The automotive industry is shifting to electric vehicles (EVs). New models of all shapes and sizes, from SUVs to pickup trucks and sedans, are arriving at new-car dealerships across the USA to compete with Tesla, the industry leader in EVs.
But what makes a car “electric”? And how can you tell the difference between the many types of electric and electrified vehicles? In this article, we explain the five main types of electric vehicles.
What is a Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle?
Mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) drive like standard, internal-combustion-engine (ICE) vehicles. The main difference is that mild hybrids have additional components that can improve a vehicle’s performance and fuel economy.
For example, vehicles with 48-volt MHEV technology have a small, rechargeable battery that supplies the power to operate various vehicle systems, reducing the strain on the ICE and allowing the car to coast and idle for extended periods without using the ICE. For instance, the 48-volt MHEV eTorque system in the Ram 1500 can maintain power for up to 10 minutes without using the engine, saving fuel when stuck in traffic.
Many MHEVs also employ a small electric motor, such as an integrated starter generator (ISG), that improves a vehicle’s performance and fuel economy. The electric motor assists the ICE with initial acceleration from a stop, increasing fuel economy. It also enhances performance by producing additional horsepower and torque, helping with tasks such as towing and quick acceleration. This is why automakers install the technology in everything from pickups and SUVs to performance sedans.
MHEV components can collectively improve a vehicle’s fuel economy by five to 20 percent.
What is a Hybrid Electric Vehicle?
Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are the most common type of electrified vehicle and have been around for decades. The iconic Toyota Prius is the best-known hybrid in the world, but not everyone knows how these electrified powertrains work.
Like mild-hybrid vehicles, hybrids have a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine. To make the ICE more fuel-efficient, an automaker will add a small battery pack, an electric-assist motor, and a regenerative braking system that can capture the energy typically lost during braking and use it to recharge the battery pack. In a hybrid vehicle, the battery powers the electric-assist motor, which helps the hybrid accelerate. It also powers the car at low speeds, such as in traffic or shopping mall parking lots, without assistance from the ICE.
Together, an HEV’s battery and electric motor reduce the amount of work the ICE must perform to move the vehicle, and, in turn, the ICE returns better fuel economy.
What is a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle?
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are the next step up from hybrids. They differ from standard hybrids precisely as the name suggests: these are ICE-equipped hybrids that you can plug into an electrical outlet. To take advantage of the electric grid’s power, PHEVs have a larger battery pack than standard hybrids. The battery pack stores energy that powers the wheels using an electric motor.
Plug-in hybrids typically offer some measure of all-electric range, which refers to how many miles a PHEV can travel using only the energy in the battery, without assistance from the gas engine. Depending on the model, PHEVs offer anywhere from a dozen to around 50 miles of all-electric range. A PHEV automatically switches between all-electric and gasoline modes or can operate solely on electricity or gas, depending on the driver’s wishes.
Because they don’t have large batteries and extended driving-range capabilities, PHEVs will happily accept a charge from a standard wall outlet. This means you don’t need to upgrade to a home charging station (though doing so will recharge a PHEV much faster). Plug-in hybrids also have a standard fuel tank so that you can refuel the vehicle at a gas station.
The great thing about PHEVs is that you can drive primarily on electricity most of the time and then take a cross-country road trip without worrying about ever plugging it in. In effect, PHEVs eliminate range anxiety, the fear that you won’t be able to find a charging station when you’re driving a fully electric vehicle far from home.
What is a Battery Electric Vehicle?
Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are where the industry is headed, with automakers and governments making big claims about the types of cars everyone will be driving in the future. Europe, for example, is considering a ban on sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles after 2035, but lawmakers haven’t yet finalized the details. The good news is that the number of BEV models continues to grow, with new options coming from small startups as well as existing global automakers.
While most people refer to battery electric vehicles as “EVs,” some also refer to them as BEVs. Whatever term you use, the critical thing to know is that these vehicles do not burn any liquid fuel (gasoline or diesel) and instead rely solely on electricity from the grid. An EV stores its energy in a large battery and sends it to anywhere between one and four motors to power the wheels.
Battery electric vehicles can plug into the power grid in three primary ways. First is a standard, 110-volt wall outlet. While this method will successfully charge a BEV, it is not ideal as it can take days to fully recharge an empty EV battery pack. Many BEV owners use a Level 2 charger, which requires a charging unit that connects to a 240-volt outlet, similar to what some home clothes dryers or workshop tools might plug into. A Level 2 charger can usually replenish an EV’s battery from empty in 6-12 hours, depending on the size of the battery pack. EV owners can install a Level 2 charger at home; many are available at public charging locations.
The most powerful chargers are DC fast chargers. These can bring an EV’s battery pack up to 80-percent full in around 20-40 minutes, depending on the vehicle. Because of the way batteries accept energy, it’s better for the long-term life of the battery to go quickly to 80 percent and then slow the rate of charge. DC fast chargers are typically found in public locations like shopping malls and adjacent to highways, offering EV drivers a chance to “fill up” on road trips or while running errands.
Different EVs use different DC fast-charge adapters. Tesla, for example, has its own proprietary connectors. Most other EV automakers use a CCS connector. Some older models, like the Nissan Leaf, use the CHAdeMO connector, but EV makers are phasing them out in favor of CCS. Also, Tesla could soon open its expansive U.S. network of fast-charging stations, called Superchargers, to other EVs.
What is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle?
Currently, there are only two new hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) models available today—the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai. While these cars don’t plug into the grid, they’re still referred to as electric vehicles because electricity powers a motor that moves the wheels. The key difference is that the electricity comes from a fuel cell instead of the grid.
A fuel cell is somewhat like an ICE in that it converts fuel into energy. An FCEV doesn’t run on gasoline, though. It requires hydrogen (H2) fuel, stored in a special hydrogen fuel tank onboard the vehicle, which a driver can refill at an H2 station using a connector hose similar to a gas pump, but with a more secure nozzle.
To create the electricity to power the vehicle, the FCEV’s fuel cell uses a chemical reaction to convert the H2 into electricity, which then flows through a battery and to the electric motors. The only byproduct of this process is environmentally harmless water vapor, which the FCEV emits from its tailpipe.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, only 48 hydrogen refueling stations are in operation across the country, with 47 of those located in California. There is reason to expect this number to grow, however, as a number of trucking companies have expressed interest in developing hydrogen-fuel-cell trucks for long-haul shipments.
People commonly refer to mild hybrids, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles as “electric” or “electrified vehicles.” While, technically, they all fit under this umbrella, they’re quite different and require different ways of refueling, except for hybrids.
To learn more about the different types of EVs currently available and arriving soon, check out our Shopping Guides and New Car Previews.