Commentary: How the media may have punctured plug-in hybrids' balloon


2014 Chevrolet Volt

2014 Chevrolet Volt

Plug-in hybrids can offer most of the environmental benefits of long-range electric cars with less cost for giant batteries or range worries.

So why don't they sell better?

As our esteemed former editor John Voelcker regularly noted, consumers just don't get them. As he concluded in his post wrapping up nine years of editing Green Car Reports,

"...more than seven years after the debut of the Chevrolet Volt, consumers still don't understand what they are, how they work, or why they might be advantageous.

Consumers 'get' hybrids: They run on gasoline, but are more efficient, somehow. And they 'get' battery-electric cars: They're cars you plug in, like mobile phones.

Mix the two, and their eyes glaze over. It's a hybrid, but it has a plug? So it's an electric car? But it's only got 20 to 50 miles of range? Pfffft. You've lost them."

That may be largely the media'sincluding our ownfault.

A lot comes down to marketing.

When Chevrolet first introduced the Volt, the best-known and most capable plug-in hybrid sold then or since, General Motors pleaded foreven beggedmembers of the media not to call it a plug-in hybrid.

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The term didn't poll well in their marketing surveys and focus groups, they said. They asked us instead to call it an "extended range electric vehicle."

But then there was a kicker. The Volt wasn't a plug-in hybrid, they said, because as long as there was a charge in the battery, the car would never (well, never under "normal" conditions) use gas.

Other plug-in hybrids then on the way, and almost all others since, have motors too small or battery outputs too low to provide maximum acceleration without also running the gas engine whenever the driver floors the throttle. The Volt doesn't.

DON'T MISS: Plug-in hybrid problem: buyers don't understand them at all

The admonishment had several catches, though.

- First, just because the Volt could be considered an "extended-range electric vehicle," that didn't mean it wasn't a plug-in hybrid. What GM was really suggesting was that it was a new sub-type of plug-in hybrid. Many technically oriented publications (such as this one) had already been writing about the development of plug-in hybrids for more than a decade by the time the Volt came out, so it would have been confusing to readers to call the Volt something else.

- Second, there were still a lot of "abnormal" conditions where the Volt did need to start its gas engine, such as in cold weather to run the heater, or to run its monthly maintenance cycle. How different were those really from other plug-in hybrids that ran the engine for power occasionally?

- Finally, (and this was our most minor concern), it turned out after much obfuscation from GM that the car did get some power directly from its engine under limited conditions.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV Plugged into L1 in Corte Madera, Calif.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV Plugged into L1 in Corte Madera, Calif.

Perhaps the problem with consumer understanding, then, went back to Toyota's marketing when it launched the first real hybrid, the Prius. In much of the Prius's original marketing, Toyota crowed that it ran on gas and electricity, but "never has to be plugged in"—apparently anticipating that consumers would reject the car because they feared they might not be able to find a plug for it. That changed the definition of a hybrid once the Prius became the bestselling hybrid of all time. Again, much comes down to marketing.

It has always been clear that GM spends a lot more money on market research than reporters do. Chevrolet was right that "plug-in hybrid" doesn't resonate with consumers and seems only to confuse them.

CHECK OUT: 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV revisited: is this the car Bill Clinton wanted built?

In new ads for the Honda Clarity PHEV, Honda is trying a new tagline: "runs on electric; has gas when you need it." Or, it says in an ad, "the end of your battery charge isn't the end of the world." Whether or not the new approach is less confusing, it doesn't seem to have resonated much more than previous efforts, based on Clarity PHEV sales that haven't exactly dominated the plug-in market.

Perhaps if we in the media had pushed back against GM, not by insisting on calling the Volt a plug-in hybrid, but by insisting that all such cars that have both complete gas and electric drivetrains, and which rely primarily on electric power when the battery is charged are "extended range electric vehicles," the Volt and other plug-in hybrids might have been more successfuland consumers might be excited to buy them.

 
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