You've got lots of choices when it comes to alternative energy vehicles

We're here to help you sort them out

By Donovan Myrie - Investigative/Special Projects Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - You've undoubtedly heard of Tesla, the electric-car startup created by wunderkind Elon Musk. In creating a car company from scratch, Musk has a simple mantra: battery power is the future of cars and he wants a Tesla in every driveway.

Musk may be on to something, but Teslas are a long way from being parked at everyone's home whether it be in the big city or big country.

A lot of Americans aren't quite ready (or can afford) a brand-new Tesla. But, if you've been in any showroom as of late, just about every manufacturer offers at least one type of vehicle that runs on something besides (or in conjunction with) gasoline.



EVs, Mild Hybrids, Hybrids, PHEVs, and Fuel Cell cars, crossovers and SUVs are now among us. For our list below, some you've heard of. Others sound familiar, and yet they'll be one or two (or three) you'll say, "Never heard of them" or "I never knew they made that car."

What follows is an explanation of each category and lists of manufacturers and the models offered in each segment. Our list is current as of Aug. 1.

Hybrids + MHEVs:

Let's start with hybrids (also sometimes referred to as conventional hybrids or HEVs -- hybrid-electric-vehicles). Think of a hybrid as a little of this (an internal combustion engine –- ICE), a little of that (an electric motor) and a little of something else (a small, supplemental battery pack). 

Generally, a hybrid uses its electric motor to enhance the gasoline engine in two ways: better fuel economy and more power. To improve fuel economy, the electric motor will take some of the strain off of the ICE to make it more fuel efficient. For more "ummph," both motors work in tandem for higher horsepower (propulsion). Some hybrids can also give drivers a small amount of "electric-only" miles where the car runs solely on electricity. 

The electric motor in a hybrid is able to create electricity AND use it as well. It creates electricity (to charge the battery pack) from a process called regenerative braking. Without getting too technical: every time you brake, "energy" is captured by the electric motor which in turn acts as a generator to charge the battery. That same battery power is used by the electric motor when it needs to aid the ICE in accelerating from a stop and during cruising. 

An MHEV is a mild hybrid electric vehicle. In this configuration (known as parallel because both motor and engine work side-by-side), the conventional engine does most of the work while the electric motor takes over during coasting, braking, in heavy stop-and-go traffic, or at a stoplight. MHEVs do not provide electric-only propulsion, however they do boost the low speed power (torque) when accelerating from a stop. MHEV electric motors are generally smaller, simpler, and lighter. They are also generally not as expensive as a full hybrid.



Plug-ins (PHEV):

A PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) is very similar to a conventional hybrid as both have an internal combustion engine (ICE), an electric motor, and a supplemental battery. Where a PHEV however differs is that the electric motor is the main power source of the vehicle and the combustion engine takes on the role of generator. Generally, PHEVs also have a larger battery pack that is charged by connecting the vehicle to an electrical source (hence the term plug-in). PHEVs also do not convert regenerative braking into electricity.

So why go for a plug-in instead of a hybrid? The plug-in vehicle usually utilizes that bigger and more powerful battery to give an owner higher "electric-only miles" therefore saving even more money on gas. And when you run out of juice, the ICE kicks back in (alleviating fears of range anxiety). 



Battery only (EV/BEV):

An EV (electric vehicle) or BEV (battery electric vehicle) runs solely on battery power. Owners can charge the batteries in the vehicle at home, at work or on the road at a commercial charging station. For home charging, an owner can plug an EV into any regular household 120v outlet, but that method of charging is VERY SLOW. Many EV owners opt to have a fast charging outlet installed (240-volt)-- 120v is known as Level 1 charging and; 240v is known as Level 2 charging. Level 3 DC charging (Tesla calls it supercharging), is only available at commercial charging stations and is not compatible with all EVs. For more on charging stations, follow this link.

Since EVs don't have traditional gas or diesel engines (they most commonly have small electric motors attached to the wheels), some EVs end up with both a trunk and a "frunk" (front trunk). Another design oddity: a lot of EVs also lack front grills since there's no need for air to flow into the engine compartment to help keep the engine cool.

Is it cheaper to run a car purely on electricity versus gasoline or diesel? Yes, but depending on your fuel costs versus cost of electricity in your area, your "mileage" may vary. A 2018 University of Michigan study put the cost of electricity at about 50% of gasoline. So if EVs sound like the wave of the future, why aren't people scooping them up left and right? Three reasons: cost, range anxiety, and charging time. 

Generally, EVs are more expensive than both fuel-based cars, plug-ins, and hybrids. You can get something like a Fiat 500e for under $30,000 or a smart fortwo for even less. On the other end of the spectrum are EVs like a Tesla Model S or X that hover on either side of $100,000. More than price, driving range is a factor holding many consumers back from buying EVs. That smart fortwo for under $30,000 gets less than 60 miles on a full charge. The Fiat 500e gets about 84 miles on a full charge. Even a Honda Clarity Electric is only good for about 89 miles on a full charge. 

With the exception of the hard to get at $35,000 Model 3, Teslas are expensive. However, the top of the Tesla line variants have great range. A Long Range Model 3 can go 310 miles. Upgraded Teslas with new drivetrains can go even further (a Model S Long Range is good for 370 miles and a Model X Long Range for 325 miles). The closest competitors are Chevrolet Bolt, Hyundai Kona, Kia Niro and Nissan LEAF Plus (all around 225-260 miles of range). The soon to be released Polestar 2 (from a division of Volvo), promises about 295 miles on a full charge.



The last (and smallest) group on this list are cars and trucks categorized as FCEV (fuel cell electric Vehicles). If you've never heard of an FCEV it's probably because you don't live in a state that supports FCEVs (most are in California). Like an electric vehicle, an FCEV uses a battery powered motor to give the vehicle its get up and go. However instead of plugging into a charging station, an FCEV gets it "fuel" from hydrogen. 

Many municipalities are experimenting with hydrogen-powered buses. Private vehicle ownership however isn't as widespread. The reason: To fuel up those FCEVs, it takes a network of hydrogen-power fueling depots and according to the Department of Energy, those stations are few and far between. As of March 2019, there were 45 hydrogen refilling depots open to the public. Forty of those are in California, with the following five states each having a single hydrogen fuel refilling station: Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan and South Carolina.


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