-in hybrid, with sales challenging those of the Tesla Model3 and the Nissan Leaf, the two best-selling pure electrics.

Further down the sales charts among both genres, Chevrolet’s aging Volt plug-in hybrid still outsold the brand’s newer all-electric Bolt in Canada (although that position was marginally reversed in the U.S.). It’s a curious decision, therefore, that GM has decided to discontinue the Volt after pioneering the technology now being adopted, conceptually at least, by others.

It’s a technology that offers customers most of the advantages of both conventional and electric powertrains, essentially without sacrifice. And it is still far from optimized.

What if, for example, the internal combustion engine used was designed solely to charge the on-board batteries, or perhaps capacitors, which in turn power the wheel motors — a true serial hybrid?

The original Volt and the BMW i8 went almost there. Now, Nissan may be ready to take the concept further.

Nissan’s IMq concept vehicle, introduced at the recent Geneva Motor Show, featured what it calls its e-Power hybrid system, with a small gasoline engine that serves only as a generator. A version of the technology is already on the market in Japan.

Rumours also persist that Mazda is considering a similar system using a high-efficiency rotary engine as the source of power generation.

Engines used in that way can be tuned to operate in a very narrow range of speed and output, thus enabling levels of efficiency and exhaust cleanliness undreamed of in conventional vehicle use, while maintaining customers’ expected driving range and refueling advantages.

Would such vehicles satisfy zero-emission requirements? No, not quite. But they could dramatically reduce current levels of fuel consumption and CO2 output without requiring drivers to sacrifice any comfort, convenience or driving range.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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