The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

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According to a new report by the European Commission, drivers who drive hybrid cars emit an average of 139.4 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, based on measurements of the number of fuel vehicles over time. On the other hand, official estimates from manufacturers, which are verified using laboratory tests, put emissions at 39.6 grams per kilometer driven.

Some of this difference can be explained by the difference between what is driven in the lab and real driving. Even conventional cars with combustion engines often have more global emissions than they claim, although the difference is about 20%, not 200% or more like plug-in hybrids.

The biggest difference comes in how drivers prefer to use plug-in hybrids. Researchers have noted this problem in previous studies, some of which used large-scale population data.

In one study from ICCT published in 2022, researchers examined public attitudes towards plug-in hybrids. Although the standard used to determine fuel efficiency by the government states that drivers use electric power for driving 70% to 85% of the time, the reality of driving shows that car owners use electric power for 45% to 49% of their driving. And if the cars were company-supplied cars, the average was 11% to 15%.

The difference between reality and simulation can be a problem for drivers, who may buy plug-in hybrids in anticipation of climate benefits and gas savings. But if drivers are paying less than expected, the benefits may not be as great as promised. The journeys taken in the plug-in hybrid cut emissions by only 23% compared to the journeys of a conventional car, instead of reducing by almost three quarters as predicted by government estimates, according to a new analysis.

“People need to see things in perspective,” says Dornoff. Driving cars in electric mode as much as possible can help maximize economic and environmental benefits, he adds.

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