2017 will go down in automotive history as the year of electrification. Car manufacturers from all over the globe plucked the term from their collective glossary of jargon and made it an important piece of their marketing departments’ ever-growing armory. Companies use it to highlight their commitment to a more sustainable future, but what does it really mean? In short: an electrified car isn’t electric, but an electric car is electrified. Confused? Let us explain.
The devil is in the details
Jaguar – Land Rover gave us the best definition. “Electrified is the proverbial rectangle, while electric is the proverbial square. Not all rectangles are squares, but all squares are rectangles,” explained Nathan Hoyt, the company’s product communications manager.
Other car companies provided us with similar definitions. Audi pointed out an electric car is fully electric, while an electrified car is either a plug-in hybrid or a mild hybrid. Chevrolet notes the term “electrified” covers “all vehicles that use electric power at varying stages,” such as eAssist, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and extended-range electric vehicles.
Breaking it down
The term “electric car” is simple to define: it refers to a model which uses exclusively electricity to get from point A to point B. Battery-electric car, battery-powered car, and EV are commonly interchanged with “electric car.”
Every single vehicle manufactured by Tesla is electric, and the California-based company is unique because it has never built anything else. There’s no such thing as a Tesla with a V8 under the hood. The list of electric cars also includes the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Bolt, which were both developed as EVs from the get-go.
Defining the term “electrified car” is less straight-forward because there are several forms of electrification. Broadly speaking, electricity needs to power more than basic accessories (such as power windows) for a drivetrain to be considered electrified. The 12-volt battery in your Jeep Grand Cherokee’s engine bay doesn’t allow it to claim any form of electrification.
The most basic form of electrification is the mild hybrid system, which uses a compact electric motor to complement the gasoline- or diesel-burning engine. Most mild hybrid systems boast a regenerative braking function which transforms the electric motor into a generator in order to capture some of the energy produced while braking. It’s either pumped back into the drivetrain under acceleration, or fed to car’s electrical system. Mild hybrid technology boosts fuel economy without adding too much cost or weight to a car. It’s also generally easier to integrate into an existing design. It can’t power a car on electricity alone, however.
Audi’s brand-new A8 will come standard with mild hybrid technology when it goes on sale next year. Mercedes-Benz will soon introduce a mild hybrid drivetrain built around its first straight-six engine in decades, and Bosch is working on a more affordable 48-volt mild hybrid system for compact cars like the Volkswagen Golf.
Next up in the electrification hierarchy is the standard hybrid system. Hybrid and mild hybrid technology are similar on paper, but the former typically receives a more powerful electric motor and an appreciably bigger battery pack. While gasoline or diesel still drives the wheels, electricity provides a performance boost and improves fuel efficiency. The Toyota Prius is the poster child of the hybrid segment; other options include the Hyundai Ioniq and the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid.
Sometimes called PHEVs, plug-in hybrid cars also qualify as electrified. They’re capable of driving on electricity alone for short distances thanks to an even bigger battery pack that drivers can top up by plugging in at home or at a charging station. They’re a great compromise between non-electrified and electric cars because they offer the driving range and ease of use of a standard vehicle, yet they’re capable of zero-emissions driving when needed. The Mercedes-Benz C350e, the BMW 330e, the Toyota Prius Prime, the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV, and any Volvo with a T8 emblem on the trunk lid are examples of plug-in hybrid cars. Expect to see more of them in the coming years as emissions regulations get stricter.
The term “range-extended electric car” is highly misleading; they’re electrified, not electric. Take the Chevrolet Volt, for example. Electricity spins the front wheels, but a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine comes to the rescue when the battery pack runs low. Another example is the BMW i3. The standard model is electric, but ordering the optional two-cylinder range extender demotes it to electrified status, even if burning gasoline doesn’t directly turn the wheels. Here’s another way to look at it: if a car has an exhaust, it’s not electric.
When Volvo announced plans to build only electrified cars starting in 2019, it wasn’t promising the death of the internal combustion engine and a lineup of battery-powered cars. It was merely saying every car introduced from 2019 will have an electric motor. Some models will be fully electric, but most will continue to use a three- or four-cylinder engine. Realistically, internal combustion technology will play a sizable role in transportation for decades to come.
What about fuel cells?
Experts disagree on which side of the electric fence fuel cell-powered vehicles fall on. Hydrogen is its own technology, and we’d ideally group hydrogen-powered cars like the Toyota Mirai into their own segment of the market. The technology that makes them go is different enough from a standard extended-range hybrid drivetrain to warrant its own designation. And while the sector is still tiny, it’s going to get much bigger in the coming years as companies like Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW embark on model offensives.
If we must distill it down to electric or electrified, we’d lump hydrogen-powered cars in the latter camp. While early prototypes like the BMW Hydrogen7 were equipped with liquefied hydrogen-combusting engines, modern ones use a hydrogen fuel cell to generate the electricity needed to zap an electric motor into motion.