GreenCars 101
Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-In Hybrid Car Overview

Dave Nichols
Oct 2023
Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are popular for their ability to drive you around town on electric-only power and also take you on long trips with their hybrid drivetrains. Here’s what you need to know.
Car driving down road

Plug-In Hybrid Cars

A plug-in hybrid car is a gasoline- and electric-powered vehicle (PHEV) that uses a rechargeable battery to power an electric motor. Depending on the make and model, the PHEV will take you anywhere from 25 to 60 miles on all-electric power. Once the battery pack is depleted, the vehicle will automatically switch over to the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.

Plug-in Hybrid cars are seen as an offshoot of Hybrid cars (HEV) that use both a gasoline engine and electric motor to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Most early PHEVs beginning in 2003 were conversions of already existing hybrid car models such as the Toyota Prius. Larger battery packs were added along with an electric charging port for electric-only travel.

Global sales of plug-in hybrids grew from over 300 units in 2010 to almost 9,000 in 2011, jumped to over 60,000 in 2012, and reached almost 222,000 in 2015. This growth trend has continued at an astounding rate. Sales nearly doubled from 308,000 in 2020 to 608,000 in 2021.

According to Energy Saver, “The rapid growth in plug-in electric vehicle sales from 2020 to 2021 is remarkable in the context of overall light-duty vehicle sales, which increased by only 3% during the same period.”

Other articles in this series will discuss how plug-in hybrids work, their benefits, as well as articles on buying, owning, and maintaining PHEVs.

Man plugging in EV

Modern Plug-In Hybrid History

In 1990, Prof. Andy Frank of the University of California Davis, used student teams to re-invent the modern plug-in hybrid, creating operating prototypes. This work influenced the California Air resources Board (CARB) to modify ZEV Mandate Incentives to include PHEVs. In 2001, Dr. Frank obtained substantial funds from General Motors to hybridize GM’S EV1 prototype.

By 2004, Dr. Frank’s students had built and operated seven proof-of-concept vehicles. Meanwhile, Toyota had been working on its Prius+ prototype. At about the same time, Nissan and other OEMs started their own PHEV programs. Interestingly, Dr. Frank’s graduating students became highly sought-after engineers and managers for Ford, Nissan, GM, and other automakers.

Today’s plug-in hybrids allow all-electric travel around town, since most Americans drive fewer than 25 miles per day, and also include the ability of gasoline-powered travel, eliminating range anxiety.

Front view of a Tesla Model 3 driving through canyon roads

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