EV Mania Hasn’t Killed Starvation for Hybrid Vans

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This may not be great news for the climate. A person who swaps a gas truck for a hybrid one will reduce their emissions. An analysis of 2020 pickup trucks found that a hybrid truck emits almost 30 percent less greenhouse gas over its lifetime than a solely gas-powered counterpart. But global climate goals generally require not only fully electrifying most driving but also driving significantly less. In the short term, hybrids may help car companies meet more stringent emissions regulations. But ultimately, “the hybrid is a gas car,” says Gil Tal, who directs the Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis. Moving more people into battery electric vehicles and hybrids that plug in should be the goal, he says.

Right now, though, the hybrid truck push is rooted in recognition that many car buyers still don’t feel ready to drive an electric car, says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at the automotive research firm Edmunds. Flipping from gas to charging station may feel easy for some drivers, especially those who have access to chargers at home. But going electric requires someone to have a completely different relationship with their car, she says, and that can feel scary. “Although there has been this rush to battery-electric vehicles, there is this group of people who say, ‘I’m not ready for that leap yet. I want to take baby steps.’” Bambino, this hybrid truck is for you.

Ford’s pitch for the new hybrid F-150 model remains focused on what the hybrid can do—muscular truck stuff—with a better fuel economy than the gas-only model rather than saving the planet. (At an EPA-reported 25 miles per gallon, the 2023 version of the vehicle was below the national fleet average.) It’s the green-ish truck for truck people. Aside from the supercharged Raptor model, the hybrid F-150’s electric motor boost gives it the most horsepower and torque in the lineup, meaning it can do lots of practical towing work. Its battery can function as the equivalent of a 2.4 kilowatt electric generator—enough to power or charge a few small appliances at a time—and 72 percent of hybrid customers have upgraded to the 7.2 kilowatt output, Ford says, which can power a number of power tools at the same time.

For people who use their trucks for work, that could make the hybrid a better choice than the battery-electric version, says John Emmert, the general manager of Ford Trucks. “If you live in a rural location that doesn’t have charging infrastructure, and you’re using the truck for frequent, daily, long-distance towing, which is common among truck owners, that hybrid is probably going to be a better choice than the Lightning,” he says. It helps that the hybrid version will likely cost thousands less than the battery-only version.

If you must have a new truck, a plug-in hybrid that uses its gas engine only when the battery runs out would be a better compromise for the climate, says Tal, the UC Davis researcher. “For many years, we were calling plug-in hybrids a gateway drug” to battery electrics, he says, a stepping stone to a zero-emission future. But now, his research suggests that once car buyers get used to plugging in their car for any amount of time, they move fluidly between battery electrics and plug-in hybrids, making those hybrids a more permanent tool in the decarbonizing toolbox. For now, though, plug-in hybrid pickup trucks run into the same practical problems as battery-electric ones: Rheir heavy batteries mean they can pull less weight. No one currently sells a plug-in pickup in the US.

So today, hybrid pickups represent a common American approach to buying, well, anything: More, please. “This is what Americans want: the maximum, just in case,” says Brian Moody, the executive editor of Autotrader. Electrics are the future of both driving and decarbonization, he says, but hybrid trucks “may be the solution for right now.”

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