Beyond the boardroom: giving up on PHEVs would be an own goal

PHEVs do have an efficiency problem; this is not news. They are inherently heavy and complicated, because they depend on two working powertrains rather than one. But if they’re not driven down emissions as quickly as they might have, I would suggest it’s not because they don’t work.

Might it actually be because they’ve been pushed at the fleet market, rather than at private buyers, through those benefit-in-kind tax savings, perhaps? To users who tend to do greater commuting and business mileage, rather than those who do the sort of short-hop, to-and-from-home daily motoring to which a PHEV might be better suited?

If we’d given plug-in hybrid cars VAT reductions as private buys, rather than making them default-pick company cars, would they not have worked better? Imagine how different your driveway might look today if, a decade ago, HMRC had done just that. If the tax system had been used to move smaller, more affordable compact cars towards electrification more widely and more quickly; and in bigger ones, other drivers of efficiency had been pursued. How much closer would we be to ‘net zero’ then? And might a system with some kind of check on how often these PHEVs are actually plugged in not have been a good idea?

What makes me sigh the deepest is that, if this does turn into another round of Dieselgate-style car industry-bashing, the reputation of a great many cars I really like will be the worse as a result. The Polestar 1; BMW i3 REX; BMW 545e; Peugeot 508 PSE; even the Toyota Prius PHEV (solar panel on the roof, anyone?). 

Cars like that don’t deserve to be tarred and feathered – and those who know them well, and use them daily, know as much. Plug-in hybrid powertrains have an important contribution to make to this great electrification switch – and the ones coming through now, with their 50-mile-plus electric ranges, might just achieve the most, provided they’re subsidised in the right way, and sold to the right people. 

Whatever happens in the next few months, I hope it’s remembered that PHEV technology itself isn’t the problem. And if it’s been misapplied, before anyone at the DfT blames the car industry, they should take a long, hard look at themselves.

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