New EC regulations will increase PHEV emissions dramatically
Businesses that have adopted plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) as a stepping stone to electrification have been warned by the European Commission that the official WLTP-test CO2 emissions figures of these cars could soon rise dramatically, denying the cars access to the grants, subsidies and tax breaks that have made them so popular with fleets and company cars drivers.
In theory, PHEVs offer fleets and drivers the best of both propulsion worlds, providing enough battery range for zero emission commuting, with the flexibility of an internal combustion engine for longer journeys. But the potential of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to cut fuel consumption and lower global greenhouse gas emissions depends on how much they are driven on electricity.
Zero emission percentage
Type approval tests currently use an electric driving share of 70-85 percent for PHEVs as a basis for calculating their CO2 emissions, although a new study of 9,000 fleet and private PHEVs by the International Council on Clean Transportation ICCT has showed that company cars are only driven 11-15% purely electrically, a figure that rises to 45%–49% for private cars.
“The average real-world fuel consumption of PHEVs in Europe is 4.0–4.4 L/100 km for private vehicles and 7.6–8.4 L/100 km for company cars compared to an average of 1.6–1.7 L/100 km in WLTP type approval,” said the ICCT.
“These values correspond to tailpipe emissions of 90–105 g CO2/km for private vehicles and 175–195 g CO2/km for company cars compared to only 37–39 g CO2/km in WLTP type approval.”
The deviation between real-world and type-approval fuel consumption is similar across European countries and is growing, according to the ICCT's research.
|4 reasons for the deviation between real-world usage and type-approval fuel consumption values of PHEVs|
|1. The real-world all-electric range is shorter than under type-approval conditions.|
|2. Long-distance driving exceeds the electric driving range and leads to large distances travelled mainly powered by the combustion engine.|
|3. Many PHEVs are not fully charged before every driving day.|
|4. The combustion engine uses more fuel during real-world usage than in type-approval conditions.|
This has led the European Commission to publish an amendment to its regulation for the type approval procedure for the CO2 emissions of light passenger vehicles.
“Recent studies show a significant difference between the average real-world CO2 emissions of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and their CO2 emissions determined by WLTP,” said the Commission.
It added that the utility factors used during type approval tests, which determine the percentage of journeys driven in battery or ICE mode, should be revised to ensure that the CO2 emissions of PHEVs are representative of real driver behaviour.
As a first step, it said new utility factors should be specified on the basis of available data; from 2025 it suggests the utility factor should assume only 50% of PHEV journeys in private cars are driven electrically, and the same 50:50 split will be applied to company cars from 2027. It also said that the utility factor should be reviewed again in 2024 and 2026, based on data from on-board fuel consumption monitoring devices fitted to all new cars since 2021.
Fleets invest in PHEVs
Sales of PHEVs in Europe rose by 71% in 2021 compared to 2020, accounting for almost 1 million registrations, and helping vehicle manufacturers to meet their emissions targets. About 71% of PHEVs are sold as company cars.
Responding to the Commission’s proposals, the ACEA, which represents vehicle manufacturers, accepted that the real world emissions of company PHEV drivers are higher than private motorists because of the longer distances driven, but argued that by the time the EC’s revised WLTP tests come into force in 2025, PHEV drivers will have access to a much improved charging infrastructure, facilitating more journeys in electric mode. Furthermore, it said that governments may provide more incentives to encourage PHEV drivers to increase the share of pure electric driving with tax breaks.
“The automotive industry sees a significant reduction of the contribution coming from ‘less charging, more long distance driving’,” said the ACEA.
Environmental NGOs, however, claim that the official WLTP figures for PHEVs grossly underestimate their emissions of greenhouse gases.
Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany), said: “Measurements by DUH's Emissions Control Institute show that PHEVs exceed the official value by more than 600 percent under real driving conditions on the road. CO2 values of up to 500 g/km were measured in the tests. On the one hand, this leads to significantly higher fuel costs for consumers, and on the other hand, the assumed reduction in CO2 emissions is not achieved through the use of PHEVs.”
Transport & Environment (T&E) has long campaigned against the favourable tax treatment of PHEVs, highlighting the weak real-world emissions performance of the technology and criticising the regulatory and monetary benefits given to what is effectively fossil fuelled motoring.
Anna Krajinska, T&E’s emissions engineer, said: “We welcome the Commission’s updated draft as a step in the right direction. It is now up to the Member States to support the proposals and ensure that the gap between official and real world PHEV emissions is closed as quickly as possible.”
Many European governments already discriminate against PHEVs, offering higher purchase incentives and tax advantages for battery electric vehicles.
However, for fleets operating in countries with poor electric vehicle charging infrastructure, PHEVs offered one solution to cut emissions, if only for journeys from home to the office, where businesses could install charge points.
And finally, for companies committed to reducing Scope 1 and 3 CO2 emissions as part of net zero pledges, any upward movement in the official CO2 emissions of PHEVs will delay progress towards a carbon neutral future.
“The more false incentives PHEVs enjoy, the more it slows down the development of battery electric vehicles, which is where the real solution to cleaning up road transport lies,” said Krajinska.