Master the Basics of Alt Fuel Vehicles

Posted on June 1, 2009 by Jon LeSage

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Most of the battery-powered cars on the road today are gas-electric hybrids, usually just called hybrids (think Prius). These are officially called HEVs — hybrid electric vehicles. Toyota has sold more than a million of them in the U.S. so far, and is competing with Honda to dominate the global hybrid market.

The electrics getting the most attention this year are plug-ins. The up and coming plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are being pushed forward by the Obama administration, by General Motors through the upcoming Chevy Volt, and are the focus of at least two industry conferences this year (one of them, Plug-in 2009, is coming up in August at the Long Beach Convention Center).

Plug-ins, like HEVs, have onboard internal combustion engines that charge batteries or otherwise provide electricity to electric motors. What makes a PHEV different from an HEV is its ability to charge the batteries by plugging the vehicle into grid-provided electricity. This can mean plugging into electricity outlets at your house, work, parking lot, fuel station, etc. PHEVs have the capacity to be even more fuel efficient than an HEV.

And finally there's the EV, electric vehicle, sometimes called a BEV, or battery electric vehicle. An EV must be plugged in to obtain energy to drive the vehicle and has a range limited by the battery pack. The historic reference point always goes back to GM's EV1, which started and failed in the late 1990s. Today, there are several specialty OEMs making electrics (think Tesla, Miles Electric Vehicles, and ZAP Electric Cars).

So that's it. It's good to have these categories simplified. There's a lot of content focused these days on electric cars, and it appears to becoming the foundation of green cars in the world. There are others to keep your eyes on - vehicles powered by biofuels/flex fuels, compressed natural gas, propane, and hydrogen fuel cells, in particular. But hybrids, plug-ins, and pure electrics are the focal point right now.

Jon LeSage is chief creative officer of LeSage Communications, based in Long Beach, Calif., and provides research and editorial content on green cars and transportation trends. He can be reached at

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