LONDON -- Plug-in hybrid cars were once seen as a go-to technology for the climate-conscious driver. But, according to some experts, they are not that good for the environment and they could be phased out by automakers in the face of tougher European rules.
EU policy plans for plug-in hybrid vehicles, which combine an electric drivetrain with a combustion engine, could mean the "transition" technology has a shorter lifespan than envisaged by some leading automakers.
Draft green finance regulations would ban manufacturers from labelling them as "sustainable investments" beyond 2025, potentially deterring investors. Meanwhile planned rules on emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxides could increase the cost of producing these cars.
The aim of such reforms is to speed the transit to full-electric vehicles and meet climate goals. Yet they would mark a shift from existing EU policies, such as CO2 standards, which have treated hybrids on a par with all-electric cars and helped spur the auto industry to invest tens of billions of euros in the technology.
Some automakers had envisaged selling plug-in hybrids until at least the end of this decade as a bridge to full-electric vehicles - although their shift away from the technology looks to be underway.
An analysis of car production plans in Europe through to 2028 compiled for Reuters by AutoForecast Solutions (AFS), which tracks industry production plans, shows only 28 plug-in models versus 86 EV models.
That is a turnaround for an industry where plug-in models on the market have outnumbered full-electric models every year since 2015, often significantly.
Now some automakers fear the EU could prematurely cut short that transition. They warn upcoming rules could make it hard to sell plug-in models in European markets in just a few years' time, despite consumer concerns about the range of full-electric cars and a lack of charging infrastructure.
"It's crazy to do this by 2025 because effectively you kill demand today," said Adrian Hallmark, CEO of British brand Bentley, a unit of Volkswagen Group, referring to proposals to not classify plug-ins as sustainable investments. He plans to sell plug-in hybrids until 2030 before going all-electric.
"For most people, a battery electric car is not yet practical," he told Reuters.
A European Commission official declined to comment on the green finance rules specifically, but said its policies were "technology neutral", adding that plug-in models were "a transition technology towards zero-emission mobility."
To reach an overall climate neutrality target in 2050, nearly all cars on the roads must be zero emissions by that time, the Commission added.
The rules, which are still being drafted, come against the backdrop of a shift in the position of some leading environmental groups which are pushing to dispel the green credentials of plug-in models and do away with their subsidies.
One study, from the International Council on Clean Transportation last September, said the fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are up to four times the level they are approved for in plug-in hybrids, because people do not charge them often enough.
Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles and e-mobility at European NGO Transport & Environment, said its own research showed that when driven in combustion-engine mode, plug-in hybrids' CO2 emissions were higher than conventional cars and their greater weight caused them to use more fuel.
"From the perspective of environment and climate, today's plug-in hybrid technology is worse than what it is replacing."
This is a change in the group's position from as recently as 2018, when it saw plug-in models as a transition technology.