BEVs, PHEVs, and Hybrids: Everything You Need to Know About Cars With Alternative Power

Electric Vehicles
Photo: Charlotte Stowe


If you’re feeling lost in the lingo of alternative power source vehicles, you’re not alone. Terms like PHEV or 4xe are being thrown around a lot lately as cars swap from gasoline power to electricity (or even hydrogen!), and it can be easy to feel disoriented.

And that’s okay. The words we use to describe these cars powered by, say, electricity are continually evolving as manufacturers experiment with new, trademarked phrases and as more styles of alternative power come to the fore. It’s likely that we’ll keep seeing that same evolution as we begin to refine these new technologies. But, as usual, we’re here to walk you through all the terms you need to know. You’ll be an expert before you know it!

Welcome to Alternative Power Week! In honor of Earth Day, we’re going to spend the next several days diving into the nitty-gritty of the new, eco-friendly technology powering the vehicles of the future to keep you informed on all the latest changes in the automotive industry. If you have any questions or ideas for a future article, leave your ideas in the comments!

Related: What It Really Costs To Own An Electric Car

Electric Vehicles

Exhaust pollutes our environment. Photo: Matt Boitor on Unpslash

EVs vs. ICEs: Electric Vehicles vs. Internal Combustion Engines

ICE in automotive lingo stands for “internal combustion engine.” This refers to any vehicle powered by, essentially, fuel lighting on fire. When a fuel like gasoline burns, it releases energy that can be harnessed to power a vehicle. The engine consists of a fixed cylinder and a moving piston. When fuel burns and gets hotter, the gases in the engine expand in the cylinder, which pushes the piston. That piston’s movement then powers the crankshaft, which transforms the up-and-down motion of the piston to rotational energy that turns plenty of gears and, in turn, makes your engine run.

While there are some alternative fuel options that also use combustion, it isn’t the preferred form of alternative energy. The very nature of combustion means that emissions are created, and while not all of them are harmful, the emissions from gas-powered cars definitely are.

EVs, by contrast, are electric vehicles, which are cars powered by electricity. That electricity can be harnessed in several different ways, which is what determines the other letters that pop up in front of the EV acronym. Electricity is generally considered to be a much cleaner source of power than gasoline, and that eco-friendly nature is what makes EVs so desirable in a world growing ever more impacted by climate change.

Related: 5 Ways to Get Better Gas Mileage In Any Car

Electric Vehicles

Battery Electric Vehicles are just one option for electric cars. Photo: Ralph Hutter

BEV: Battery Electric Vehicle

The battery electric vehicle is generally what comes to mind when someone says “electric car.” This is a vehicle whose electric power is stored in a battery (or in several batteries), and it only uses the batteries to function. The electric motors are often more impressive than their hybrid counterparts, since they’re taking on the full task of driving. They offer a much smoother, quieter ride than their ICE counterparts, and you can take full advantage of the instant torque without feeling like you’re hurting the environment.

Because BEVs are still relatively new to the consumer market, their ranges are often shorter than what you could find in an ICE car, and it can be more difficult to plan a road trip because you’ll have to map out charging stations in advance. You’ll also benefit by buying your own at-home charging station, which will allow you to charge your car overnight to provide maximum range each time you get behind the wheel.

So, there are some heftier up-front costs when it comes to buying a BEV and the equipment needed to make it part of your lifestyle. But you can think of it as an investment: you’ll be saving a ton if you don’t have to fill up the tank.

BEV technology is rapidly advancing, though. Batteries are becoming more energy dense, which means they can store more power in smaller spaces. Efficiently built technology means purchasing costs will be reduced. And more accessible tech means you’ll start seeing it in more and more cars. Automakers in America have pegged BEVs as the way forward when it comes to sourcing alternative power. It isn’t the only option, but it’s the favorite.

Electric Vehicles

HEV’s use both gasoline AND electricity. Photo: Tim Meyer on Unsplash

HEV: Hybrid Electric Vehicle

The HEV, or Hybrid Electric Vehicle, was the first popular form of electrified transport we saw hit dealers (remember the Toyota Prius craze?). In a hybrid, a small electric motor helps to power your internal combustion engine. So, while you may use nothing but the electric motor during things like accelerating, your predominant source of power is still gasoline. The electric power is supplemental to help gain higher fuel efficiency, and the electric engine is replenished by the gasoline engine, not via external charging.

The electric power is generally used for low-speed acceleration, at which point the gasoline engine takes over. This allows both forms of power to work in tandem to the best of their abilities, but it also means you’re not going to be traveling any significant distances on electric power alone.

Hybrids are a great option for people who want to utilize greener energy but don’t have access to chargers at home or in the area around them. Because the battery recharges via engine power, you never need to plug it in. But it also means that you’re still using gasoline any time you drive.

PHEV: Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle

As the name suggests, a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle is a car that uses both an electric motor and a gasoline engine, but the battery is refilled by plugging it into a charger. These cars can also run on battery power alone for a significant period of time, generally anywhere from 10 to 50 miles. That means that, if you never take longer trips, you could theoretically travel for months on one tank of gas because you were doing the bulk of your driving in shorter distances.

To reap those benefits, though, you do have to plug your car in every night so that you can start each day with a freshly charged battery. So, to really make the most of a PHEV, you’ll likely need a charger installed in your home or one within walking distance of your residence. If you don’t have that charging capacity, you’re better off opting for a traditional hybrid in order to take advantage of green tech and better fuel economy without spending the extra money associated with the plug-in technology.

That being said, if you do have access to a charger, PHEVs are great. You can power your vehicle on the cheap and never have to worry about running out of power on a long trip because you can easily convert to gasoline power when you run out of battery.

Related: Finally, the Plug-in Hybrid SUV We’ve Been Waiting For: Meet the Toyota RAV4 Prime 

Electric Vehicles

I don’t know about you but this is the Jetsons in real life! Photo: Darren Halstead

FCEV: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle

Fuel cell electric vehicles are one of the newer forms of electric technology, and as such, it’s one of the least common. In an FCEV, compressed liquid hydrogen serves as the fuel that powers the electric motor that drives the wheels. There are a lot of benefits to this type of vehicle: it retains the same zero-emissions standard as an electric car, but it’s also powered by a fuel source whose tank can be refilled in a few minutes, similar to that of an ICE. They also have a great driving range of over 300 miles.

The main problem is the fact the infrastructure of the United States doesn’t accommodate this kind of technology. There are currently only 46 hydrogen refueling stations in the US, with most of them located in California—and the refueling network is both pricey and unreliable. At the moment, hydrogen-powered FCEVs remain most popular in Europe. In the United States, the only hydrogen models on the market are the Toyota Mirai, the Honda Clarify Fuel Cell, and the Hyundai Nexo. In May of 2020, only 8,000 hydrogen-powered cars had been sold in the US, in contrast to the 1.3-million BEV and PHEVs.

Other Fuel Sources

While the above mentioned fuel sources are most predominant and the most likely to make an impact on the automotive industry, there are several other sources of alternative fuels that have been considered.

  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Natural Gas
  • Propane

Not all of these options are as good for the environment as power sourced from things like electricity or hydrogen, which is why these options have generally lingered in the prototype stage. We’re not likely to see any of these alternative fuel sources available on the market any time soon.

Electric Vehicles

Planning out your road trips should include charging stations when driving your electric vehicles. Photo: Charlotte Stowe

Other Terms to Know

Unfortunately, we aren’t done with the acronyms yet! These next few acronyms, though, are ones that you likely won’t be using in everyday conversation but that can be helpful to know so you don’t get confused.

  • ZEV, Zero Emission Vehicle: This is any vehicle that produces no harmful pollutants from the exhaust pipe. So, a BEV is a ZEV because it doesn’t even have an exhaust!
  • AFC, Alternative Fuel Vehicle: Basically, this is a vehicle not powered by gasoline or diesel. So, cars powered by batteries or hydrogen.
  • LCV, Low Carbon Vehicle: This term is often used to refer to vehicles that produce low or zero emissions.
  • MHEV, Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle: In this case, an MHEV has a battery that cannot actually propel the car forward but that assists the engine with other tasks, like starting and stopping. This is different than an HEV like a Toyota Prius because, in the case of the Prius, the battery and electric motor can contribute to acceleration.
  • REEV, or Range Extended Electric Vehicle: These cars contain both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine, but the electric motor does the bulk of the driving with the gasoline power only kicking in when you get low on charge. It’s kind of the opposite of an HEV. Right now, the only REEV on the market is the Honda Clarity.
  • NEV (America), Neighborhood Electric Vehicle: This is a BEV that has a top speed of 25 mph. Think golf carts or scooters.
  • NEV (China), New Energy Vehicle: In China, an NEV is any vehicle that attracts public subsidies, like BEVs or PHEVs.

Most automakers and publications stay away from these terms, but if you do run into them, it can be helpful to have a brief understanding.

What’s Best?

There is currently no conclusive evidence on which type of vehicle is the ‘best,’ since that’s such a subjective term. Do you like a quiet ride and minimal costs to run your car? Then you’d probably find a BEV to be the best option. Are you making tons of long drives and prefer the growl of a combustion engine beneath you? Then you’ll want to stick with an ICE engine. Are you stuck between wanting to go electric but need a range that EV makers just don’t provide yet? Maybe a PHEV will be your best fit. We’re not here to judge—we’re just here to give you all the facts you could possibly need to really understand the changing landscape of the automotive industry.

I'm Elizabeth Blackstock, managing editor of AGGTC, blogger, journalist, novelist, editor, MA/MFA graduate student, wife, motorsport fanatic, and bearer... More about Elizabeth Blackstock