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Cutting Through the Electric Vehicle Word Salad

Confused about what all the different kinds of electric vehicle types mean? You are not alone
Dan Heyman

The automotive landscape is forever changing, but recent changes in governmental policy, environmental policy and just a general shifting away from traditionally-powered internal combustion vehicles (ICE) in favour of battery electric and hybrid powertrains mean it’s changing faster than ever.

Indeed, being spoilt for choice when it comes to your car selection is nice, but it can be overwhelming as the language surrounding charging, battery specifications and even what all-wheel-drive means today becomes ever more complex.

In this story, we take a look at some of the most common terms seen in this automotive new world order.

First of all, the cars.

Battery-Electric Vehicle (BEV)

While they may have multiple names, these are actually one of the simpler vehicle types on this list to understand. Essentially, these are fully-electrified vehicles that have no other forms of propulsion. They have larger batteries in order to store enough power for their EV motors which, in turn- power the wheels.

Seen here is the Chevrolet Bolt EV. It is a full-electric vehicle with a claimed 417 kilometres of range. Remember; since these are full-EV vehicles, their batteries are responsible not just for powering the wheels, but also for powering systems like climate control. Indeed, during our test of the Bolt, we would watch our range deplete right before our eyes just as soon as we turned on the air conditioning. There’s a handy menu that informs drivers as to which systems are using how much power.

Electric Vehicle Primer

More than that, these screens can rate your driving – how economical you’re being in regards to your throttle inputs and so forth – plus they act as displays for your typical in-car infotainment features such as Apple CarPlay.

Speaking of that: like traditional hybrids, an EVs battery can be charged via coasting and brake regeneration, a term we’ll delve further into later on in this story. The Bolt also features an “L” mode in addition to the traditional “D” mode. What “L” does is allow for a form of one-pedal driving. As soon as you release the throttle, the EV motor works in reverse to power a generator that in-turn charges the battery. You can even come to a full stop – and stay that way – using this method. This is perfect for city driving, where EVs are at their most efficient because repeated starts and stops can help charge the battery. It also helps preserve brake life.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)

Like traditional Hybrids, PHEVs make use of gas and EV motors for power. They can run in hybrid mode, with both the gas engine and EV motor powering the wheels, or they can run in gas-only or EV-only as well. The big difference between PHEVs and traditional hybrids is that they have larger batteries for more all-EV range. In fact, the Toyota RAV4 Prime, for example, operates as an EV vehicle unless the driver tells it otherwise, or you run out of EV charge.

Why would a PHEV driver ever want to not be in EV mode, you ask?

Well, since a PHEV like the RAV4 Prime will likely be used as more than just a city grinder, drivers who are keen to get the most out of their powertrain may want to save their EV power for when it’s at its most efficient, that is to say in the city. So, if the driver happens to be returning from a family road trip and knows that pretty soon he’ll be in stop-and-go traffic with other weekend revelers, he may want to save his EV power until that time. So, he can tell the vehicle to either use the 2.5L four-cylinder engine to drive the wheels, or to charge the EV motor if he thinks brake regen isn’t going to do the trick.

Simply put: PHEVs are a great medium between traditional hybrid and EV. If you’re able to plug in your PHEV every night (more on charging methods in a minute) during the week and have a short- to medium-length drive to work every day, theoretically you can stay in EV mode all week.

Electric Vehicle Primer

Simply put: PHEVs are a great medium between traditional hybrid and EV. If you’re able to plug in your PHEV every night (more on charging methods in a minute) during the week and have a short- to medium-length drive to work every day, theoretically you can stay in EV mode all week. 

Traditional Hybrid (HEV)

It’s strange that we can now say “traditional” when talking about a hybrid vehicle of any kind because it still seems like everything but ICE is still quite new, but vehicles like the Lexus ES300h seen here are a bit of the pioneer class when it comes to the types of vehicles we’re speaking of in this story.

HEVs use a gas engine and an EV motor for motive force. The battery is often smaller in a traditional hybrid than it is in a PHEV; if we look at the RAV4 again, the Prime PHEV gets an 18.1 kWh battery, while the RAV4 Hybrid gets a 1.6 kWh battery.

Like the RAV4 Hybrid, the Lexus ES300h uses an Atkinson-cycle powertrain, which allows the EV motor to compliment the gas motor for more efficient driving, especially in the city.

Electric Vehicle Primer

In fact, at city speeds the ES300h can cruise in full-EV mode, which either happens automatically or with the press of an “EV” button. In kind of a dumbed-down version of what the RAV4 Prime can do, pressing the EV button tells the system to stay in EV mode longer before switching back to hybrid mode, which is the ES300h’s natural state, and the natural state of most traditional hybrids. EV mode will deactivate, however, if you press the throttle too aggressively or start to carry too much speed.

The thing of traditional hybrids like this that since they run smaller batteries, there’s more room inside for passenger space and cargo storage; often, the main thing you lose when it comes to a hybrid sedan is a pass-through door from trunk to rear seat, so packing longer items can be tough.

What it does allow for, though, is more features inside the vehicle as you don’t need to worry about battery charge being wasted on various accessories. So, the ES300h gets all the stuff a luxury car should have: heated rear seats, huge infotainment display and big, heavy, cushy seats.

With the addition of a hybrid powertrain, though, you also get some quieter motoring because when the EV motor is on duty, it means the gas engine doesn’t have to work as hard and is quieter as a result. In full-EV mode, meanwhile, all you have to worry about are the wisps of road noise coming up from below.

Fuel-Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)

This is the latest frontier in this world, and it’s one that is likely going to be a hard sell for the same reasons EVs once were – the charging network. Right now in Canada, there are precious few places where drivers can fill their FCEVs, which use hydrogen fuel cell stacks for fuel. Said hydrogen then gets changed to electricity via electrolysis, which in turn gets stored in a battery that powers an EV motor, which then powers the wheels just like an EV. The best part? All that comes out of the tailpipe is water vapour.

In fact, the Hyundai Nexo, for example, actually tells you how much air you’ve cleaned during your drive. It’s a kind of a cool easter egg, but one that provides peace of mind. Also doing so is the fact that the required compressed hydrogen fuel is stored in thick carbon-fiber tanks that have been crash-tested every which way; that’s important because hydrogen is a notoriously volatile substance, especially when compressed like this.

Electric Vehicle Primer

Filling up the Nexo is very much like filling up any gas-powered vehicle: you drive up to a pump – there is one at a Shell station in my hometown of Vancouver, B.C. – swipe your card, and off you go. The only real difference is that it takes a little longer to fill the tank than does a traditional gas-powered car. It’s quicker than charging your EV, though, even if we’re talking level III fast charging. 

OK, so that’s the vehicle stuff. What about the language? What does it all mean? To help cut through the confusion, here is a quick-hit glossary of all the terms you’ll be reading and hearing about as you contemplate a move to an alternative-power vehicle.

Brake regeneration

When you brake in an EV, PHEV or Hybrid, the energy gained from braking as well as coasting can then be turned into EV power for storage.  

Electrified vehicle

This is a bit of a sticky one as more and more manufacturers promise to offer what’s often called a “fully electrified line-up” by 2025 or so. That doesn’t mean they will only be selling BEVs; it means that every vehicle they sell will have some form of electrification, be it through hybrid power, or EV power.

Kilowatt-hours (kWh)

This is how battery sizes are measured. The more kWh, the more charge it can hold, and the more range you’ll get. This is literally your EV’s “fuel” so think of your battery as your gas tank, and KWh as the amount of “gas” you have in said tank.

Note: this is also how you want to rate how much range you get. Often, we’ll see MPG-e in the US or Le/100 km in Canada. These, however, are “gas-car term(s) wedged into an EV world” as Dustin Krause, sales director for e-mobility at Volkswagen says. Meaning, they work in the gas world but are only used in the EV world because they look familiar to car buyers. What you should be doing, what is more accurate, is your kWh.

Kilowatt (kW)

This is how EV motor sizes are measured. The more kW, the more power you can get to the wheels.

Level one charging

Level I charging means you’ve hooked your EV or PHEV up to a standard 120V household outlet. Charge times are very slow, here – large-battery EVs can take over 24 hours to return a full charge with this method – and you need to have access to an outlet. Extension cords can be used (and charging during adverse weather won’t damage the charge cable or vehicle, just slow down your charge time), but be sure to use either a 10- or 12-gauge cord. The higher the number, the smaller the wire and anything smaller than 12 gauge won’t do the trick. Still, the safest way to charge your vehicle is to hook its charger directly to the outlet, if you’re able.

Usually, you’ll want to ensure you plug your EV in as soon as you get home and leave it there overnight. If security’s an issue, know that chargers typically cannot be disconnected from your car without first unlocking the vehicle.

Level two charging

Level II charging needs a 240V outlet, like what you’d use for a washer and dryer. Many manufacturers will sell you chargers specific to their vehicle, and they need to be installed directly to your home’s power grid. There are also third-party charger manufacturers.

According to the ChargePoint charging network, hooking your vehicle up to a level II charger will reduce your charge time over a level I charger by about 75%. That’s not bad, but you’d still be looking at four or five hours for a full charge, which still means an overnight situation.

Level three charging

Now we’re talking. These chargers – often found in groups and in public spaces – can charge your EV from zero per cent charge to 80 per cent charge in 20-30 minutes, depending on your car. Why only 80 per cent? Because after that, the speed at which a charge enters the battery can damage it. Your vehicle will keep charging, but at a much slower rate more akin to a level I charger. EVs available for sale today either come standard with level III charge-ability, or it’s a for-pay option.

These chargers are universal worldwide, so you’ll see them get a number of different labels: CHAdeMO and CCS Combo are the most common in Canada. You’ll want to make sure which type your vehicle uses; the Nissan Leaf, for example, uses CHAdeMO, while the Chevrolet Bolt uses CCS Combo. In Canada, many Petro-Canada stations have fast-charger units, and each one has two ports: one CHAdeMO, and one CCS Combo. There’s also a Petro-Canada EV app that provides info on the network, as well as other third-party apps such as Chargepoint to help you with trip planning.

Lithium-Ion battery (Li-ion)

Li-ion batteries are more compact than NiMH batteries (see below), so you get more power without using as much space for batteries. That means more interior room for occupants and luggage.

Nickel-Metal Hydride battery (NiMH)

This is the battery type most traditional hybrids – and some PHEVs  — use for power storage.

Zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV)

Contrary to what it sounds like, a ZEV doesn’t have to release zero emissions all the time. As long as it can operate without using a gas engine for some of the time, then the government of Canada considers it a ZEV. So PHEVs would qualify.

ZEV mandate

This is a mandate set down by some Canadian provinces that require manufacturers to build and sell a certain number of ZEV vehicles. BC, for example, is asking for 100% ZEV adoption by 2040.
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