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Thinking About Buying a Hybrid, Plug-In Hybrid, or EV Automobile or Truck?

The pandemic has slowed auto production, but not carmakers’ plans for new electrified vehicles. In fact, a few dozen all-new, pure electric models are set to debut by the end of 2024.

The rollout of new EVs, plug-in hybrids, and traditional hybrids is good news if you’re looking for an alternative-fuel vehicle. These models provide energy-efficient transportation while lowering or eliminating tailpipe emissions, diminishing noise, and reducing operating costs.

But living with an electrified vehicle—especially a pure EV—is different from owning a typical gasoline model. So it’s important to understand how they work, and to match their strengths with your driving needs and preferences.

For instance, should you stick with a traditional gasoline-electric hybrid that never needs to be plugged in? They’re fuel-efficient, and most are reliable, but they aren’t emissions-free.

Or is a plug-in hybrid more for you? They split the difference between a hybrid and an EV, with a rechargeable battery that provides 20 to 40 miles of electric range before transitioning to regular hybrid operation.

Or are you ready to take the leap to an EV? That eliminates the gas engine, but you need a convenient way to recharge.

Below, we explain how the technologies work, plus offer real-world insights into the pros and cons for each type. We also highlight a few models recommended by Consumer Reorts from each category that are smart choices.

Bear in mind that several of the models are relatively new—and advise consumers to wait a year or longer for automakers to work out the bugs. Holding off will also mean more models and EV charging stations, and possibly lower sticker prices.

On the other hand, current tax credits on EVs, up to $7,500, may phase out while you wait.

Hybrids

Hybrids team an electric motor with a gasoline engine to provide efficient transportation. Owners don’t need to worry about plugging their hybrid vehicle in, and these models drive similarly to regular cars. There are many affordable hybrids, with prices starting under $24,000. Plus, hybrid owners really like their vehicles: In CR’s Annual Auto Surveys, they tend to report higher overall satisfaction than do owners of nonhybrid versions.

Hybrid Technology

Hybrids typically combine a relatively small gasoline engine, at least one electric motor, and a small battery pack. The electric motor supplements the gas engine, and allows the engine to shut off at low speeds and when coasting. Regenerative braking lets hybrids recapture energy that would otherwise be lost and use it to recharge the battery pack. This technology has been on the market for over 20 years.

Pros
• They have excellent gas mileage.
• They produce lower emissions compared with gas-only vehicles.
• They never need to be plugged in.
• You can fill up at a regular gas station.
• They are often more powerful than their gasoline-only equivalents.

Cons
• They cost about $1,000 to $3,000 more than comparable gas-only models.
• Some have had longer stopping distances than their gas-only counterparts in CR’s testing.
• Many use a form of a continuously variable transmission that can cause high engine revving compared with the vehicle’s acceleration.
• Some of CR’s testers find that sensation, called “rubberbanding,” unpleasant.

Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are a bridge between traditional hybrids and full electric vehicles, allowing for local driving on electric power alone with the convenience and range of a gas engine for longer road trips.

Plug-In Hybrid Technology

PHEVs have a larger battery than regular hybrids have, so they can be driven farther and more often on electric power. As with regular hybrids, regenerative braking can extend the battery’s range, and the gasoline-powered engine and electric motor switch back and forth as needed. Owners can get by with Level 1 charging (120 volts) because the battery packs are small compared with those in pure EVs.

Pros
• Most can travel between 20 and 40 miles on electric power.
• They get good fuel economy even after the electric range is depleted.
• They provide the benefits of a pure EV for short drives or commutes while still having a gas engine for longer trips without charging worries or range limitations.
• Some are eligible for a federal tax incentive of up to $7,500.

Cons
• They’re more expensive than regular hybrids or gasoline cars.
• To reap full efficiency benefits, owners must recharge frequently.
• Some are less fuel-efficient than regular hybrids once the electric portion is depleted.
• Plug-in components often take up cargo space.
• Charging can be challenging if you live in a multi-unit dwelling or don’t have access to off-street parking.

Fully Electric

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs­—or EVs, as they are commonly called) are very efficient, and most new models have a driving range of well over 200 miles. But driving them long distances requires extra planning regarding where and when you’ll charge.

EV Technology

Full EVs rely on large battery packs to power their electric motors. They forgo complicated parts such as an internal combustion engine or a conventional transmission. Under normal circumstances, it takes between 8 and 10 hours to recharge an EV using a Level 2 (240-volt) connector when the battery is near-empty.

Pros
• It’s usually less expensive to charge than to buy gas.
• It’s convenient to recharge at home.
• They often cost less to maintain because they have fewer and simpler components.
• There are no tailpipe emissions.
• They are very quiet.
• Most provide a fun acceleration experience, thanks to the instant power on tap from the electric motor, or motors.

Cons
• They cost more to buy.
• Planning when and where to charge is a part of any long-distance travel.
• Charging can be challenging if you live in a multi-unit dwelling or don’t have access to off-street parking.
• Charging can take hours; even DC fast charging in public places can take 30 to 60 minutes.
• Very cold or hot temperatures and cabin climate conditioning reduce driving range.

$7,500: The Federal Tax Incentive You Might Qualify for When You Buy an EV

Electric vehicles tend to cost more than other models, but many are eligible for tax incentives. Even some plug-in hybrids qualify. Plus, there may be local and state tax credits, rebates, or vouchers, depending on where you live. So do your homework to see what credits might be available.

But be aware that under current rules, once an automaker sells 200,000 electric vehicles, the value of the tax credit decreases and eventually fades away—a provision that has affected two automakers, General Motors and Tesla. Ford and Toyota may reach that threshold in 2022, as well.

Consumer Reports
February 22, 2022

Are Electric Car Batteries Recyclable?

What happens to those big batteries when they reach their end of life?

The electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling industry is still in its infancy since most EVs have been on the road for fewer than five years. But by 2040,there could be approximately 200,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries that need to be disposed of, recycled, or reused.

Without robust recycling, the world faces a highly toxic problem on its hands. With it, the environmental benefits of electric vehicles increase even more.

The Importance of EV Battery Recycling

Lithium-ion batteries are the key component in an electric vehicle. They are the most expensive component of EVs and require a supply chain that can have human rights and environmental costs.

While electric vehicles emit no greenhouse gases during operation, the manufacturing process can contribute up to 25% of the total global warming emissions in the life cycle of the vehicle.

Keeping lithium-ion batteries out of landfills is essential because of their toxicity and flammability.2 Recycling and reusing EV batteries can play a large role in reducing the need for new lithium, cobalt, and nickel. The mining of these materials has negative impacts on the environment and local communities, including soil, air, and water pollution.

Challenges to Recycling

EV battery chemistry varies from model to model. While lithium-ion batteries have been in commercial use since 1991, the technology is still changing rapidly, but what EV batteries will look like in 2030 is an open question.

Another challenge is the many shapes that the batteries come in. Unlike ordinary batteries, EV batteries do not come in uniform sizes and shapes. Rather, individual battery cells are arranged in modules that are themselves organized in a pack sealed with nearly unbreakable glues.

With so many different form factors, disassembling and recycling each one can take hours, raising the cost of the materials to the point where it's currently cheaper for manufacturers to buy new materials than recycled ones.

Reuse Before Recycle

Batteries lose roughly 2.3% of their energy capacity annually, so a 12-year-old battery might have 76% of its original storage capacity.

Energy storage, itself a booming industry, can repurpose these batteries after the EV itself has reached the end of its life.

They can be used as energy storage devices in residences, as utility-scale storage to provide resilience to the electricity grid, or even to power robots. Reuse can double the useful lifetime of the batteries, at which point, they can be recycled.

The EV Battery Recycling Process

Currently, battery recycling is performed one pack at a time. The packs must first have their glues broken apart to access the individual cells. Then the cells can either be burned or dissolved in a pool of acid, producing either a lump of charred materials or a slurry of potentially toxic ones.

Burning requires immense amounts of energy while using solvents poses health risks.8 Other, less harmful or energy-intensive methods, such as using water, are still in the research and development stage. Currently, simple manual disassembly yields a higher rate (80%) of materials recovery than either fire or solvents.
 
Recyclers extract the valuable cobalt and nickel in batteries, as lithium and graphite are too readily available. As new chemistries emerge, especially those that seek to reduce the use of cobalt, one main source of recyclers' income may be lost. Another source of income in the recycling process can be recycling a battery's anode and cathode intact, rather than breaking them down into their component materials.
 
Policies for EV Battery Recycling
 
Ample legislation covering the manufacturing, use, and recycling of lithium-ion batteries already exists. These can easily be expanded to make EV batteries part of a circular economy.
 
Labeling
 
Labeling is key for efficient recycling. Most EV battery packs contain no information about the chemistry of the anode, cathode, or electrolyte, meaning recyclers are left in the dark.
 
Like the resin ID code (the number inside the triangle) on plastics, content labels on batteries will allow them to be mechanically sorted and processed, lowering costs and improving recycling rates.

The U.S.-based Society of Automotive Engineers, which established standards for battery charging infrastructure, has recommended labeling, too.

Design Standards

For many products, end-of-life considerations fall upon the consumer, not the manufacturer. Incorporating design standards into the manufacturing process is difficult in a nascent and disruptive industry like electric vehicles.

However, design standards will eventually emerge by government regulation or from within the industry itself. They are already been a successful part of recycling efforts in mature markets like aluminum, glass, car catalysts, and lead-acid batteries.

Co-Location

Batteries are heavy and expensive to ship, so producing them close to automotive manufacturing centers is another consideration.

Co-locating battery recycling industries with EV manufacturing can greatly reduce the cost of EVs and reduce their life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.

Closing the Loop

The recycling of lead-acid batteries should give EV battery manufacturers, recyclers, and policymakers a model to emulate. Between 95-99% of lead-acid batteries are currently recycled, in large part because they are made of a standard mixture of materials enclosed in a single case.

With improvements in technologies and better coordination of the entire life cycle of lithium-ion batteries, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that the United States can reduce its reliance on demand for mined resources from foreign sources by 30% to 40% by 2030.
 
Closing the loop between EV battery manufacturing and recycling will make electric vehicles an even more sustainable alternative to gasoline-powered cars.
 
Frequently Asked Questions:
  • How many years do EV batteries last? 
    The EV industry is so young it isn't yet clear exactly how long these batteries will last. The general estimate is 10 to 20 years.
  • What happens to used EV batteries?

    EV batteries are believed to have a longer lifespan than the cars that house them. When the car is no longer functional, the battery should be given a second life as residential or industrial energy storage. At the very end of its life, it's disassembled so that certain materials can be used to make new EV batteries.
    Why is EV battery recycling important?
    Mining the minerals that give us lithium, cobalt, and other chemicals used for EV battery production is extremely polluting. There simply aren't enough raw materials to replace gas-powered cars with EVs, so we have to start reusing materials. These batteries should be kept out of landfills anyway because they're highly toxic and flammable.

  • What percentage of EV batteries gets recycled?

    The leading manufacturer of EVs, Tesla, has said that 100% of its lithium-ion batteries gets recycled, leaving nothing going to landfill. It depends on the recycling company your manufacturer chooses and its capacity to recycle complex, toxic materials.

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