EV range and cost-effectiveness: Chevy Volt versus Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid
Plug-in success will ultimately be driven by cost effectiveness and nothing else
What’s the best EV range to achieve plug-in cost-effectiveness? While most plug-in proponents typically believe the most range possible is the best range, it’s cost-effectiveness that ultimately matters most to mainstream consumers — the key to plug-in success — not range.
Of course, EV range does matter, particularly if it’s not perceived to be enough range. Therefore, plug-in hybrids are seen as a critical bridge to pure battery-powered electric vehicles with essentially every forecast through 2030 demonstrating that hybrids will dominate plug-in sales.
But just how much range should plug-in hybrids and range extended EVs offer?
Again, cost-effectiveness will be the key metric to plug-in success, and earlier this year Oxford University completely a study that suggested that small battery plug-in vehicles with almost dynamic charging offer the greatest mainstreaming potential. Unfortunately, ‘dynamic charging’ just isn’t yet on the table.
Still, the point of the Oxford study was that keeping the battery in plug-ins as small as possible keeps costs down the most.
Today, most hardcore plug-in fans mock the EV range of small battery plug-in hybrids such as the upcoming Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, but a new UK EV study demonstrates that Toyota’s 13 miles of EV range might be far closer to the sweet spot of plug-in cost-effectiveness than critics might want to admit. In the UK, for instance, the average single way commute is just 7 miles.
For years now, Toyota has claimed that most one way commutes are less than 10 miles. 10 miles to work, 10 miles home and 6 miles back and forth to the grocery store, for instance, for a total of 26 miles. Or just 20 miles if the store isn’t need. In the UK, it might be just 14 miles. And then 300 miles back and forth to the weekend camping spot.
So, what’s the best plug-in option?
Both the Chevy Volt and the Prius plug-in hybrid can both meet the needs of these commuters, but which does it better? GM’s 40 miles of range enables the Volt to achieve most commuting needs with home-based electricity, and 37 mpg for the weekend trips.
The Prius plug-in hybrid offers 13 miles of EV range, backed up by 50 mpg.
Which car wins? Well doesn’t that ultimately boil down to costs?
The Volt costs about $40,000. The Prius should come in at least $5000 cheaper, but could undercut the Volt by as much as $10,000 or more. In fact, Toyota has indicated that a plug-in Prius might only cost $3000 more than a conventional Prius. One way or another the plug-in Prius will have an upfront pricing advantage.
Then again, the Volt can use nothing but electricity for 70 percent of all commutes — at least based on averages thus far — while the plug-in Prius is just half that, at best. Thus, the Volt is a better foreign oil dependence fighter, right?
Maybe. However, if every car in America’s fleet achieved 50 mpg, America wouldn’t need to import any foreign oil. The current Prius achieves that without any plug. So EV range isn’t necessarily the key to foreign oil independence, it’s replacing America’s gas-guzzling fleet as quickly as possible that is the real key to US energy independence. And that’s only going to be achieved with the cheapest, most cost-effective solutions.
Nevertheless, the Prius plug-in could still match the Volt’s EV range, without adding more expensive batteries. For instance, what if businesses start adding smart grid technologies and smart chargers to their locations? Consequently, a plug-in Prius driver could still use mostly electricity on a 20 mile commute, even though EV range is only 13 miles.
With a 240 volt charger and with 3 miles of EV range left in the battery, a Prius plug-in could be fully recharged in just a little over an hour. Therefore, in a 9 hour day — one hour for lunch — the plug-in Prius only needs one hour of charging, leaving 8 hours for load balancing, especially during peak hours.
Eventually, businesses might be able to cut down on energy costs, while also providing free energy to employees.
Sure, that’s a bit futuristic and perfect world-ish, but the technologies for such an arrangement exist today, it’s all about implementation and whether or not such systems could actually be a win-win for commuters and businesses. More important, however, such systems get closer to the dynamic charging that the Oxford study suggests could lead to far faster plug-in adoption than anyone — even the most optimistic researchers — are forecasting.
Of course, while many commuters only travel 10 miles or less, many others might travel 20, 30 or even 40 miles one way. In such situations the Volt might make more cost-effective sense than a plug-in Prius, especially using the same smart grid possibilities. In fact, since the Volt offers greater range, maybe Volt drivers might pump excess range — electricity – into the grid for a profit. Thus, a Volt owner with a home solar array might sell excess electricity to his employer, transported via the Volt’s battery pack.
Furthermore, the Prius plug-in could offer greater range as an option, just as the Volt could offer less range as the cost-effectiveness of EV range is better understood. So, this really isn’t a Volt versus Prius argument, as neither is the perfect plug-in option for everyone.
Ultimately, EV range should be determined by overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness, not by marketing executives. Moreover, EV range needs to be reviewed from a more systemic approach that connects commuters and their destinations, especially since one of the most frequent destinations is for-profit businesses, because if business can reduce energy costs while providing free energy to their employees, everyone wins.