The greenest car in America is not an electric car, but a plug-in hybrid

When you try to imagine a ‘green’ car, an electric car is probably the first thing that comes to mind. A quiet motor with a lot of torque; no fumes, gasoline smells or air pollution coming from an exhaust pipe. Last year, American consumers had a choice of more than 50 electric car models, up from about 30 the year before.

But a new report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy suggests that the “greenest” car in America may not be all-electric. The nonprofit, which has been assessing vehicle pollution for decades, says this year’s winning car is the Toyota Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid that can travel 48 miles on electricity before switching to hybrid.

“It’s about the shape of the body, the technology in it and the overall weight,” says Peter Huether, senior research associate in transportation at ACEEE. “And all different types of Priuses are very efficient.”

It’s not the first time a plug-in vehicle has topped the GreenerCars list; the Prius Prime also won in 2020 and 2022. But with more and more electric vehicles coming to market, the plug-in hybrid’s staying power is surprising.

The analysis shows that simply running on electricity is not enough to guarantee that a car is ‘green’; weight, battery size and overall efficiency also matter. While a giant electric truck weighing thousands of pounds may be better than a gasoline car of the same size, both will be outpaced by a smaller, efficient gasoline vehicle. And the more big vehicles there are on the road, the harder it will be for the United States to reach its goal of cutting emissions to zero by 2050.

The GreenerCars report analyzes 1,200 cars available in 2024, assessing both the vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions while on the road and emissions from the production of the car and its battery. It also assesses the impact of pollutants beyond carbon dioxide, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter – all of which can harm human health.

Combining these factors, the authors gave each car a “green score” ranging from 0 to 100. The Toyota Prius Prime received a score of 71, followed by several fully electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Mini Cooper SE with scores in the high 60s. The Toyota RAV4 Prime, a plug-in hybrid SUV with a range of 42 miles, received a score of 64. One gas hybrid, the Hyundai Elantra Blue, also made the list – thanks to an efficient design and good mileage.

At the bottom of the list were big gas-guzzling trucks like the Ford F-150 Raptor R, with scores in the 20s. That included one electric car: the Hummer EV, which weighs 9,000 pounds and scored a 29.

Plug-in hybrids haven’t gotten too much attention in the race to electrify the country’s cars. The vehicles, which can travel 30 to 50 kilometers on electricity alone, have a number of disadvantages. Drivers are forced to maintain both an electric motor and a gas engine; Plug-in hybrids generally cannot be charged at super-fast charging stations. EV purists disdain them as a poor step toward fully electric cars.

But for some drivers, plug-in hybrids can be a happy medium between switching to fully electric driving or continuing to drive on gas. Many plug-in hybrids allow drivers to do most of their regular driving on electricity (the average American drives only about 27 miles per day) and switch to gasoline for longer trips. This allows plug-in hybrid owners to avoid grappling with America’s complicated and flawed charging infrastructure.

The Prius Prime outperformed its competitors, Huether said: due to its small battery – which reduces emissions and pollution associated with production – and its high efficiency. The vehicle’s battery is less than a tenth of the battery of the monstrous Hummer EV. That means fewer emissions from making the battery, and fewer rare minerals to mine and mine.

Jessika Trancik, a professor of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, who was not involved in the report, said the GreenerCars study used a standard methodology to analyze the environmental damage of cars, but it is difficult to predict how many motorists will actually run their plug-in hybrids on electricity. “In the US, it often comes down to whether they have an easy way to plug in while they’re at home,” she says.

The GreenerCars report assumed that Prius Prime drivers used electricity for just over 50 percent of their driving time, based on data from the Society of Automotive Engineers. This may be an underestimate for motorists who can charge at home.

But Gil Tal, director of the Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis, said some studies show drivers use their plug-in hybrids like regular hybrids and almost never charge them. That could undermine the findings of the GreenerCars report. “I don’t think the Prius Prime is the greenest,” Tal said. “If you can buy a fully electric one, that is always the best, regardless of the few points that differ here.”

As more wind and solar energy are connected to the grid, electric cars will become increasingly cleaner over time, Tal says. “And your gas car will deteriorate over the years,” he said.

Huether says the most important thing is that drivers understand the most environmentally friendly option that suits them – whether that is a plug-in hybrid, conventional hybrid or fully electric car. “Some people are still concerned about charging infrastructure,” he said. “But we still want them to have a very green option.”

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