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At 78, Jim Beermann realizes his carbon footprint will go to zero sometime in the not-too-distant future. He’s just hoping to keep it relatively low in the meantime. So Beermann was frustrated to find that his senior center in Juno Beach, Florida, doesn’t have electric vehicle chargers or plans to build them anytime soon.
Like many people on the cusp of EV adoption, Beermann bought himself a hybrid instead. In a typical week, he drives his 2019 Ford Fusion — a plugless car — about 140 miles and uses a little less than three gallons of gasoline. “More than anything it’s the footprint I’m leaving,” he says. “I appreciate the fact that I’m using less gasoline … and the fact that I’m not using the car a lot is also reducing my footprint.”
The humble hybrid vehicle, long considered a half-step on the road to electrified transport, is sticking around longer than many anticipated, as carmakers work out the kinks on manufacturing full EVs at scale and consumers deal with sticker shock. In the first nine months of the year, drivers around the world bought almost 2 million hybrid vehicles, a 45% increase from the year-earlier period, according to BloombergNEF. Full EVs are far more popular — they outsell hybrids at a pace almost three to one — but the two technologies have accelerated in parallel. Over the past three years, EV sales are up almost five-fold, while hybrid sales have quadrupled.
For many drivers, it appears, a few electric miles are enough — and certainly better than none at all.
For carmakers, hybrids present a pragmatic way to dip a toe into electrification and capitalize on the wide swath of drivers who are both EV-curious and EV-skeptical. While a fully electric vehicle requires dedicated architecture to accommodate a massive battery, engineers can easily tuck away the smaller power plant found in most hybrids. That means almost any car can be hybridized without too much additional cost.Three of the most popular BMW models, for example, come in a full-gasoline or a plug-in version that can manage up to 30 miles entirely on electrons. The story is similar at Hyundai, where two of the best-selling models can be had in three fuel forms: gas, plugless hybrid or a more robust plug-in hybrid.
Toyota, in particular, is capitalizing on the trend: One quarter of the vehicles it sold globally this year have both a gas engine and an electric motor. The company also just unveiled the fifth iteration of its Prius, some 25 years after the car’s debut.
Toyota is keeping a hybrid-heavy lineup in part because it expects battery materials and charging infrastructure to remain scarce for at least the coming decade. “We need to employ systems thinking,” Gill Pratt, Toyota’s chief scientist, recently told Bloomberg. “Battery cells should be put where they will do the most good.” From a carbon perspective, Pratt says dozens of hybrids in a fleet of cars is cleaner than just a few EVs.
The extension of hybrids’ half-step moment has a lot to do with the electric future’s faltering start. EV fever is rising faster than most auto executives expected, and car companies are hustling to catch up. For some countries, the gap between demand and supply is closing quickly. In Norway, for example, every fifth car on the road is an EV, and in China one quarter of new car sales are electric. But as factories rush to link battery supply chains and spool up new assembly lines, many places won't see supply meet demand for years. In the US, one quarter of potential car buyers wanted to go electric in the first half of 2022, but only 4% of vehicles coming out of North American factories fit the bill.
That imbalance has made it tough to find an electric car, especially one at a decent price. The average sticker price for an EV in October was almost $59,000 in the US, nearly a quarter more than the industry at large, according to Edmunds. Hybrids were more expensive than gas cars, but only slightly.
“They make sense for someone looking to maximize value,” says Edmunds analyst Ivan Drury. “They’re not nearly as costly as full EVs, nor do they come with compromises.”
There’s also a growing awareness that full EVs come with a notable carbon footprint of their own. Driving an electric car generates little in the way of emissions, but mining rare earth metals for giant batteries and shipping those ponderous power plants around the world emits far more than stamping out an engine to burn gasoline — up to two times more, according to CarbonCounter.com, a model developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Trancik Lab. And while a full electric vehicle is always the cleaner option over the life of a car, some consumers — particularly those who don’t drive very much — figure a hybrid is a fairly similar shade of green.
“I don’t know that we necessarily need two cars, but we sort of need like 1.5 cars,” says Kate Buckens, a food stylist who lives in rural Connecticut with her husband and toddler. In May, the couple bought a hybrid Toyota Rav4 Prime to supplement their gasoline-powered 2015 Subaru Forester. When Buckens travels to New York for a styling job, about half of the trip — each way — is entirely on electrons.
“The full electric vehicle is in our future, but we’re not ready for it right now,” she says. “And if we’re in our 30-mile radius, which is how we tend to live when I’m not working, then we use very little gas, often none at all.”
The Buckens’ Rav4 didn’t take much carbon to make, at least not much more than a standard Rav4 that runs on dead dinosaur goo. Over its lifetime, a Toyota bZ4X, the company’s new EV, will emit 46% less carbon than a standard Rav4, according to CarbonCounter. The hybrid Rav4 Prime, however, is no carbon slouch; its emissions will be about 36% lower than its internal-combustion cousin by the time it rolls into a recycling center.
“On average, your emissions are substantially lower if you go for the full electric,” says Jessika Trancik, an MIT professor and architect of the school’s CarbonCounter. “But we could probably think of extreme edge cases where a hybrid is just as good.”
A small, lighter hybrid car, for example, closes the carbon gap on a bulky gasoline-powered truck. Likewise, the difference in emissions between a hybrid and a full EV is lower in parts of the country where the power grid is still rich with fossil-fuel generation — for example, the Mountain West. Topping up a Tesla in Wyoming is a dirtier exercise than doing so in Texas, a gusher of renewable energy.
Ultimately, Trancik says people should try to electrify as much of their travel as they are able, particularly because any new vehicle is going to be around for at least 10 to 15 years.
“It’s really like a tiny power plant — that’s the commitment you’re making to whatever type of fuel it uses,” she says. “As a consumer, you can think of yourself as an agent of market creation for the technology you choose; you’re shifting the market in a small way.”
(By Kyle Stock)
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