Learn the facts: Electric-drive vehicles

What is the issue?

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will become increasingly prominent as automakers respond to progressively more stringent fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas regulations.

What do I need to know?

BEVs and PHEVs use electricity to achieve greater operating efficiency and reduce fuel consumption. Both vehicle types are plugged into the electric power grid to charge on-board battery packs, and both types use electric drive systems.

  • BEVs are electric-only. They are propelled by an electric motor (or motors) that draw electricity from on-board rechargeable batteries. When the batteries run low, they must be plugged in to recharge. Electric vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions.
  • PHEVs use both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. Their batteries can be charged by plugging them in. Although PHEVs do not have to be plugged in to be driven, they will not achieve optimal fuel consumption or maximum driving range without charging. There are two types of PHEVs available:
    • series PHEVs – An internal combustion engine is used to generate electricity only; an electric motor is used to propel the vehicle. Series PHEVs can run in electric-only mode until the battery needs to be recharged. The engine will then generate the electricity needed to power the electric motor. When operating in electric-only mode, series PHEVs produce no tailpipe emissions.
    • blended PHEVs – An internal combustion engine and an electric motor are connected to the wheels, and both propel the vehicle under most driving conditions. Electric-only operation may occur at lower speeds.
  • Electric drive motors are much more efficient than combustion engines and drivetrains. The efficiency of energy conversion from on-board storage to turning the wheels is nearly five times greater for electricity than gasoline, at approximately 76% and 16%, respectively. BEVs and PHEVs further increase vehicle efficiency by using regenerative braking technology to recover energy that would have otherwise been lost.
  • BEVs and PHEVS have known challenges. The current challenges with PHEVs and more so with BEVs are that the battery packs are expensive, and their relatively small storage capacity limits the driving range.

For example, the stated driving range of the Nissan LEAF®, a BEV, is 135 km. However, in practice, the driving range may be less because it is affected by:

  • climate control use – The more extreme the temperature is outside, the more energy is used to heat or cool the cabin, which shortens the driving range.
  • speed – Higher speeds require much more energy to overcome air resistance, which shortens the driving range.
  • driving style – Smooth acceleration and deceleration extend the driving range while aggressive acceleration and deceleration decrease it.
  • weight and topography – Carrying heavy cargo and driving up long or steep inclines reduces the driving range.
  • Electric vehicles need a charging infrastructure (somewhere to plug in). Although you can charge an electric vehicle in a standard 120-V home outlet, charging takes 16 to 20 hours. If a 240-V home charging station is installed, the charge time is typically 4 to 8 hours. This type of outlet is used in homes for electric stoves, clothes dryers and central air conditioning. Commercial charging stations use much higher power levels so an 80% charge can take only 30 minutes. Industry is working to improve battery technology and develop a widespread commercial charging infrastructure.
  • BEV and PHEV choices are limited, but more are expected in the near future. Most major automakers are developing BEVs or PHEVs for the North American market.

How can I help?

Consider a BEV or PHEV if you are looking to improve the fuel efficiency of your vehicle, reduce fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions. To get the most benefit from such a vehicle, you will need to charge it at home. You also need to understand your driving habits and decide whether the limited range of a BEV will suit your needs.

What are the savings and benefits?

BEVs and PHEVs operating in electric-only mode produce no tailpipe emissions. The cost of electricity per kilometre is much lower than that of gasoline: an EV costs about 2 to 3¢/km (at 12¢/kWh), compared to a typical 4-cylinder gasoline vehicle at 8 to 9¢/km (at $1.09/L).