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Mark Phelan: Decoding automakers' promises about electric vehicles

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

Car buyers need to add a new nugget to their vocabulary: the difference between what automakers are promising -- and charging for -- when they talk about "electrification" vs. "electric" vehicles. The difference matters, in price, fuel economy, emissions, and perhaps most important, drivers' expectations.

At the same time, people like me who report on the auto industry have to stop declaring the end of the petroleum age every time an automaker expresses enthusiasm for electric vehicles.

A future of all-electric vehicles may be inevitable but it is not imminent. Realistic projections say millions of petroleum-burning vehicles will be in use around the world for decades.

That means those of us who want to turn back the clock on climate change should root for every improvement in fuel efficiency as well as breakthroughs in cars powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz were among the first companies to -- shall we say? -- blur the line between vehicles that are actually electric and those that use electricity to make gasoline and diesel engines cleaner and more efficient.

You may think that an "electric car" and an "electrified car" should be the same thing -- I might agree -- but the world's automakers have tacitly agreed to use those arguably synonymous terms to describe two very different levels of technology and cost.

If some buyers happen to get confused and believe they're getting more than the car companies deliver, that's not the automakers' fault, is it?

Don't answer that. It'll only frustrate you, and won't change the companies' behavior.

The solution is to be an informed consumer. Pretending "electric" and "electrified" mean totally different things may be a charade, but it's a charade many automakers are playing. You need to play, too, if you're considering their vehicles, or those that compete with them.

When they talk about an "electric car," that's a battery-powered vehicle that uses purely electricity when you drive. A Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf or Tesla S, for instance. Most automakers say they intend to make a wide range of these electric vehicles -- some day.


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