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Hybrids Cemented in Transitional Role

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Aug. 11, 2021—President Joe Biden grabbed headlines last week as he announced a plan to urge automakers toward zero-emission powertrains for half of new vehicles by 2030.

The plan includes directly addressing charging station infrastructure and moving forward with stricter emissions and efficiency standards. 

While the move is in step with plans that most automakers already had for electrification, it isn’t a mandate from the White House. And the plan leaves a lot of wiggle room for internal combustion hybrid powertrains to dominate production for years to come. For repairers and servicers, that means a hybrid approach to training and tools as well—managing battery packs while still performing that oil change for those models. 

Hybrids Welcome

To be sure, these new electrification goals can be a boom for battery-electric vehicle production. The New York Times reported that companies such as Tesla, with its all-electric fleet, are ahead of the curve with the goal of the White House’s plan. Also in line to benefit are slow-to-market, all-EV startups such as Rivian, which could get extra incentives to bring models to consumers.

“In between are General Motors, Ford Motor and Volkswagen, which have begun selling tens of thousands of electric cars but depend on vehicles with internal combustion engines for most of their revenue and profit,” according to The Times.

Though plug-in hybrids still have smaller market penetration than conventional, they’re seen as crucial transitional options for customers who aren’t fully sold on EVs. During a press event, Biden tooled around in a Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid.

Plug-in hybrids are much more efficient than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, but they are more complex and, at times, don’t achieve the full benefits of either battery or combustion-engine driving. Take the 4xe as an example, as described in Car and Driver:

To get the full fuel-economy benefit, you'll have to stay close to home and plug in often. A 150-mile trip with only a single charge tanked our average fuel economy over roughly 200 miles to a dismal 16 MPGe. Owners who are religious about plugging in and puttering around in Electric mode will certainly fare better, although we suspect most buyers will come up well short of 49 MPGe. Once the battery has been depleted, the 4xe actually gets worse fuel economy than a Wrangler powered by the turbo four with none of the plug-in-hybrid hardware (20 versus 22 mpg combined). Blame the extra 800 pounds that the 4xe carries wherever it goes.

Small Market Share

Biden’s plan includes plug-in hybrids but not conventional hybrids. Conventional hybrids, like the common Toyota Prius, have limited use for the battery, which charges using the internal combustion engine.

Plug-in hybrids are able to drive longer solely on electric power, and those battery packs are charged through an electrical plug. After the battery is depleted or driving requires more power, the internal combustion powertrain kicks in.

This move from conventional hybrid to plug-in hybrid will be a big move. According to registration data compiled in the 2022 Auto Care Association Factbook, consumers registered around 383,000 conventional hybrids in 2020 compared to 61,000 plug-in hybrids. Battery-electric vehicles made up 251,000 registrations.

The bottom line is that as your shop prepares to handle a new crop of battery-electric vehicles, your technicians’ skills in the internal combustion arena will not go to waste as hybrids will remain in the mix for years to come.

Image: Stellantis/Jeep

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