An illustration of an EV being charged with a brief explanation of what EVs are.

Julie Bang

EV (BEV) vs PHEV vs FCEV vs Hybrid: What's the Difference?

Learn what sets EVs apart from other types of electric cars

Electric vehicles come in a lot of different flavors, from all-electric battery electric vehicles (BEV) to gasoline-reliant hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV), with a whole rainbow of variations between. Some electric vehicles even rely on fuel cells or gasoline generators to provide electricity instead of powerful battery banks.

The unifying factor is that every electric vehicle includes an electric motor to drive the vehicle, either alone or in concert with a gasoline-reliant internal combustion engine (ICE). While all of these vehicles use electricity in one way or another, only battery electric vehicles are pure EVs.

The Basic Breakdown

An illustration of the various types of electric vehicles and how they differ.

Julie Bang

The electric vehicle landscape can be difficult to navigate, but you can break down the various types of EVs into these basic categories:

  • EV/BEV: Battery electric vehicles are pure electric vehicles, so they are sometimes abbreviated as EV in addition to the more specific BEV. This type of vehicle uses a rechargeable battery as a power source to run an electric motor. They can be charged slowly by an outlet at your house, or rapidly using a charging station.
  • HEV: Hybrid electric vehicles include both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine that runs on gas. Different versions exist, but most of them start off with the electric motor and then switch to the gas engine. Standard HEVs cannot be plugged in to charge. Instead, the batteries are charged by the gas engine and regenerative braking while you drive. 
  • PHEV: Plug-in hybrid vehicles are a variation of hybrid electrics that can be plugged in to charge. This variety tends to have a larger all-electric range than a traditional hybrid.
  • EREV: Extended-range electric vehicles are hybrids that are designed to run entirely on the electric motor, and they don’t include a traditional internal combustion engine. Instead, they have a gasoline generator that can provide electricity to the batteries and electric motor when needed to extend the overall range.
  • FCEV: Fuel cell electric vehicles are different from other electric vehicles. Instead of a rechargeable battery, they use fuel cells that generate electricity through a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. They have to be refueled at hydrogen charging stations.

Electric Vehicles (EV) and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV)

Battery electric vehicles are purely electric. Unlike other types of EVs, BEVs rely only on battery power. These vehicles don’t have internal combustion engines, don’t have tailpipes, and produce zero emissions during operation. Since there is no internal combustion engine, the battery needs to be charged by plugging it in.

Close Up Of Electric Motor In Engine Bay Of Electric Car
Close up of electric motor.

monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

You can charge a BEV at home or at a charging station, and you can also have a charging station installed at home if you prefer. Standard charging, which is referred to as level 1 charging, involves plugging a BEV into a regular electrical outlet. This typically provides about three to five miles of range for each hour the vehicle is plugged in. Level 2 charging requires a charging station, and it’s a bit faster at 10 to 20 miles of range per hour of charging.

In addition to AC charging via a regular wall outlet or charging station, BEVs can also be charged at DC fast charging stations. When plugged into a DC fast charging station, a BEV can receive about an 80 percent charge in as little as 20 minutes depending on the vehicle.

Since BEVs have to be plugged in, and charging can take a long time without a fast charging station, it’s only natural to be concerned about range. BEV range has increased a lot in recent years though, with some driving up to 400 miles on a single charge. Even the most affordable BEVs provide around 100 miles on a charge though, making them well-suited to city driving and moderate commutes. Longer trips can require some pre-planning depending on the range of the BEV, but charging stations are widely available in most areas.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)

The reason that the term EV gets applied to vehicles that aren’t, strictly speaking, pure electric vehicles is that hybrid electrics were the first to reach the mainstream. These hybrid electric vehicles are a lot like traditional gas-powered vehicles with similar drivetrains, except they include both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine (ICE).

The electric motor and ICE work in concert, and the presence of an electric motor usually allows the ICE to be smaller than it would be in a non-electric vehicle.

A hybrid car engine.
A hybrid car engine.

cipango27/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In general, the electric motor in an HEV will activate when the vehicle is first turned on. During initial operation, the electric motor will usually draw on the batteries in the vehicle. When the electric motor is no longer able to handle the load, like under prolonged or heavy acceleration, the ICE kicks in. The ICE can then charge the batteries. In some HEVs, the batteries can also be charged through regenerative braking.

When not in use, the electric motor in an HEV will typically work in reverse, effectively generating electricity to charge the batteries instead of pulling power out to move the vehicle. This can effectively extend the range of an HEV and help reduce emissions. However, HEVs typically still produce about two thirds of the carbon emissions of vehicles that rely solely on a gas-powered ICE.

The main benefit of an HEV is convenience. From the perspective of the driver, an HEV is no different from an ICE vehicle. You still fill it up with gas like a traditional ICE vehicle, and the electric part takes place under the hood and out of sight with no input from the driver. The downside is that they still burn fossil fuel and still produce a significant amount of carbon emissions.

Plug-in Hybrids (PHEV): Parallel and Series

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles come in two flavors: parallel and series. The parallel type is usually just referred to as PHEV, while the series variation can be referred to as extended range electric vehicles (EREV).

The difference is that standard PHEVs include an internal combustion engine that’s connected mechanically to the drive train, like an HEV or standard ICE vehicle, while EREVs have a gasoline generator that can provide electricity to the electric motor and batteries.

The main identifying feature of PHEVs is that they can, as the name implies, be plugged in just like BEVs. Otherwise, they’re a lot like standard hybrid-electrics. They still have both an ICE and an electric motor, which are capable of working both together and separately. The difference is that the battery in a PHEV is usually a lot bigger, and PHEVs are often designed to run primarily on the battery with the ICE kicking in to provide extra torque and range.

PHEVs are referred to as parallel because the electric motor and the ICE work in parallel. They’re both connected to the drivetrain mechanically, which allows the ICE to work by itself, the electric motor to work by itself, or for one to assist the other. You can think of this type of PHEV as the combination of an ICE vehicle and a BEV, with both systems capable of working separately or in unison with the other.

Close up of plug-in hybrid port of an Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).
Close up of the plug-in/gas port of an Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).

Boy_Anupong/Moment/Getty

Some PHEVs are capable of running for up to 50 miles in all-electric mode without using the ICE, while others constantly use the ICE in small amounts, making it impossible to avoid carbon emissions altogether

Like standard PHEVs, EREVs are plug-in hybrids that rely on both battery power and fossil fuels. The difference is that EREVs are designed primarily as electric vehicles, and they don’t include an internal combustion engine. Instead, this type of vehicle has a gas-powered generator. The distinction is that the generator is only capable of generating electricity. It isn’t connected mechanically to the drivetrain of the vehicle.

An EREV is like a BEV with an emergency gas generator. These vehicles are plugged in to charge, like other PHEVs, and they run on battery power in most circumstances. The difference is that when power is running low, the gas generator will kick in and send power to the electric motor. Any extra electricity is then used to charge the batteries.

When an EREV is run in all-electric mode, without the gas generator running, they produce no tailpipe emissions, just like BEVs. However, they do produce carbon emissions whenever the gas generator is running. The catch is that the all-electric range typically tops out at around 80 miles, with some models providing even less.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

Fuel cell technology is intriguing, because it generates electricity without carbon emissions. There have been a number of different fuel cell technologies over the years, but the FCEVs that are available today all rely on a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Fuel cells are charged with hydrogen, which then reacts with oxygen to generate electricity as needed. The electricity powers an electric motor, similar to the way batteries power electric motors in BEVs, and the only byproducts are water vapor and warm air.

Since fuel cells rely on hydrogen to operate, they need to be periodically charged with hydrogen similar to the way you have to fuel up an ICE vehicle with gasoline or diesel. The difference is that while gas stations are abundant, hydrogen fueling stations are only found in a small handful of markets in California.

HydroGen 3 Fuel Cell Minivan Engine
HydroGen 3 Fuel Cell Minivan Engine.

Arctic-Images/The Image Bank Unreleased

Due to the lack of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, FCEVs are only useful in parts of California. They aren’t suitable for long road trips, despite the fact that some have ranges up to 366 miles, because you can only ever travel half of your total range away from the nearest fueling station.

For example, if you lived near fuel stations in Los Angeles, you couldn’t take a weekend trip to Las Vegas. While the travel distance of about 240 miles might be inside your range, you wouldn’t be able to fuel up before heading home. Even if your FCEV had a range of 366 miles, you’d run out of hydrogen somewhere in the desert on your return trip. To safely make the same trip, a long range BEV could simply charge up before the return trip, while a shorter range BEV could stop at charging stations along the way.

Why Are There So Many Types of EVs?

Electric vehicle technology has been around for over 200 years, but it only came back into focus and started evolving rapidly in the last couple decades.

The biggest stumbling blocks were always battery capacity and range, and hybrids were designed as a way to bridge the gap between new battery technologies on the horizon and the then-present consumer desire for electric vehicles.

Plug-in hybrids also fill that same niche, leveraging batteries and electric motors to help reduce tailpipe emissions without actually getting rid of the internal combustion engine.

If the ultimate goal is zero emission vehicles, and some states have already passed laws aimed at achieving that, then pure electric BEVs ultimately represent the way forward.

Some high-end BEVs already outstrip many PHEVs and ICE vehicles in terms of range and performance already, and advances in battery technologies and further improvements in efficiency are likely to obliterate that gap altogether.

Other zero emission options, like FCEVs, provide a tantalizing alternative, but the infrastructure is already more or less in place to support BEVs, while FCEVs remain a small-scale experiment.

All the EV Variations At a Glance

BEV FCEV HEV PHEV EREV
Grid Connected (Plug-in) Yes No No Yes Yes
Power source Batteries (charged at home or charging stations) Hydrogen fuel (only available in limited California markets) Primarily gasoline Gasoline, batteries (charged at home or charging stations) Gasoline, batteries (charged at home or charging stations)
Includes an internal combustion engine or generator No No Yes Yes Yes
Emissions None Water 0-50 lbs of CO per 100 miles ^1 0-50 lbs of CO per 100 miles ^1 0-50 lbs of CO per 100 miles ^1
All-electric range Up to 400+ miles Up to 366 miles ^2 0-50 miles 10-50 miles 10-80 miles
Can operate in all-electric mode Yes Yes ^3 Yes Yes
Regenerative braking? Yes Yes ^4 Yes Yes
Battery capacity 16-100 kWh 10-17 kWh ^5 0.65 - 1.8 kWh 4.4 - 34 kWh Up to 32 kWh
Price range $30,000 - $187,000 $50,000 - $60,000 $23,000 - $200,000 $26,000 - $200,000 $40,000 - $50,000