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With Electric Vehicles Come New Acronyms

| Monday December 13th, 2010 | 2 Comments

The new Nissan Leaf taken by the author at the San Francisco auto show

BY Phil Covington

Every industry loves its acronyms and the electric vehicle business is no exception. As a new wave of electric vehicles is about to hit showrooms, spearheaded by Nissan and Chevrolet, customers are going to have to wrap their heads around a whole new lingo. Here is a quick glossary of terms, starting with the basics:

EV (electric vehicle): This would perhaps seem a detailed enough description for your average electric car, but the problem is, the industry is a whole lot more complicated than that. So we need to drill down.

BEV (battery electric vehicle): adds the word battery which is arguably a somewhat redundant descriptor, since batteries have been the principal electricity storage device forever, but fair enough; electric vehicles use batteries, increasingly of the Lithium Ion variety. The new Nissan Leaf or the Tesla Roadster, both using 100% electric propulsion, fit the description of BEVs.

PEV (Plug-in electric vehicle): drops the word battery, while substituting “plug-in” that gives away the fact that electricity will indeed need to come from some sort of power socket. PEV and BEV are effectively interchangeable terms.  The electrical outlet is the filling station of choice for 100% electrics like the Leaf and Tesla. Aside from the standard everyday wall socket (level one charging), faster recharges are available from higher voltage level two devices, and even faster ones from level three quick charging stations. Level three’s gulp, is to level one’s sip method of replenishment. Again, it might be somewhat unnecessary to stipulate such cars must be plugged in, except for the fact that we’ve all become used to cars like the Toyota Prius, whose nickel-metal-hydride batteries come by their charge without the need of a plug and socket arrangement. Which brings us to:-

HEV (hybrid electric vehicle): which in fact describes most of the cars currently on the market generically termed “hybrids.” It hardly needs to be said at this point, but the hybrid part refers to the cooperation between both gasoline and electric power trains  to propel the vehicle. There are different configurations as to how such a system works, depending on the manufacturer, but the defining factor is, you don’t plug these cars in. Instead the charge for the electric motor is derived from regenerative braking technology. Note, the gasoline engine employed by the HEV is more accurately termed an ICE (internal combustion engine), employing one of the oldest elements known to humankind, fire, albeit in a controlled environment. An outgrowth from the HEV is:-

PHEV (Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle): This is what the new Chevrolet Volt is all about. Like the HEV, it uses both a gasoline and electric motor. The Volt actually uses two electric motors, but unlike an HEV, its gasoline engine doesn’t directly drive the wheels. Instead, it serves as a generator, spinning one of the two electric motors in reverse to recharge the depleted batteries after 40 miles or so. This is the so-called “range extender”, giving the PHEV the advantage of not leaving you stranded in the gutter 100 miles from home. Thumbs up for normal car range, thumbs down for still having to use foreign oil, though laudably, far less.

HEV’s hold the mantle of dominant technology at the moment as they don’t require any additional infrastructure, just a regular old gas station will do. Only the PEV/BEVs make a clean break from gasoline, and we are about to see what kind of traction they will get in the market. What’s for sure, while EVs have been around for 100 years or so, this is still early days for the modern phase of mass market electric vehicles, and I am sure the glossary of acronyms will grow along with it.


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  • jimm

    Until recently, GM was a bit fuzzy on the details of how the Volt’s gasoline engine interacted with the two electric motors. As a consequence, some pundits regarded the car as more traditional hybrid than pure electric vehicle.

    But more importantly, these vehicles are finally reaching consumers, which ultimately is more relevant than the terminology used to classify them!

  • Lawrence

    But aren’t some BEVs plugless, i.e. battery swappable?