The debate: Is the Volt an EV or a hybrid?

(October 19, 2010) In recent media reports, there has been ongoing debate over whether the Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle (EV) or a hybrid. Discussion focuses on the fact that at high speeds, or when the battery runs low, the Volt relies on the gasoline engine for power.

Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain, Automotive Forecasting Division at J.D. Power and Associates, provides insight about the Volt’s powertrain:

Q: Can you explain why the Volt is considered an EV instead of a hybrid?

A: The Chevrolet Volt is considered an EV because it is powered by a lithium-ion battery and an electric motor without the aid of an internal combustion engine. The Volt does in fact have an engine, but it only kicks in after the first 40-50 miles of electric-only operation. In a hybrid vehicle, the engine runs almost all the time. Hybrids can be driven up to about two miles on electric power only, but the engine runs most of the time.

Q: A GM engineer told a Reuters reporter this week that the Volt is an electric vehicle “because for the first 40 miles you can get full performance running on nothing but an electric motor until the battery is depleted.” The engineer also explained that even when the gasoline engine kicks in and is partially driving the wheels, the Volt cannot operate without electricity flowing to one of the other motors. Can you comment?

A: The GM engineer is correct, but the purists would argue that any vehicle that has an internal combustion engine is not an electric vehicle. The Nissan Leaf, for example, does not have an engine, so it’s a ‘pure’ EV. GM called the Volt an extended-range electric vehicle, or ER-EV, for more than a year until they recently decided to start calling it an electric vehicle.

The idea may have been to avoid confusion and put them in a better position to compete with the Leaf and other ‘pure’ EVs, but consumers may be more confused now than they were before. GM may have been better off sticking with the ER-EV title or calling the Volt a plug-in hybrid. Only time (and sales) will tell.