By on January 12, 2018

2018 Nissan Leaf

The 2018 North American International Auto Show, aka the Detroit Auto Show, is upon us, and at least one of the new vehicles shown will be electrified. But not necessarily electric.

Yet, journalists, both those who cover the industry and especially those who normally work other beats (such as business or news), will continue to incorrectly conflate the two. Which in turn will give this editor even more gray hairs.

The difference between electric and electrified vehicles is simple. Electric vehicles, otherwise known as “pure” EVs, are vehicles solely powered by electricity. Electrified vehicles, by contrast, are powered in part by electricity. Hybrids are an example of the latter, as are range-extended electrics, mild hybrids, and plug-in hybrids.

Another way to think of it, as a Jaguar PR flack tells Digital Trends, is like rectangles and squares. Squares are always rectangles, but rectangles aren’t always squares. Which means all “pure” EVs are electrified, but not all electrified vehicles are electric vehicles. A more in-depth breakdown can be found here.

“Pure” EVs on the market include all three Tesla models, the Nissan Leaf, and Chevrolet Bolt. Hybrids include the Toyota Prius, while the Chevrolet Volt is an extended-range electric, as is the BMW i3.

Look, I get it. Before my time here at TTAC, I freelanced for our sister site, and I occasionally got the virtual knuckle-wrap for using the wrong term. Now that the correct application has been beaten into my thick skull, I want to make a plea to the rest of the automotive press, along with the business press and the news section – learn the distinction and get it right.

This also goes for politicians – former president Barack Obama got it wrong and inadvertently caused confusion over what he meant when he said he wanted “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.” He meant “electrified.”

This distinction is important because consumers still don’t seem to understand the various terms related to electrified vehicles, and if the market share of both electrified vehicles and EVs is going to grow, consumer recognition will be part of that. Especially as Tesla continues to be a major part of industry conversations.

It’s also important as a way of parsing automaker announcements concerning future plans. Lots of OEMs claim “percentage X” of their fleet will be “electric” by a given year. That doesn’t mean they’ll be electric vehicles, though – in many cases it means they plan on building more hybrids, or making so-called “mild” hybrid powertrains available on some models. A “mild” hybrid is a hybrid in which an electric motor or motors assists a gas engine with propulsion, but the gas engine remains the primary source.

A prime example of how misuse of terms leads, in part, to poor reporting came earlier this year. Volvo announced it would commit to having all its models be electric or hybrid by 2020. Some outlets breathlessly reported it as Volvo going “all-electric.” Not exactly true, since the hybrid models would still use internal-combustion engines as part of their powertrains. Not to mention that this announcement applied to only new models, and not ones carrying over.

Misreporting basic terms hurts journalistic credibility, obviously, but also does a disservice to consumers. Imagine the Volvo intender who walks into a showroom in 2020, does all the research, and realizes that the “electric” Volvo he or she wanted is actually a mild hybrid. That person won’t be happy to find that only three Volvos will be available as “pure” EVs (plus two Polestars, if plans carry forward as promised).

I make this plea to my colleagues now not just because of what models may be unveiled in Detroit, but because the NAIAS is the auto show that gets the most coverage from the non-automotive press. I’ve stalked the halls at Cobo most years since 2009 or so, and I spot plenty of business writers and news writers mingling with us weirdos who cover cars exclusively. With the possible exception of New York (which is obviously a media-centric city), I’ve never seen a show that’s so spotlighted by other parts of the media. Parts of the media which probably reach more car buyers than most automotive-centric websites.

That’s why this matters. TTAC and AutoGuide and our competitors/compatriots may finally be getting the distinction correct, but if the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and Washington Post aren’t getting it right in their business and consumer sections, the problem persists and consumers remain confused.

I know it’s easy to conflate these terms, which is why it happens. For the sake of clarity, though, let’s get it right.

Today’s media world is already confusing enough, thanks to an ever-changing and noisy news cycle, a cyclone of chaos dominating the political media thanks to the actions of one particular politician, and partisan outlets outpacing objective mainstream media for attention. Let’s get at least one little thing right in our quest to make better sense of it all.

[Image: Nissan]

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29 Comments on “It’s Electric – or Electrified – Whatever, Just Get it Right...”

  • avatar

    How did the Leaf become one of the best looking Nissan small(er) cars?

  • avatar
    Jeremiah Mckenna

    Makes sense to me.

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    Good article.
    Now if you can do public education about KW-hrs vs KW, concrete vs cement, 3 pedal manuals vs videogame manuals, Cd vs Cd x frontal area ….

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good article, Tim.

    Personally, I don’t think of non-plug-in hybrids as electrified, because their only source of fuel is gasoline.

    To me, that’s a bit like noting that windshield wipers are electrified, because in the old days they used to be vacuum-driven. I get it that we’re talking about the means of propulsion within the vehicle, but I think the fuel requirement is more relevant.

    • 0 avatar

      Your commentary goes with my thinking. My 16 Prius has an exceptionally efficient gas motor that works through a sophisticated transmission that happens to include a big battery and powerful electric motor/generators all orchestrated by fine tuned silicon and software.
      It is a gas vehicle, an amazingly efficient one. Over 15,000 miles it has used 4.8 teaspoons of gas per mile traveled (if I got my conversion factors correct . . .62.2mpg in any case)

  • avatar

    As you point out, marketers will do their best to make this difficult. PHEVs with long enough range that average commuters can stay on battery, like the Volt and i3 Rex, are going to be marketed as “range-extended electric,” not “plug-in hybrid.” Mild hybrids that amount to a better start/stop system are going to be marketed as “hybrid-electric.”

    I think the best thing isn’t to stick with “electrified” or “electric,” but to try to popularize categories that really are descriptive. This is easy with BEVs and PHEVs but gets harder when you are looking at non-PHEV hybrids. How do you divide the variety of systems out there into easy-to-understand categories? You’ve got:

    – 48-volt stop/start systems with a motor that’s just big enough to instantly start the engine and provide a few lb-ft of assist
    – Systems with a single motor that’s big enough to really handle some of the propulsion duties, but is behind a conventional transmission
    – Dual-motor planetary-gear systems, either without or with a conventional transmission also in the mix
    – Cars that are usually series hybrids, with primary power provided by the electric motor and the engine used as a generator or for assist at cruising speed

    Each of these have very different strengths and weaknesses, and consumers somehow need to learn to distinguish them.

  • avatar

    Bottom line – the words are going to mean exactly what the person saying them wants them to mean, until they want them to mean something else. It’s an intentional grey/slip area that’s useful when goalposts need to be moved later on.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Just like everything else in our culture.

    • 0 avatar

      You can bet that Volvo absolutely wanted the EV loving media and public policy makers to believe that EVERY Volvo would be 100% battery powered by 2020, otherwise they would have said “battery and gasoline-electric hybrid” or some other clarifying terminology. Until EVs and hybrids become profitable, they are for all intents and purposes nothing but public relations tools to keep politicians from jacking up fuel economy standards even further.

  • avatar

    People ought to be informed there are a lot more hybrids on the roads than they realize because most hybrid models have only a small logo to identify them.

    And an article exploding the more common myths about hybrids is far past being overdue.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      What do you think those myths are?

      • 0 avatar

        The main one is that the battery will require an $8000 replacement every few years. Also, bad mileage in winter, bad highway mileage, unreliability. Lots more depending where you want to drill down. Battery component pollution and shortages, for example.

        I’d be happy to provide a more extensive list to any journalist interested in doing a sincere article.

        • 0 avatar

          Bad highway mileage isn’t a myth, it’s just the way hybrids are designed. Highways don’t provide as many opportunities to recapture energy as city driving does.

          • 0 avatar

            I’ve seen the electric assist kick in on a Prius in mountainous areas at highway speeds.

          • 0 avatar

            Yeah because there was a slipped to generate a charge. Most highways are relatively flat.

          • 0 avatar

            Here in the Northeast we have quite a few that definitely aren’t flat. The time I saw it kicking in on the Prius was i89 through NH and Vermont. I was the passenger and was watching the numbers and graphs display on the center display. The electric motor was definitely smoothing out the climbs and recovering a bit on the descents.

          • 0 avatar

            “Bad highway mileage isn’t a myth, it’s just the way hybrids are designed. Highways don’t provide as many opportunities to recapture energy as city driving does.”

            Thanks for the opportunity to address one myth about hybrids.

            Steady driving on flat straight highways does not make use of hybrids’ regenerative braking. Nor is engine stop/start a benefit on highways. Regenerative braking is only one aspect of what makes hybrids efficient.

            But compared to equivalent non-hybrids they still have the following that improve mileage on highways: a relatively small gas engine, which runs on the efficient Atkinson cycle, and is always at the ideal rpm using a cvt. They may also benefit from electric power steering, electric a/c compressor, lrr tires and streamlining tweaks.

            So although hybrids do not enjoy as big a mileage advantage on the highway as in the city, they still get better mileage than equivalent non-hybrids on highways.

            So the claim hybrids get bad highway mileage is garbage. Next myth please.

          • 0 avatar

            Not a myth. Not all hybrids use CVTs either. And all cars these days use electric power steering. It’s just the nature of the best. It’s not like they get horrible highway fuel economy but they do get significantly worse highway economy than city economy, and some pure ICE vehicles actually do better on the highway. and because there’s less opportunity to take advantage of the hybrid power train, they’re also essentially a relatively underpowered ICE vehicle for a significant portion of highway driving anyway.

            You seem to want to talk about the Prius in specific but there are a lot of hybrid models out there now. They’re a known quantity. And it’s just life that they aren’t all that hot on the highway. Mind you, I plan to buy one anyway, because my morning “highway” commute bears a strong resemblance to city stop and go driving because of all the traffic. But I’m also not going to lie to myself: if my drive was truly all highway a hybrid would not necessarily be the right choice.

          • 0 avatar

            I have a bit of a thing about the many myths that have been spread about hybrids. I believe these myths originated with auto journalists and have impaired sales of hybrids. And that effect has carried over into ev’s.

            Since I bought my hybrid 5 years ago, not one of the people I know who have bought cars have chosen hybrids. Despite being exposed to mine and despite most of them having libtard and envirotard sympathies.

            When pressed, they all say they are not comfortable with having a hybrid. Most of them cite the myths, regardless of any amount of evidence to the contrary. The hybrid liars just plain got to them first.

          • 0 avatar

            ttacgreg: Funny, I read the two articles before reading your correction. I wondered how to put it tactfully that the articles actually confirmed my comments. Then I read the correction…

            Thanks for your input.

          • 0 avatar

            “Not a myth. Not all hybrids use CVTs either. And all cars these days use electric power steering. It’s just the nature of the best. It’s not like they get horrible highway fuel economy but they do get significantly worse highway economy than city economy, and some pure ICE vehicles actually do better on the highway. and because there’s less opportunity to take advantage of the hybrid power train, they’re also essentially a relatively underpowered ICE vehicle for a significant portion of highway driving anyway.”

            It depends on the circumstances but hybrids generally get only slighrly worse city mileage than highway mileage. In the city the losses from stop&go are offset by the lower wind resistance from slower speeds.

            Of course some pure ICE cars get better hughway mileage than some hybrids. I was careful to state a comparison between a hybrid and an EQUIVALENT non-hybrid.

            Hybrids get much better mileage than equivalent non-hybrids in city driving, and better mileage in highway driving.

            Almost all highway driving uses only a fraction of the gas engine’s available power. This is why there are all sorts of approaches to minimize the losses from operating an engine that is vastly outsized most of the time. These measures include turbochargers and cylinder deactivation. Hybrids start with smaller engines running the Atkinson Cycle, and call on the electrical system when a boost is needed. So far there are only one or two non-hybrids that ever run on the Atkinson Cycle, so for now it is a hybrid attribute.

        • 0 avatar

          May I offer this as a counterpoint to your comment?

          and this

          • 0 avatar

            Lost my edit access, strike that first sentence and replace with,
            “May I offer these links as more info on the subject?”

        • 0 avatar

          I think it’s a myth that gas engines are most efficient on the highway. It’s actually where they are the least inefficient. Maybe I’m playing word games here but EVs don’t have a disadvantage on the highway so much as they have a large advantage in stop and go traffic. The energy to overcome drag increases by the cube of velocity so at 70+ it doesn’t matter what your driving, efficiency has gone out the window.

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