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Chevy Volt Sparks a Series of Plug-in Hybrids

Expect many new plug-in cars to use the gasoline engine only as an extra battery

3 min read

Iconic U.S. car company General Motors turned a page in its history on a cold day this winter in suburban New Jersey. It sold the first production version of its Chevrolet Volt to a retail buyer—a retired pilot named Jeffrey Kaffee. With that sale comes the start of the first real test of consumer appetites for two concepts long in the making: hybrid cars whose battery you can recharge by plugging them in at home, and so-called series hybrid technology.

The Volt is the world's first production series hybrid-electric vehicle. Like a conventional hybrid, it has both an electric traction motor and a gasoline engine. Once its 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack is depleted, the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine switches on but does not drive the wheels mechanically. Instead, it turns a 55-kW generator that provides current to the 111-kW electric motor that powers the front wheels. It's not a new concept—minus the battery pack, that's the same way diesel locomotives work. But until now, all hybrid cars have used their gasoline engines in parallel with their electric motors, combining their torque to turn the wheels.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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