What’s the difference between a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and an electric ‘EV’ car?

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A ban on conventional petrol or diesel cars seems likely. It won’t happen for decades, and the details have yet to be even discussed, let alone confirmed, but it’s safe to assume that the simplest powertrain — an internal combustion engine driving the wheels via a mechanical transmission — will one day seem as old-fashioned as a manual choke.

Replacing it is a patchwork of alternatives. As we understand it, all cars will need to be capable of some zero-emission driving; moving without emitting any pollution from the tailpipe. That includes both battery-electric and hybrid cars, as well as a handful of alternatives that remain niche products at the moment.

But what’s the difference between an electric car and a hybrid? Why are some hybrids different to others? Is there anything else available? What about hydrogen fuel cells? And is a hybrid an electric car? 

There’s a great deal of confusion surrounding this. Car manufacturers’ primary concern is selling cars, rather than informing the public about technology, which is why general understanding of these issues can be hazy. What’s more, knowledge takes a rather circuitous route from the engineering laboratories to the press (via marketing departments and PR agencies) so some of the information printed on the subject is simply wrong. 

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