It's Electric - or Electrified - Whatever, Just Get It Right

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

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 HybridCars.com, 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]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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18 of 29 comments
  • Npaladin2000 Npaladin2000 on Jan 12, 2018

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Stingray65 Stingray65 on Jan 12, 2018

      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.

  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on Jan 12, 2018

    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.

    • See 13 previous
    • Tandoor Tandoor on Jan 13, 2018

      @brandloyalty 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.

  • JK I grew up with Dodge trucks in the US, and now live in Turin, Italy, the home of Fiat. I don't think Italians view this as an Italian company either. There are constant news articles and protests about how stalantis is moving operations out of Italy. Jeep is strangely popular here though. I think last time I looked at stelantis's numbers, Jeep was the only thing saving them from big big problems.
  • Bd2 Oh yeah, funny how Trumpers (much less the Orange Con, himself) are perfectly willing to throw away the Constitution...
  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.
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