Mint Explainer: Are hybrid vehicles actually greener than EVs?

The original Prius was the world's first mass-produced hybrid car (Photo: Bloomberg)
The original Prius was the world's first mass-produced hybrid car (Photo: Bloomberg)

Summary

  • An IIT Kanpur study claims electric vehicles made in India cause more emissions than hybrid vehicles when taking into account the coal burnt to manufacture them. But other studies have shown dramatically different results

With zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles are widely perceived as the greenest type of transport. But critics have long pointed to the ‘dirty’ electricity – derived from burning coal – used to manufacture these vehicles, especially in developing countries such as India. They've argued that shifting to EVs doesn’t kill emissions, it simply shifts them to another industry.

A recent study by the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur suggests these critics may have a point. The study, which analysed emissions from various types of vehicles in different scenarios, concluded that while EVs are less polluting than petrol vehicles, they have higher total emissions than hybrid ones – those that use both petrol and electricity.

It also found that electric vehicles made in India cause 35% more greenhouse gas emissions than any hybrid vehicle built in the country, and at least 40% more than any petrol car made here.

Based on these findings, the institute has recommended that the government extend the incentives and subsidies for electric vehicles to hybrid ones. Currently, EVs attract only 5% GST while hybrids are taxed at 20% – at par with conventional petrol or diesel vehicles. Large hybrid vehicles attract an additional 15% cess.

"If the government gave HEV (hybrid electric vehicles) and BEV (battery electric vehicles) similar subsidies, HEVs would be far more economically viable," read the report, authored by Dr Avinash Kumar Agarwal from the institute’s department of mechanical engineering. “The LCA results have proved HEVs have the edge over the BEVs and ICEVs in lifecycle GHG emissions, indicating that they are more environmentally sustainable."

This goes against the basic premise of the government’s policies over the last few years, which have incentivised EVs over all other vehicles. But IIT Kanpur’s study is not the last word on the subject. Similar ones by other institutes have shown dramatically different results.

A widely circulated study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in 2021 found that even with a dirty grid, where over half the electricity is produced by burning coal, lifetime emissions from BEVs were 19-34% lower than those of internal-combustion-engine vehicles. The Kanpur IIT study on the other hand put emissions from both types almost at par. In fact, it said BEVs have higher total emissions if they are driven for less than 35,000 kilometers over their lifetime.

The global automotive industry is currently divided on the future of electric vehicles. European carmakers, who performed a quick pivot in the aftermath of the dieselgate scandal of 2015, are full-throated in their support for EVs. They found a ready ally in China, the world’s largest producer of automobiles. Japan, meanwhile, was caught flat-footed. That’s ironic, given its status as a pioneer in hybrid vehicles in the 1990s, when Toyota launched the Prius. The transition to fully electric has been slow, with carmakers such as Toyota, Daihatsu, Honda and Suzuki still keen to fully exploit the hybrid technology they have perfected over the past three decades.

Where do the others stand? The US and India are on neutral ground with no specific bias for any technology, but market developments have begun to tip the scales in favour of EVs. The success of Tesla and faster timelines for pure-play BEVs by German and American carmakers have caused sales to grow quickly in North America.

In India, the government very early on voiced its support for EVs and announced incentives under the FAME policy. Most of this, however, was focused on two- and three-wheelers, and shared mobility. Japanese carmakers command a significant share of the market – Suzuki, Honda and Toyota together account for nearly 60% – and carry a lot of weight with the government. European carmakers in contrast have less than 10% of the market. The two Korean carmakers — Hyundai and Kia, are largely technology-agnostic. It is the Japanese carmakers that are pushing for incentives for hybrid technology. They have already launched a few products but some leeway in terms of taxation would strengthen their hold. So far, the government has resisted the urge.

The role of the two homegrown carmakers – Tata and Mahindra – is crucial here. The two companies are adamant that hybrids are a stop-gap arrangement and have no role to play in the long term. Their argument is that hybrids are more complex, with both an engine and a battery, and less efficient than pure EVs. They are also less beneficial to the consumer, they say, and need not be incentivised.

While a single study isn’t enough to sway regulators one way or the other, if more research produces similar results to that of the IIT Kanpur study, hybrid vehicles could get a new lease of life in India.

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