The automotive industry may have a labeling problem

This edition of Transport Weekly gets to the heart of a labeling problem currently facing the automotive industry. I want to preface by saying that this piece is purely my opinion, so I welcome any thoughts.

Let’s focus on two phrases and their respective acronyms: electric vehicles, also known as EVs, and zero-emission vehicles, also known as ZEVs. In general, an EV is a vehicle that uses a battery and an electric motor either in whole or in part to move, rather than relying on a traditional internal combustion engine. Thus, an EV has reduced, or in some cases, zero exhaust emissions. There are plug-in hybrid electric cars and hybrid electric cars, which still use a traditional combustion engine in whole or in part, and full battery electric cars, which use only battery and electric motor and thus have zero exhaust emissions. On the other hand, a ZEV is a vehicle that has no traditional combustion engine and thus produces zero exhaust emissions.

For categorization purposes, a full battery electric vehicle is a ZEV, but a plug-in hybrid or hybrid EV is not. Other types of ZEVs include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Are you still with me? I promise I’ll get to my point.

The distinction between EV and ZEV is critical yet obvious if you work in the transportation industry and focus on electrification. It may also be obvious to some in the general public who are early EV and ZEV adopters. However, many governments, organizations, press releases and media coverage use EV and ZEV interchangeably, potentially confusing the public. Here’s an example of what I mean:

In August 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that “sets a goal that 50 percent of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold by 2030 must zero-emission vehicles, including battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric or fuel cell electric vehicles.” By itself, the phrase, pulled directly from the executive order, is confusing in part because it associates non-ZEV (plug-in hybrid electric) vehicles with “zero-emission vehicles.” After the signing of this order, dozens of of news media headlines and stories which continued this conflation between EVs and ZEVs.

A navy blue Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan next to a car charger

But this is not an isolated example. There are countless examples of publications, reports, and studies like this recent article by Axios on which states are driving America’s EV adoption. (Side note: I’m not trying to single out any publication – even the GreenBiz Group hasn’t always made the difference between EVs and ZEVs clear.)

Why does it matter? It honestly can’t – I may be pointing to something that will sort itself out over time as the transition to EVs and ZEVs continues and consumer knowledge grows. But what I do know is that the world needs to transition as quickly as possible to 100 percent ZEVs for passenger cars, not plug-in hybrid EVs, because the latter still burn fossil fuels and emit harmful exhaust emissions. Using EV and ZEV interchangeably may exacerbate and fuel some people’s hesitancy to go electric by adding confusion about how the automotive industry is shifting, what is an EV or ZEV, and why one is better or worse than the other.

A recent study by Consumer Reports examining consumer knowledge and desire to purchase an electric car and ZEV found that of the 8,000 people surveyed, 60 percent were either “not at all familiar” or “not too familiar” with electric-only vehicles ( i.e. – electric cars with battery). Furthermore, what I am about to share is not supported by research and is based on my observations: I constantly run into people in the general public who say – “So many car companies are going all electric and only want to sell electric cars like Tesla” — and then the same people will point to plug-in hybrid electric cars as examples…public confusion!

Using EV and ZEV interchangeably may exacerbate some people’s hesitancy to go electric by adding confusion about how the automotive industry is shifting, what is an EV or ZEV, and why one is better or worse than the other.

So what is the solution? One possibility could be that electric cars can only be used to refer to plug-in hybrid and hybrid cars. The term “zero-emission EV” could then be used for 100 percent battery-electric EVs. Another option could be to do away with lumping in plug-in hybrids and hybrids with full-battery electric cars, so that the term EV is just 100 percent battery-powered electric cars. I’m interested in hearing what others think could be a solution.

At the end of the day, we are only hurting ourselves by continuing this naming debacle. By 2030 or 2035, if we haven’t made meaningful progress in transitioning to true ZEVs, then we’ll have much bigger problems to deal with than fixing how we advertise and explain EV, ZEV, or whatever new acronym we choose.

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